Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pursuing the Rainbow

End of the Rainbow -- MTC Mainstage -- Thru April 23

Coleen Sexton as Judy Garland


There’s supposed to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but for Judy Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, there was only debt, alcohol and pills. She died in 1969 of a barbiturate overdose. She was 47. Earlier this season, Goodspeed Musicals treated us to the start of Garland’s glorious yet troubled career in “Chasing Rainbows.” Now, at MTC Mainstage, we get to see the yellow brick road’s dark terminus in “End of the Rainbow,” billed as a play with music.

Created by Peter Quilter, and directed by MTC’s artistic director, Kevin Connors, “Rainbow” provides something of a schizophrenic experience for the audience, for there are many of the glorious songs Garland made famous to enjoy as, at the same time, we watch a woman falling apart. Thus there’s a mixture of delight and pain, all served up by the marvelous Coleen Sexton who has the Garland mannerisms down pat and offers a performance that it is at times riveting, at others poignant, and always compelling.

The play is set mainly in a London hotel room where Garland and her fiancé, Mickey Deans (Luke Dranell), are living while she performs at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub for a five-week run that will become her penultimate public appearance before her death. Garland, as deftly portrayed by Sexton, is haunted by the Garland persona, one colored by the “suffering diva” image that many of her ardent gay followers took a perhaps somewhat masochistic delight in embracing. This aspect of Garland’s life and later career is captured by Anthony (Thomas Conroy), her accompanist, who feels it’s an honor to serve “Miss Garland.” Jealous of her attachment to Deans and concerned that she is destroying herself (that very aspect of Garland’s personality that, ironically, drew many homosexuals to her), late in Act Two he “proposes” to her, a heart-wrenching scene that Sexton plays with subtle nuance, using body movement and facial expressions that convey her character’s great need to be taken care of, to be sheltered.

The Deans character is conflicted, for he too wishes to take care of Garland, who is deeply in debt, but he also perhaps sees her as his meal ticket. At first weaning her from pills and liquor, he fails her when she has a partial breakdown and refuses to continue her show at the Talk of the Town (escaping to her room in the hotel). He gives in to her addictive needs and offers her pills.

This scene is sandwiched between two that are perhaps Sexton’s finest moments, for Garland, before she escapes to her room, is somewhat addled on stage, fighting with the microphone cord, bumping into the microphone stand, and confused about the songs she is supposed to sing. After Deans offers her the pills, Garland returns to the stage to belt out a signature song – “Come Rain or Come Shine” -- with Sexton’s performance suggesting the source of many of Garland’s signature mannerisms: the clutching of the arms, the manic movement of her hands, the herky-jerky body movements, the almost perverse infusion of her very being into the delivery of a song. It suggests that what we are seeing is not so much a performance as a soul writhing in agony.

If one quibble might be registered about Sexton’s portrayal of the tortured artist it has nothing to do with Sexton’s talent but rather with a make-up decision. Early in Act Two Anthony helps her with her make-up, suggesting that she looks a mess. Fortunately for Sexton, she doesn’t, but unfortunately for the characterization, there is no visual sense that this is a woman who has been ravaged by booze and Ritalin. Some subtle but deft usage of make-up suggesting this deterioration would seem to be appropriate here.
 
 

Backed by a multi-talented, four-member orchestra (Thomas Conroy, Henry Lugo, Chris Johnson and Gary Ruggiero) and working with a very functional set created by Jordan Janota and some lovely, subtle (no more so than in the final scenes) lighting by Michael Blagys, Sexton consistently mesmerizes and fascinates as she creates a character who is at one moment a foul-mouthed bitch and the next a frightened, insecure child adrift on the sea of stardom, the talented Frances Gumm – the little girl with the big voice – at war with the Judy Garland who delighted millions with her performances yet could find no enduring delight in her life. In the intimate MTC setting you can’t escape the painful reality of a star becoming a nova that eventually explodes and consumes itself, and you will never respond to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – the show’s final song -- in the same way after seeing this show.

“End of the Rainbow” runs through April 23. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.     

Saturday, April 1, 2017

An Eye-Tickling, Ear-Pleasing Evening

"Rockin' the Forest" -- -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru April 9

Victoria Mooney and the stop/time dancers.
Photo by Curt Henderson

Sated (and perhaps a bit depressed) by the angst and anxiety in many current Connecticut theatrical productions? Yearning for a bit of escape? Well, you couldn’t do better than wend your way up to Playhouse on Park in West Hartford where “Rockin’ the Forest” is on the boards through April 9. This winsome, frolicsome exercise in song and dance won’t challenge your theater-going mentality, but it will satisfy on multiple levels, especially if you thrill to the sound of tapping feet.

