Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Other Desert Cities

Join us for a staged reading of Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” on Thursday, June 9, starting at 7:30 p.m. at the black box theater on the Quinnipiac University campus, in the college of Arts and Sciences building. The cast: Brooks Appelbaum, Michele Merlo, Brad Firth, Moira Malone and Geary Danihy.  

Monday, May 30, 2016

An Eye-Filling "Anastasia"

"Anastasia" -- Hartford Stage -- Thru June 19

Christy Altomare. All show photos by Joan Marcus

These days, just about any show that’s boarded gets some form of standing ovation, but on a recent Sunday when I saw Anastasia up at Hartford Stage, it was the first time I can remember that the audience was on its feet before the curtain went up for the curtain call. Was the unbridled enthusiasm justified? Well, yes. Anastasia is a big, crowd-pleasing, old-fashioned musical that doesn’t mind wearing its heart on its sleeve. Blessed with a superb cast that Darko Tresnjak has directed with style and aplomb, Anastasia, which is most likely headed for Broadway, will make you smile and, perhaps, draw just a tear or two from your eyes.

Scenic and projection designers, as well as choreographers, are mostly mentioned at the end of reviews, often with nothing more than an obligatory nod, but in the case of this production, these folks deserve star billing. Let’s start with Alexander Dodge, who is responsible for the lavish scenic design. Over the course of the evening he will have you in St. Petersburg (in both the Tsar’s palace and on the streets where revolution is brewing), take you for a ride on a train heading for Paris, entrance you with a walk down a boulevard in the City of Lights, invite you to a café that caters to Russian expatriates and even bring you to a performance of Swan Lake, and these scenic transitions are absolutely flawless. There’s not a moment wasted.
Traveling Sequence

These scene establishments and changes are enhanced by some of the best projections I have seen, all designed by Aaron Rhyne. His work gives a cinematic feel to many of the scenes without ever falling into the trap of trying to force the production to try to accomplish what can be done on the screen. Of special note is his work for the train-ride sequence – the train car itself is on a revolving platform and as it turns, the perspective of the countryside rushing by also changes. Then there’s the French forest that dissolves into a stunning view of the Paris skyline (in cinematic terms, think of a crane shot), and…well, the list could go on and on, but you get the idea. His fine work is accented by Donald Holder’s lighting design, which explodes when appropriate to convey upheaval but then softens to draw the audience into the more intimate scenes.
Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress

Finally, there’s Peggy Hickey’s choreography, which embraces multiple styles. You’ll see Russian folk dances, regal ballroom dancing, Jazz Age Charlestons and even classic ballet. It’s inventive, smart choreography that’s totally in sync with the story being told and the years the production spans (1907 – 1927)…and, she certainly knows how to build a show-stopping number. Plus, watch for the deft “switch” early in the first act as the scene changes from 1907 to 1917 – it’s still the tsar and the nobility dancing the night away, but little Anastasia (Nicole Seimeca) becomes a teenage Anastasia (Molly Rushing) – ten years covered in a single moment! I’m sure there are more formal terms to describe the transition, but the most appropriate one I can come up with is “Way cool!”

Okay, so what about the cast? Well, you couldn’t ask for a finer collection of actors and dancers, starting with the superb and totally beguiling Christy Altomare, who plays Anya, a young woman suffering from amnesia who may just be the Princess Anastasia. When she is on stage she simply owns it, which brings us to perhaps the only flaw in the book by Terrence McNally, because for a long stretch of the second act (it probably seemed longer than it was), Anya (read Altomore) is not on stage. By now, the audience has grown to care for Anya, thanks to Altomore’s fine work, and her absence is something of an emotional letdown, especially after her first-act closing number, “Journey to the Past,” which brought down the house.

The Romanovs: Olga, Maria, Nicholas II, Alexandra, Anastasia,
Alexi and Tatiana

Standout performances abound. Derek Klena, as Dmitry, Anya’s love interest, gives a heartfelt performance as a commoner trying to find a way to make money off of the rumor that Princess Anastasia survived the horrific slaughter of the Romanov family in Yekaterinburg. Their characters’ love finally blossoms in the second act’s “In a Crowd of Thousands.” Abetting Dmitry is John Bolton as Vlad Popov, also a commoner with pretensions of nobility. Then there’s the marvelous Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress. Regal, yet riven by sorrow over the loss of her family and besieged by young women claiming to be Anastasia, Peil gives a powerful yet touching performance that culminates in a moving scene late in act two when she interviews Anya.


Caroline O'Connor and John Bolton

Supporting these lead efforts is Manoel Felciano as Gleb, an apparatchik whose father was a guard at Yekaterinburg and is now charged with killing the presumptive princess, the tart Caroline O’Connor, who plays a countess who has become the dowager empress’s secretary and yet likes to live for the moment, and the lithe and lovely Lauren Blackman who does double duty as the tsarina and Isadora Duncan.

As you watch Anastasia, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, you may occasionally have a mind itch: doesn’t what you’re seeing make you think of something else? Yes, it probably does, for there’s a bit of Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly! and even Thoroughly Modern Millie in this production, but most musicals feed off prior musicals, at least the successful ones. If you liked the scene in My Fair Lady when Eliza finally understands how to speak properly about the rain in Spain, then you’ll like the “Learn to Do It” number; if you liked “Thoroughly Modern Millie” then you’ll like “Paris Holds the Key”; if you liked Dolly’s “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” then you’ll like the “Traveling Sequence.”

Derek Klena, Altomore and Bolton

 With its period-perfect costumes by Linda Cho and an accomplished orchestra led by Thomas Murray, Anastasia pleases both the eye and the ear. It’s big, it’s lush, it’s vibrant and, judging by the comments overheard as the audience left the theater, it delivers.