“Rockin’ the Forest” is a stop/time Dance Theater production, which serendipitously found a home at Playhouse on Park over a decade ago. The “child” of choreographer Darlene Zoller (she is a co-founder of Playhouse on Park), stop/time features 15 dancers who by day are engaged in other pursuits but by night are consumed by the “Gotta dance!” mantra. In other words, they’re not necessarily pursuing a career or a paycheck via Terpsichore, they’re pursuing what they love to do…and it shows. In the program bios, one dancer has written that she “loves to dance – plain and simple.”

The book (such as it is) for the show finds Little Red Riding Hood (an engaging, multi-talented Victoria Mooney) lost in the proverbial woods. Soon she is confronted by the Wolf (Rick Fountain), who once was a star on Broadway but, alas, has been cursed (due to his philandering) to wander the forest in his present lupine form. She also encounters a Broadway producer (don’t demand logic – just accept it) who wishes to cast Miss Riding Hood in a show. Some may find it a silly premise, but these are the same people who won’t clap to bring Tinker Bell back to life.

Conceived, directed and choreographed by Zoller, with musical direction by Eric Larivee (who also tinkles the ivories in the six-piece orchestra), this exercise in song and dance draws on multiple references to Hollywood movies, Broadway shows and pop and Rock songs going back to the 60s, which is part of its charm. It also covers multiple dance forms, from interpretive and ballet to the tap-intensive, synchronous Broadway chorus line (the only thing missing is a dance-number allusion to “River Dance”). In other words, it’s an engaging mash-up.

Favorite numbers that tickled my fancy? Well, when the Wolf first meets Miss Hood he sings “L’il Red Riding Hood,” (do you remember Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs?). Then there’s “On Broadway” and a rewriting of “American Pie.” And how about the “Lip Sync Battle” between the three bears and the three little pigs? Mooney nails “Lotta Livin’ To Do” (from “Bye Bye Birdie”) and the First Act ends with a production number, “I Can’t Be Bothered Now,” that’s a tap extravaganza.

Special mention should be made of costumer Lisa Steier’s efforts. There are just about as many costume changes as there are musical numbers (the dressing room must be a scene of controlled chaos), and the costumes are dead-on to support said numbers, especially in the Second-Act opening number, “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” with Snow White (Meredith Atkinson) complete with a little bird on her wrist to gladden her heart. It’s an impressive effort.

There were a number of children in the audience on opening night (attendance only hampered by the threat of sleet, snow and the wrath of March), and this is appropriate, for if you have a budding dancer, singer or thespian in your house, then I urge you to bring them to Playhouse on Park (perhaps bribing them with the offer of an ice cream sundae at next door’s A. C Petersen Farms Restaurant). They will be entranced, as will you if you are young at heart. At intermission, a woman spoke to one of the ushers: “I use to tap dance…not well…when I was young. I’m impressed.” You will be too, and you’ll leave the theater with a smile on your face.

“Rockin’ the Forest” runs through April 9.  For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org   

Bang! Bang! I Changed the World!

Assassins -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru April 8

The cast of Assassins. Photo by Carol Rosegg 

Assassination.

Not exactly the subject matter you might choose for the basis of a musical. Then again, would you leap at the opportunity to write a musical about a barber who slits men’s throats and a lady who uses the “meat” to bake and sell pies? Probably not, but you’re not Stephen Sondheim, who has not, over his illustrious career, eschewed outré subject matter. Thus, with the assistance of John Weidman, who wrote the book, Sondheim penned “Assassins,” which opened on Broadway in 2004 and garnered fine Tony Awards. This analysis of nine assassins (both unsuccessful and successful), now on the boards at Yale Repertory Theatre under the direction of James Bundy, is something of a tight-wire act, for it deals with heinous crimes and aberrant personalities while seeking to entertain. That it by and large does is much to the credit of its creators.

The premise and frame for the show is a carnival shooting gallery whose Proprietor (Austine Durant) sells the opportunity to take a pot shot or two at a president. His spiel entices a handful to grab a gun and give it a whirl: Leon Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Samuel Byck (Richard R. Henry), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lauren Molina), Sara Jane Moore (Julia Murney), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and, finally, Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick, who doubles as the Balladeer).

As Weidman and Sondheim would have it, it is Booth who is the father of them all, and his first appearance engenders obeisance from the collected assassins, as if he is a demigod. In an extended second scene, Booth, with the assistance of the Balladeer, gives vent to his rage and attempts to justify his killing of President Lincoln. This will, by and large, be the format that is followed throughout the show, with each gun wielder offering “reasons” for his or her rage or dementia. However, this is definitely not a one-note show, and, since it has to entertain, several of the assassins’ quirks are utilized for comic relief.