Anastasia runs through June 19. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org

Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Barbra, Real Estate and Writing

So, you’re leafing through a coffee-table book entitled My Passion for Design by Barbra Streisand and you come across a chapter that deals with the cellar of her house, a substantial space she has transformed into a mini-mall of high-end boutiques. You jokingly say to your husband, “I wonder what it would be like to work in a place like that?” From that comment, made by playwright Jonathan Tolins, emerged Buyer and Cellar, a one-character (sort of) play that will open at the Westport Country Playhouse on June 18, with previews starting June 14. The production is a reunion of sorts, for Michael Urie, who won numerous awards for originating the role, will be joined by director Stephen Brackett and many other members of the original artistic team.


Urie, who plays Marc St. James on the award-winning TV series Ugly Betty, will reprise the role of Alex More, an out-of-work actor who catches sight of an ad for the position of “shopkeeper” in Streisand’s surreal mall. He gets the job and the rest of the evening entails his learning the ropes while attempting to establish a relationship with the diva, a woman with whom he is fascinated.

Michael Urie in a previous production of "Buyer and Cellar"

In a recent interview at the Playhouse, Tolins discussed how the play came about and the many different strands of meaning and allusions woven into what might appear, on first viewing, to be a simple send-up of a mega-star and her somewhat odd proclivities.


Tolins, a Fairfield resident since 2009, was born in Brooklyn, raised in Roslyn, NY, and attended Harvard, where he was active in theater, both writing, directing and acting, studied playwriting with professor William Alfred, and co-wrote one of the Hasty Pudding plays, an annual cross-dressing musical staged by students. His connection with Alfred is one of those “six-degrees of…” serendipitous relationships, for Alfred wrote a play called Hogan’s Goat, which in its long off-Broadway run provided a break-out role for Faye Dunaway who would, years later, play the role of the mother in Tolins’ The Twilight of the Golds.
Jonathan Tolins. Photo by Joey Stocks

As for the gestation of Buyer and Cellar, Tolins said that in 2010 his husband brought Streisand’s book back from the Fairfield library and they started looking though it.

            “We’re both fascinated by the intersection between celebrity and real estate,” he said. “So we were looking at this book and on page 190 there’s a chapter that begins about her basement, which, instead of storage and closet rooms she built this street of shops – a cobblestone street with a selection of stores.”

            Tolins’ reaction to this?

            “We thought it was pretty incredible,” Tolins said, and then he mentioned to his husband the possibility of someone working down in this subterranean mall, “and that idea stuck with me, the idea of someone having to be down there, to be the shopkeeper. So, I wrote a short essay, the diary of someone who got that job, and I submitted it to The New Yorker. They rejected it, but I have a good friend named Craig Gartner who manages Jesse Tyler Ferguson,” referring to the actor best known for his role as Mitchell Pritchett on the ABC sitcom Modern Family, “and Craig said I should write this as a one-man show for Jesse. And I thought, well, that’s the kind of thing, five years later, I would say I should have done.”

            But the idea persisted. Tolins bought a copy of Streisand’s book and read it cover to cover, making notes on what he found interesting, “bizarre or poignant in some way,” meshing that with reading a Streisand biography and the many stories and anecdotes he had heard over the years about Streisand, “because I’m Jewish and gay,” he said, “and that’s something that just happens.”

            The Jewish/gay intersection might raise an eyebrow or two, if only because the two words, both often fraught with multiple connotations and at times, and for some, heavy baggage, requires explication.

            “For Jewish people,” Tolins said, Streisand “is the biggest star that we have. I guess you could say, well, Jolsen was big, but Streisand is this unapologetically Jewish persona who became a mega-star, and she showed you didn’t have to change who you were to succeed in a goyish world. You could bring that world to its knees.

            As for the gay connection?

            “For gay people,” Tolins said, “it’s similar. She’s indomitable. Through sheer strength of talent she became the star she wanted to be. The other thing that’s fun about her, that makes it possible to do a play like this, is that she’s not self-destructive. So many stars come to a bad end,” he said, “but she is pretty strong and secure. You know she’s okay, that she’s going to be okay.”

            And yet there’s her basement, a mall, a place where, normally, multitudes gather to shop, converse and mingle that apparently she has converted into a shrine to consumerism focused on the individual, the sole shopper who covets for purchase what she already owns. It is this contradiction that gives Tolins’ play a greater weight, the whisper of existential loneliness beneath the humor, a loneliness that embraces both the play’s narrator and his subject.
The mall

            “What’s interesting about what the play explores,” Tolins said, “is how that kind of incredible celebrity can lead a person to be somewhat out of touch.” He paused, and then shifted gears. “I started to think about my own life in Los Angeles as a temp, an actor, and all the people I know who are called…who are underemployed…and the odd jobs they have, and I imagined this guy, Alex Moore, who ended up in this job and would be the kind of person Barbra might have a real friendship with.”

            Alex gets the job, but it is Tolins who envisioned what it might be like to be the caretaker of the cathedral to consumerism. Anyone who has ever written a scene for a film, a play, a novel or a short story knows that, as you are writing it, you can’t help but be subsumed into what you are creating.

            “I always say there was one magical moment in the writing process,” Tolins said, “when I got to the point when I was so deeply into it that I actually felt it was happening to me. Certain moments when, like, when [Streisand] takes Alex’s hand and he describes how it feels, and rubbing her nails, her famous nails. Or there’s a line where, at the end of the play – ‘She took me by the hand and led me out through…into the cruel Malibu air,’ or something, and I thought, she makes this trip (down into the ‘mall’) to see me every day, and when that line ‘happened,’ – when you’re writing you’re not really writing, you’re just letting it happen, and I felt, ‘Wow,’ I’m really in this, I’m really feeling like he is.”

            And then there are these lines, also occurring near the end of the play:

ALEX: She smiled and walked over to the couch and sat down next to me. Close. Uncomfortably close.

BARBRA: This is nice, “hanging out” with you. People don’t come by and visit me too often. Nobody “pops by.” I spend a lot of time alone.

            Tolins wrote about and, as a writer, traveled to a different world, a world most of us can only imagine, a “somewhere over the rainbow” world that turns out, in the end, to be neither Oz nor “home,” a world where ruby slippers are just another pair of shoes you purchase and put on display.

            “There’s a sadness in the play,” Tolins said. “People are usually surprised by it, but they end up feeling more than they expected to feel. I think it’s because you genuinely feel these two people come together and then you sense their inability to maintain a relationship because of their distance in where they are in their lives, economically, and where they are in show business.”

            Tolins raised his hands as if to say, “Wait a minute,” perhaps reconsidering what he had just said.

            “I think we live in a time…and it’s something Chris Hayes writes about in his book, Twilight of the Elites…that we live in a time of ‘fractal inequality,’ where no matter where you are in the society you feel less than someone else. At the core of the play is this feeling that no matter how high you get on the mountaintop, it’s not enough, and something in ourselves, and something in our society, makes us feel like we’re never ‘there,’ or if we get there – who’s more successful than Barbra Streisand? – it’s not enough to make one happy all day long.”

            Staying with the idea of the sadness that lurks in the wings of the play, Tolins added: “One of the key lines in the play, where some of that sadness comes from, is when she explains why she was with Jon Peters for so long,” referring to the hair stylist turned movie producer. “She says, ‘He knew what to do on Sundays.’ That’s a line I actually read in an interview Barbra did in the 70s. We all can relate to that, especially if you have kids. It’s a long day to fill. So, even the most successful entertainer on the planet still has a fear of how to fill the time on Sunday.”

            As a writer, Tolins “imagined,” with the help of a lot of research, many of the incidents in the play, but the imagining has proven to be eerily accurate. Many people who know Streisand, who have visited “the basement” and have seen the play, have said to Tolins: “How did you know?” However, the question arises, do you have to be a Streisand aficionado to enjoy the play? Tolins suggests not: “Don’t worry,” he said, “you will enjoy this play, but if you are a Streisand fan there are Easter eggs all through it,” meaning little delights, Streisand tidbits, if you will, hidden in the text waiting to be found and savored. “It’s kind of like my Barbra ‘Wasteland,’” he explained, alluding to the T. S. Eliot poem. “The allusions are legion.”

            Tolins noted that at the beginning of the play there’s a caveat, that the play is “all fiction.” That, of course, allowed him poetic license, so he didn’t dwell on “reality” per se, for, as he freely admits, the premise is “ridiculous,” so he focused on “whatever conjecture and empathy I had for this character. Barbra to me is this fun mix of a superstar and a woman who shops at Loehmann’s.”

            But, again, this empathy can’t help but cycle back to what it is like to be born with one or perhaps two societal strikes against you, and to succeed yet, at the same time, carry with you certain moments that are etched into your soul.

            Making reference to Orson Welles film Citizen Kane and the psychological centrality of the sled, the “Rosebud” of the character’s childhood, prompted Tolins to say: “In the context of the play it’s that hot water doll, the doll she didn’t get. That’s a true story, the hot water doll is something that comes from her own interviews. There’s also the famous line that her step-father told her she was too ugly to have ice cream.”

            Too ugly to have ice cream.

            It puts a different spin on Streisand’s signature song, “People.” We're children, needing other children / And yet letting a grown-up pride / Hide all the need inside / Acting more like children than children.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Answering "The Call"

"The Call" -- Hartford TheaterWorks -- Thru June 19

Mary Bacon and Todd Gearhart. All photos by Lanny Nagler

There’s a lot going on in The Call, which recently opened at TheaterWorks, perhaps just a bit too much. This two-act play by Tanya Barfield has, in a mere 90 minutes (with an intermission, no less), enough sub-plots to fill a season’s worth of a television series, and if you don’t pay close attention to the opening scene (which may be hard to do), the last few minutes of the play may have you scratching your head. In fact, even if you do pay attention there may still be a bit of head-scratching.

As directed by Jenn Thompson, who seems, at least with this production, to have a penchant for the “frenetic” school of line delivery, the opening scene, which finds Annie (Mary Bacon), an artist, and her husband Peter (Todd Gearhart) – it’s never very clear what he does for a living -- hosting two of their friends, a black couple, Rebecca (Jasmin Walker) and Drea (Maechi Aharanwa), also an artist. Now, here’s where you have to pay close attention, for in the exposition, delivered in rapid-fire fashion, we learn that Peter and Rebecca’s brother once did volunteer work in Africa…and Peter subsequently died. Okay, file that away – there will be a test.
Jasmin Walker and Maechi Aharanwa

We come to learn that Annie and Peter are considering adopting a baby but, apparently (again, it’s a bit difficult to follow, what with the actors biting off each other’s lines), the deal falls through, which leads the couple to consider adopting an African child. Now, you might say to yourself, I can sit back and watch the play unfold – I know what it’s about, I know what the stakes are, but wait a minute -- Annie and Peter have a new neighbor, Alemu (Michael Rogers), who just happens to be an African immigrant. He will introduce another plot line, part of which involves syringes that will become central to the fireworks at the end of the play – a centrality that you might just question, because you thought the play was about a white couple, and adoption, with the added complication that the adopted child will not only be black but from Africa and, not just a baby but two-and-a-half years old – no, wait a minute, from a bit-mapped photo the kid looks like she’s at least four years old.
Michael Rogers and Mary Bacon

Barfield, a Pulitzer-Prize nominee for Blue Door, seems to have had problems deciding on who wants what, i.e., what the central conflict of the play should be or, in other words, what the audience should care about. This is not to say that there aren’t some compelling moments during the evening. Annie and Peter’s confrontation in the second act about the frustration of unsuccessfully attempting to conceive a child and the subsequent decision to adopt is electric, and Alemu’s African story, which opens the second act, is a deft piece of acting on Rogers part, but Barfield has chosen to work with too many different colored pieces of yarn and her attempt to knit everything together just doesn’t work, basically because the “reveal,” or multiple “reveals” at the end of the play don’t really have anything to do with what the audience is supposed to care about, so the final vignette, which has Annie and Peter in the bedroom they’ve prepared for their adopted child, falls flat because it is essentially unmotivated.

 Okay, I said there would be a test, so, The Call is about:

  1. Adoption
  2. Parenthood
  3. Racism
  4. Lesbian relationships
  5. Artistic envy and frustration
  6. Africa’s suffering multitudes
  7. HIV
  8. Can a white woman truly know how to fix a black girl’s hair
  9. Trendy lesbian art
  10. How/why did Rebecca’s brother die
  11. How fast can an actor can deliver lines
  12. Oh, yes, will Annie and Peter finally adopt a child
  13. All of the above

The Call runs through June 19. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

Sunday, May 15, 2016

"M" is for the many things...

Motherhood Out Loud -- Stratford Square One Theatre Company -- Thru May 29

Lucy Babbitt and Leigh Katz
Photos by Richard Pheneger
Gentle. Caring. Loving. Demanding. At times irrational. Doting. Competitive. Reflective. Frightened. Lonely. They’re mothers, and they are the subject of Motherhood Out Loud, which runs through May 29 at Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.

More a verbal revue, with multiple authors, than a play, Motherhood Out Loud is a treat for those who appreciate watching actors do their stuff, for the four actors, creating multiple characters at various stages in a mother’s life, are simply mesmerizing.

Under the knowing direction of Tom Holehan, the Theatre’s creative director, Lucy Babbitt, Lillian Garcia, Leigh Katz and Kiel Stango, with simple props (basically scarves, shawls and a cigarette or two), and on a relatively bare stage accentuated by a clothesline weighed down by various children’s garments, create many magical moments. It’s a simple, unadorned treat.

Lillian Garcia

In the opening scenes, the three ladies arranged in an arc, and then individually, give the audience the agony and ecstasy of childbirth, and then it’s on to diapers and outings in the park, play dates, unwanted childrearing advice and the sense that the tiny folks they gave birth to are becoming people with dreams, desires and frustrations of their own. The sunrise of birth must inevitably give way to the sunset of disengagement and gradual generational alienation.

In scene after scene, these accomplished actors create characters that are immediately recognizable and totally engaging. They are young, inexperienced mothers, they are frustrated housewives, they are doting, opinionated mothers often helicoptering over their children, combative, abrasive and knowing.

Kiel Stango

Each vignette or monologue has a distinct beginning, middle and end. To mention a few shining moments, at one point Stango is a gay man who, with his partner, is searching for a surrogate mother so the couple can have a child. It is a touching ten minutes that challenges the concept of parenthood and ends with a gesture that can’t help but moisten the most cynical of eyes. Then there is Garcia, who is called upon to create variously distinct ethnic characters, none more successfully than Nooha, a middle-eastern immigrant faced with dealing with her Americanized children. It’s simply a wonderful, nuanced piece of acting.

Not to be outdone, Babbitt gives us an earthy, cigarette-smoking lady who simply can’t buy into all of the “child as be-all-and-end-all” philosophy, then morphs into the mother of an autistic child going out on his first date and then ends up as a great-grandmother speaking words of wisdom to a 12-year-old, played by Katz, who also takes on the roles of a mother who crashes her soon-to-be-daughter-in-law’s bridal gown selection as well one of three mothers attempting to handle “the talk” about the birds and bees.

Lucy Babbitt and Leigh Katz

With no intermission needed, the 90 minutes seem to fly by, thanks to Holehan’s pacing, no-nonsense blackouts, and a cast that can change characters at, well, the drop of a scarf.

The show runs through May 29. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or online at www.squareonetheatre.com.  

Thursday, May 12, 2016

C'est Tres Bon

My Paris -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru May 29

Jamie Jackson and cast. All photos by Joan Marcus

A crippled man, diminutive in size, falls victim to drink, drugs and various other vices and dies before he is forty. Not the stuff you would gravitate towards if you were considering creating a musical, unless you wished to have your audience leave the theater feeling worse than it did when it sat down. You also probably wouldn’t think of writing a musical about a wicked witch or a girl named Mimi dying of HIV or a mother suffering from bipolar disorder. You’d walk away from the projects…and you would be wrong.

My Paris, which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Tony award-winner Kathleen Marshall, is the eye-filling, tuneful and touching story of the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as he leaves his aristocratic, sheltered, provincial home, enters the world of the demimonde of Paris in the late nineteenth century and creates art that will forever be associated with and define the era.

Although, as offers from stockbrokers and mutual funds often point out, prior returns on investments are no guarantee, My Paris has a pretty impressive pedigree. The music and lyrics are by Charles Aznavour (who, in a recorded message before the curtain, urges people to shut off their cell phones). His lyrics have been translated by Jason Robert Brown, who composed The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years, and the book is by Alfred Uhry, he of Driving Miss Daisy fame. Not bad, but, again, no guarantee.

Not to worry. This talented group of musical theater folks has put together an evening that hits all the right notes, for My Paris has dance numbers that make the heart beat just a little bit faster, moving ballads that nudge the plot along, and ensemble set-pieces that justify the price of your ticket.
It doesn’t hurt that Long Wharf has assembled an absolutely stellar cast, many of whom were in the Norma Terris production of the musical. Leading as Lautrec is Bobby Steggert, who bears a striking resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe and gives a subtle, tender performance as the height-challenged artist in search of his artistic voice and, just perhaps, a woman who will love him. Supported by projection designs of Lautrec’s art by Olivia Sebesky, he captures the essence of artistic desires in “To Paint,” which has a flavor similar to that of Stephen Sondheim’s “Putting it Together,” though the rhyming, which relies mostly on single-syllable words, is somewhat less sophisticated. He is equally captivating in the “Bonjour, Suzanne” number, with witty choreography, also by Marshall, that utilizes benches to account for the decided height difference between Lautrec and his lady love, and he leaves the stage as he entered it, alone, with a haunting “The Windmill Turns,” which might remind some of the Jacques Brel song, “If You Go Away.”
Bobbie Steggert and Mara Davi

Playing Suzanne, Lautrec’s love interest, is the enchanting Mara Davi. An accomplished actress blessed with a crystalline singing voice, she has the ability, “with just one look,” to convey a range of emotions. Her character’s bittersweet interaction with Lautrec is totally believable, no more so than in a “Dear John” number late in the second act, “What I Meant to Say,” when she must let down the artist as gently as possible.

Of equal merit is Jamie Jackson’s portrayal of an effete art instructor as well as the dissolute owner of an unsuccessful café that Lautrec will make famous via a series of posters, who leads the cast in a paean to a life of excess in the first act’s closing number, “Au Mirliton.” Adding much flavor to the evening are Lautrec’s three drinking buddies, Anquetin (Andrew Mueller), Rachou (Josh Grisetti) and Grenier (John Riddle), who, along with Lautrec, perform “We Drink!” – the lyrics, chorography and the spirit of the number owe a debt to Fiddler’s “To Life.”
Kate Marilley, Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Erica Sweany, and Anne Horak

With a four-piece orchestra of accomplished musicians set at the top of a three-tiered platform, framed by a suitably rococo backdrop, and lavish costumes by Paul Tazewell (“The Honor of the Family” number offers stunning costumes that span centuries – medieval to Belle Epoque), My Paris is both lush and evocative, yet there is a loneliness at its center that tugs at the heart, for Lautrec is a haunted man, and no matter the gaiety and hedonism that swirls about him, he bears the weight of a man who knows in his heart that he is doomed. The final scene, as he haltingly, painfully climbs stairs, brings us back to where we began: a man of extreme talent who is shackled by a body that constrains his spirit and his desires.

My Paris runs through May 29. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


"Happy Days" -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru May 21

Dianne Wiest. All Photos by Joan Marcus

There’s the actress, and then there’s the play. The actress is superb. The play? Well, I guess that’s a matter of taste…or fortitude, or an inherent ability to find delight in the absurdly static, or a deep desire to wallow in the existential meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. In any case, Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett and directed by James Bundy, is on the boards at Yale Repertory Theatre through May 21. Go if you wish to see how a two-time Oscar-winning actress can make lemonade out of lemons; stay home if you already know that life bogs us down in quotidian repetition, so much so that we wake up one morning to the alarm and feel stuck, unable to move, paralyzed.

Yes, from the moment the curtain rises, Winnie (Dianne Weist) is literally and figuratively stuck, for she is embedded up to her chest in stone, surrounded by an arid, lifeless landscape (designed by Izmir Ickbal) with an unchanging, banal sky above her. For comfort, she has a bag that contains all of her earthly possessions – a brush, a comb, an intriguing toothbrush (what, pray tell, is written on its handle?), a bottle of tonic, glasses and a magnifying glass, other pedestrian objects and…a gun, affectionately called “Brownie.” (Near the end of the first act, as Winnie picked up the gun, an audience member behind me whispered: “Use it.” The comment spoke volumes.)

Winnie is a talker…she just won’t shut up. Her husband, Willie (Brits will get the phallic reference) is seldom seen and less heard. Willie (Jarlath Conroy) grunts, he groans, he reads the newspaper, he crawls into a hole with Winnie’s guidance – she urges him to back in. Written in 1960, long before we knew that men were from Mars and women from Venus (1992), the play can be interpreted broadly in two ways: men are uncommunicative oafs while women are sensitive creatures who need to express themselves, to verbalize their emotions, or, on the other hand, men need to shelter themselves, to figuratively or literally crawl into a hole to shield themselves from women’s constant chatter (Beckett wrote the play just before he was about to be married – interpret that as you will).
Jarlath Conroy

Whether Winnie is buried up to her chest or her neck, Wiest captivates in a role that is, to say the least, physically restrictive. She deftly uses her hands, arms and face to convey a broad range of emotions, many of which border on despair that is fought against with the oft-repeated phrase: “Oh this is a happy day.” The fact that it isn’t a happy day, that it can’t be a happy day, that Winnie’s unbridled (and some would say maladjusted) optimism is the only thing that keeps her from grabbing “Brownie” and ending it all, is made manifest early on.

The play is an exercise in dialogue as prattle, unrelenting prattle, a deluge of words used to hopefully keep the “blue meanies” at bay. There can be no silence as Winnie expresses appreciation for Willie’s grunts, a faint acknowledgement that she at least exists, that her life has meaning (meaning defined by a male’s attention). Wiest gives Winnie, both in voice and mannerisms, an often child-like quality, and her endless stream of words is akin to those of a frightened child whispering over and over again: “There are no monsters. There are no monsters.” Of course, there are monsters that can slowly yet inexorably consume one’s soul.

If you have toyed or battled with depression, Happy Days is not the play for you. It is literate (there are a lot of allusions to philosophy and poetry) and certainly single-minded in its view of life, whatever that view may be, but it is also unrelenting, and the final image of Willie crawling towards Winnie is open to several interpretations, including that Willie wishes to grab “Brownie” and end it all.

To be blunt, this is a bleak theatrical experience with many sexual undertones about how a marriage, and life, can become not just dysfunctional but stultifying and, perhaps, unbearable. As such, it offers the audience an intentionally warped magnifying glass with which to view existence, and the hope that saying “This is a happy day” will make everything better, or at least livable. It doesn’t.

Happy Days runs through May 21. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

Sunday, May 8, 2016

"...but I know what I like."

Art and Red in Rep -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru May 29

Stephen Rowe and Patrick Andrews.
All photos by Carol Rosegg

As the saying goes, “Art is in the eye of the beholder.” Facile, but perhaps true, yet there is Auguste Rodin: “The artist must create a spark before he can make a fire and before art is born, the artist must be ready to be consumed by the fire of his own creation.”

There is obviously a gap, perhaps an abyss, between those who create art and those who behold it (or own it to place it above their mantle), and this lacuna is the inspiration for Mark Lamos’s decision to present two plays, John Logan’s Red and Yasmina Reza’s Art, in a semi-rep format at the Westport Country Playhouse. The former will play on odd days, the latter on even days through May 29, and though in an interview Lamos, who directs both plays, did not suggest an order of viewing, from an emotional and logical perspective odd should precede even, for one cannot behold something before it is created. Either way, both productions are, in their own way, gripping, creating a wonderful intellectual, emotional and humorous excursion into the creation and possession of art.

Red, which opened on May 7, is a two-hander that has Ken (Patrick Andrews), a neophyte painter, signing on as Mark Rothko’s assistant. Initially in awe of the renowned painter who has been commissioned to create a set of murals for the soon to be opened Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram’s building, Ken agrees to do whatever menial tasks Rothko (Stephen Rowe) requires. However, over the course of this one-act play, accentuated by effective, evocative lighting by Matthew Richards and dead-on sound design by David Budries (most appreciated by those of us of the Hi-Fi-LP era), Ken begins to challenge and then defy Rothko’s views on art and its ever-changing progression.

Set in Rothko’s Bowery studio, hauntingly rendered by scenic designer Allen Moyer, who makes the Playhouse’s stage seem both cavernous and hermetic, Logan’s play is a feast for the ears and the mind, for most of the evening is an extended argument about art, the creative process and the age-old conflict between generations. Powered by Rowe’s absorbing creation of the acerbic, abstract expressionist painter who defied labels, ably counterbalanced by Andrews’ coming-of-age defiance, this production rushes forward to a climax and denouement that is totally satisfying with, compliments of Lamos, many deft touches along the way, none more pleasing than when Rothko and Ken prepare a canvas, a balletic, frenetic sequence set to classical music that, at its conclusion, drew well-deserved applause, for it captures, without dialogue, the passion inherent in the creation of art, the “spark” to which Rodin referred. It’s a truly exciting theatrical moment.

Art may exist on its own, ethereal, ineffable, but artists have to eat, which means they have to sell their paintings, and that introduces the idea of assigning value to brushstrokes, the subject of Reza’s Art, which opened at the Playhouse on May 8. Whereas Red essentially deals with creation, Art focuses on the interpretation and valuation of that creation, both tasks being, in essence, frighteningly arbitrary.

John Skelley, Benton Greene and Sean Dugan
On even days at the Playhouse, Rothko’s studio lurks in the background of an apartment (or series of apartments defined by the art hanging on the wall) in which Reza’s Art unfolds. Serge (John Skelley) has just bought a painting for 200,000 Euros. It is by a renowned artist. It is a white canvas, that is, white on white. That’s it – it’s white. Marc (Benton Greene) finds the price outlandish and the painting ridiculous, which hurts Serge’s artistic sensibility and pride. Caught between them is Yvan (Sean Dugan), who is about to be married. As in her God of Carnage, Reza specializes here in building on the trivial, using it as a flashpoint to create emotional pyrotechnics that, in the case of Art, come with a great deal of humor.

Discussions about the value, or lack of same, of the painting spiral into a test of friendship that becomes intensely personal, revelatory and physical. In the process, this ensemble cast doesn’t miss a beat, playing off each other with such confidence and comic timing you might think they were one year into the run. The high point of the evening is Yvan’s extended monologue about a phone conversation he has with his step-mother while his intended listens in -- it’s a comic tour de force -- and who would ever think that eating olives could elicit laughter, but it does, thanks to some emotive body language by the cast and a smart piece of blocking by Lamos.

That the two plays “speak” to each other is obvious, and if you listen closely to Logan’s dialogue written for Red you will catch comments about “white” (and about how to view a painter’s work) that can be brought forward when you watch Art.

Now in its 86th season, the Playhouse has a pair of winners on its hands, offering two evenings of thought-provoking theater that will often make you laugh…and surely make you think.

Art and Red run on alternate days through May 29. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Good Life Angst

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife -- TheatreWorks New Milford -- Weekends Thru May 22

M. J. Hartell and Jody Bayer. All photos by Richard Pettibone

What do you do when you’re well off, live in a fancy condo on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and have the luxury to fill you days with trips to museums and the theater? Well, you go into the Disney Store and smash six figurines, including a $250 Goofy, then rush home, throw yourself on the couch and refuse to get up while bemoaning your fate. Thus begins Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford. This take on mid-life crisis and Jewish angst, which opened on Broadway in 2000 and received several Best Play nominations, is, if you buy into the crisis, a reasonably funny excursion into the mannered life of a woman who suffers from having too much and thinking too little of herself, acerbated by her immersion in the novels of Herman Hesse and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, who wrote: “The brain may be regarded as a kind of parasite of the organism, a pensioner, as it were, who dwells with the body.”

The eponymous allergist’s wife is Marjorie Taub (M. J. Hartell), a lady given to pseudo-intellectual didacticism while pondering what to make for dinner. As the play opens, she is found on her couch in a bathrobe, moaning. She will do a lot of moaning throughout the evening. She is urged by her husband, Dr. Ira Taub (Mitchell Prywes) to get up and do something, but existence weighs too heavily on this Upper West Side matron – it’s just too, too, too…unbearable. After all, the chandelier that Mohammed (Matt Austin), the front doorman cum personal handyman, has just installed was supposed to be an artistic statement of the ineffably ethereal but, alas, it is only a light fixture.
Hartell, Rosemary Howard and Bayer

Marjorie’s angst is not helped by her mother, Freida (Jody Baker), who uses a walker, hasn’t, so she claims, had a bowel movement in four months (and thus is hooked on suppositories) and finds fault with just about everything Marjorie does – the son, the son was the brilliant one. Such a career he would have had if his heart hadn’t failed him. Freida also has the irritating habit of discussing the health of her gastro-intestinal system when those around her are eating. Oy!

We’re deeply into Woody Allen-land here, with just a touch of The Golden Girls. Freida kvetches, Marjorie explodes with literary and philosophical allusions and the good doctor, now retired from his practice to run a clinic for the needy and teach, plays referee.
Bayer, Matt Austin and Mitchell Prymes

Into this tzimmes enters Lee Green (Rosemary Howard), a lady who rings Madeline’s doorbell while the matron of the condo is contemplating a beautiful view and thinking Rilke-thoughts. Ooops, wrong apartment, but Madeline invites her in anyway (otherwise the play can’t go forward). They chit-chat and then discover that they were childhood friends, but Lee has lived a different life than Madeline -- she has travelled the world, done just about everything and is on a first-name basis with everyone but Yul Brynner. It’s The Lady Who Came to Dinner, for Lee is soon ensconced in the Taub’s apartment and intent on liberating them from their upper-middle-class mores. To say the least, Lee shakes up Madeline’s world, and the shaking-up will continue until the end of the play when Madeline…well, she gets to orate (whether you buy said oration is another question) and thus the family Taub is miraculously made harmonious.

Under the consistent if sometimes misguided direction of Debbie Levin, this mélange of stereotypical characters bounce off each other like frantic electrons. Hartell, as Marjorie, enters big and thus has no place to go with her character’s emotions. A physically emotive and effective actor (her eyes often speak volumes), Hartell would have been better served if she had been counseled to bring it down a notch or two at the start of the play and allow Marjorie’s frustrations, and volume, to build. This is not to say that Hartell isn’t, at times, riveting, especially when, in response to Freida’s suggestion that her character volunteer, she delivers a litany of suffering encompassing all Marjorie has done in the service of humankind. It’s a tremendously enjoyable monologue comparable to Daphna’s rants in Bad Jews.

Prywes’ Ira is supposed to be a bit holier than thou, given that he’s rumored to be beloved by all, “a saint,” as Freida describes him (and thus a repressed irritant to Marjorie’s inherent feeling of inferiority). This really doesn’t come across – he’s certainly a mensch, but the self-important halo worn at a cocked angle is not obvious.

On the believability scale, Howard and Austin fare much better. Howard creates a name-dropping force of nature with Mephistophelian overtones. She is sly, seductive and just a bit mysterious, and Austin, as Mohammed, is, at times, suitably befuddled by the goings-on in the apartment.

And then there is Freida, a character Bayer has a field day with. Bayer has the stereotypical Jewish mother down pat and has a hell of a time on stage bemoaning the state of her character’s bowels while she does a clinic on passive-aggressiveness. Yes, Freida is something of a cardboard character, but Bayer gives that cardboard enough curls and wrinkles to make her thoroughly enjoyable – the play’s energy goes up several kilowatts whenever the Taub’s doorbell rings and Freida rolls in.

On the whole, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is enjoyable but needs to find a more equitable balance in the actors’ performances. The fireworks, especially those engendered by Marjorie, need to build.

The production runs through May 22. For tickets or more information call 860-350-6863 or going online to theatreworks.us.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Tango of Life

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru May 22

Valerie Stack Dodge and Michael Iannucci

There are some plays that, despite their flaws, simply spread a warm glow, perhaps because what you anticipate will happen actually does, and it satisfies. Such is the case with Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse. This two-hander by Richard Alfieri is formulaic in the extreme (is “soap-operatic” a word?), a sort of poor man’s Driving Miss Daisy, with homosexuality rather than race being the initial bone of contention, but as obvious in its construction as it is, the play, as directed by Sasha Bratt, is both engaging and comforting, and much of this is to the credit of the two actors who have an empathic chemistry that can only grow over the run of the show.

Buy a ticket and enter the world of Lily Harrison (Valerie Stack Dodge), a widow of a certain age living in a Florida condominium where AARP members are stacked one atop another. Her doorbell rings, she opens the door, and in walks acerbic Michael Minetti (Michael Iannucci) cracking wise. There’s immediate antipathy that will ebb and flow throughout the evening as the oil and water characters eventually find solace in each other.

Michael’s visit is actually a service call, for Lily has hired him, via the eponymous company, to give her dance lessons, which allows Alfieri to milk the “By your students ye shall be taught” bromide. The two couldn’t be more different: she is a product of the South, a refined ex-English teacher who was married to a Baptist minister; he is a Floridian who escaped to New York to become A Chorus Line character who no longer has the stuff to strut. She drawls in complete sentences that drip with disdain; he ejaculates one-liners and occasional profanity. She immediately wants him out of her apartment; he is the stray alley cat who, no matter how much shooing, will not leave. Echoing a Chorus Line number, he needs this job. They are dramatically made for each other.

In their initial meeting they both lie to each other, lies that will be revealed and dissected, leading to revelations that you just know are coming. You also know your heartstrings are being played upon, and part of you, the cynical, play-going pro that you are, feels your disdain rising. This is manipulative, you think. I’m not going to fall for this…and then you, perhaps grudgingly, succumb to the manipulation.

The bewitching is accomplished by Dodge and Iannucci. Dodge creates a character of refined elegance, her movements bespeaking an inherent, repressed grace, a zest for life that has been inhibited, while Iannucci is a brash, coarse counterpoint, and thus their dance lessons are as much verbal as they are physical. Yes, the scenes are structurally repetitive, but the two actors have such a compelling chemistry that it eventually overrides any irritation. Through a set of multiple reveals about back story and current situations, you find yourself caring about Lily and Michael, and their final dance is, dare I say it, heartwarming, as is the final “feeding” scene in Driving Miss Daisy. Alfieri’s play may not have the subtle levels of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer-prize winning work, but Dodge and Iannucci work wonderfully with what they have been given and one can only suspect that over the run of the show, which closes May 22, they will find more ways to enhance their characters’ humanity, making their final dance even more compelling.


For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

Monday, May 2, 2016

There's a Limit to "Anything"

"Anything Goes" -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Thru June 16

Rashidra Scott and cast members. All photos by Diane Sobolewski

If any proof was needed that vaudeville was one of the parents of the modern Broadway musical, all one has to do is travel to Goodspeed Opera House to see Anything Goes, Goodspeed Musicals’ first offering for the season. This Cole Porter classic -- with an original book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, with a major rewrite assist from Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (of Sound of Music fame) and a later, updated (supposedly) rewrite by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman -- opened on Broadway in 1934, some nine years before Oklahoma would burst on the scene and change the American musical forever. This tuneful pastiche with a shaky (read silly) book seems to be showing its age under the direction of Daniel Goldstein and the at times less than animated choreography by Kelli Barclay. Given the median age of the Goodspeed audience, the shtick-filled two hours gets a lot of laughs and does has some dazzling and entertaining moments, but they are few and far between and ultimately Anything Goes, at least in this rendition, seems to sink under the weight of its years.

For those not familiar with the thin plot line, we have night club owner Reno Sweeney (Rashidra Scott) smitten with Billy Crocker (David Harris), an assistant to business mogul Eli Whitney (Kingsley Leggs), but Billy loves debutante Hope Harcourt (Hannah Florence), who, at the urgings of her money-conscious mother, Evangeline (Denise Lute) has become engaged to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Benjamin Howes). For various reasons, all set sail for a trip across the pond on the S.S. American, whose captain (Jay Aubrey Jones) is desperate to find luminaries to spice up the crossing, even to the point of lauding a notorious criminal, Moonface Martin (Stephen DeRosa), as a substitute for Charlie Chaplin, who cancelled his booking. Of course, chaos ensues, with a lot of mistaken identities and rushing on and off stage and up and down ladders (all that’s missing to complete the farcical take is the slamming of doors).

The book is essentially a series of skits, many of which evoke vaudevillian set-ups that seem to require a lot of emoting, leering and playing to the audience (DeRosa is a past-master at this), with musical numbers often shoe-horned in. Yes, there are many wonderful Porter tunes (some not in the original version) that have become part of the Great American Songbook, and they are the saving grace of the production, but their often witty lyrics simply serve to emphasize the mundanity of the book.

Stephen DeRosa, Scott and David Harris

The lighter-than-air scenario requires that chemistry between the characters carry the show and, by and large, it’s just not there. Billy and Reno, in the opening scene, seem nothing more than casual friends, so the opening number, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” lacks any sensual undertone. They also get to sing one of Porter’s most famous songs, “You’re the Top,” but the number is hampered by somewhat stilted choreography and, again, a lack of chemistry – you just don’t believe the wonderfully witty words they are singing are meant for each other.

Oddly enough, it’s only when Reno and Moonface render another Porter classic, “Friendship,” that the production at last comes to life. Enforced choreography also seems to get in the way of Billy and Hope’s rendition of “It’s De-Lovely.” You just get the feeling that an arbitrary decision was made here: “Okay, we need to fill the stage with dancers in ballroom costumes, regardless of whether or not they distract from the song.” The problem here is that there’s just no visual build – it’s an intimate duet that just expands, for no apparent reason, into a production number in which the focal point – the two young lovers – gets lost. The dancers disappear and the scene just fizzles to a stop.

Hannah Florence and Harris

What does work is the closing number of the first act – “Anything Goes.” There’s really no logical reason for the number, but once Reno and “the boys and girls” start hoofing, you really don’t care – it’s what you’ve come to Goodspeed to see, as is the equally show-stopping “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” What also works is the “Buddie, Beware” number late in the second act, if only because Desiree Davar has the blond gun moll role down pat. She’s got a lot of talent and doesn’t mind flaunting it.

Desiree Davar and cast

Set designer Wilson Chin, certainly with the agreement of Goldstein, has opted to open up the Goodspeed stage by setting the musicians atop the good ship S.S. American and extending the stage over the pit where the musicians would normally reside. After the opening scene set in a bar (which requires a lot of actors to open rear-house orchestra doors and enter from the aisles), this nautical construction is revealed (to applause) and establishes a verticality that ultimately becomes distracting, mainly because there is a lot of dead space between the stage and the ship’s “bridge,” which is connected to the stage proper by two curving staircases. Several numbers, including the iconic “Anything Goes,” and multiple scenes either begin or are played out high above the stage, giving the odd impression that the characters when perched high are somewhat god-like and are either romping around in Valhalla or deigning to descend to mingle with mere mortals.

The show has been extended through June 16, which means ticket sales are robust. As a showcase for some great Cole Porter songs, Anything Goes fits the bill, and if you’re into broad (very broad) comedy with just a touch of slapstick (some whipped cream does get thrown), the musical will be right up your alley. There will be a few who find the evening less than enchanting but their grumbles probably won’t be heard above the laughter and applause.

For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.