There’s Guiteau, an erstwhile author who wanted to be the US ambassador to France and made his bid by shooting James Garfield (not the most effective job interview technique). As created by Sondheim and Weidman, Guiteau is something of a loony gadfly, which DeRosa works to a fair-the-well, especially during the execution scene, “The Ballad of Guiteau,” when he dances up and down the gallows stairs. Then there are the two female assassins, Fromme and Moore. Molina and Murney have several scenes together, and the chemistry between the drug-addled young woman besotted by Charles Manson and the somewhat ditzy suburban housewife who can’t shoot straight is delightfully humorous, with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken playing a central role in two of these encounters. One of the funniest moments is when the klutzy Moore drops her bullets and President Gerald Ford (Fred Inkley), after tripping and falling, helps her pick them up.

The weirdest and most engaging of the weirdos is Byck. Dressed in a shabby Santa Claus outfit, Henry delivers two working-man diatribes that are classic monologues, the first directed at Leonard Bernstein and the second at President Nixon, whom he plans to assassinate by crashing a plane into the White House (he never gets the hijacked plane off the runway). Drinking a Budweiser and chomping on a sandwich, or driving a car to the airport, Byck has his trusty cassette recorder dangling from his neck so he can vent his frustrations.

If there is one drawback to the musical it is the extended monologues given to Booth, both at the beginning of the show and at its conclusion. Although the former might be justified, the latter just seems to go on and on as Booth, with the other assassins present, attempts to cajole and motivate an unwilling Oswald into assassinating President Kennedy. Since so much is known (and, alas, still unknown) about that fateful day in Dallas, this exercise in “What if?” just doesn’t work. The premise is that this assassination, which struck at the bedrock of the nation as no other assassination had (save perhaps for Lincoln’s) will in some way justify, or at least make memorable, all previous efforts, at least in the minds of the assassins.

At the end of this sequence the Zapruder film of the actual assassination is screened behind the actors, and when it is you can feel the mood of the audience shift, for the “concept” of the show is suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of Oswald’s actions and somehow puts the lie to the comic antics of Guiteau, Byck, Fromme and Moore and makes the finale, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” (the self-serving anthem of the assassins) somewhat off-putting.

There’s no denying that the Rep’s production of “Assassins” is both stylish and engaging, and the cast is, across the board, superb, with Molina, Murney, DeRosa and Henry especially delivering some memorable moments. It’s just that you walk out and perhaps wonder, should I really have enjoyed this show as much as I did?

The image of Jackie Kennedy crawling across the trunk of the open car, reaching out to the Secret Service agent, cannot help but linger and put a different spin on what you have seen. These people, out of perverted rage and self-serving delusions, wanted to kill, and often succeeded. As they all raise their guns on high in the show’s finale, you can’t help but re-evaluate one of the show’s numbers, “The Gun Song.” Yes, all it takes is to tense the trigger finger and all of your problems will be solved. How sad and dispiriting, on reflection, that so many trigger fingers have been tensed, and that the triggers are so readily available.

“Assassins” runs through April 8. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

Next to Perfect

"Next to Normal" -- TheaterWorks -- Thru May 7

Christiane Noll and David Harris.
Photo by Lanny Nagler


Let’s say it right up front -- if you are currently feeling down, depressed or generally out of psychic sorts, then you might want to put off seeing “Next to Normal” up at TheaterWorks in Hartford. Just wait until the clouds roll by and then pick up the phone and order tickets -- don’t worry, it’s been extended through May 7, so you’ve got time. Why put it off if the Blue Meanies are nipping at your heels? Well, this Pulitzer-winning musical ain’t “Mary Poppins,” and the angst and mental derangements suffered by Diana (the marvelous Christiane Noll) can’t be cured by a spoonful of sugar.

“Next to Normal,” with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, opened on Broadway in 2009, receiving three Tony awards. It’s a “tough” musical, for it deals with a disturbingly dysfunctional family: the aforementioned Diana has been in therapy, and consuming a potpourri of psychotropic medications, for close to two decades. She is manic, she is depressive, and she is haunted. Her much put upon husband, Dan (a sturdy David Harris) copes as best he can with a family life that is ruled more by fantasy than familiarity, much to the detriment of Diana and Dan’s daughter, Natalie (Maya Keleher, giving a stunning professional debut performance), who is, in the words of a First-Act song, the “invisible girl.”

Whirling around this tornado of delusions and frustrations directed by Rob Ruggiero are Henry (Nick Sacks), Natalie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, and two of Diana’s therapists, Doctor Fine and Doctor Madden (both played by J. D. Daw). And then there is the son, Gabe, who in another First-Act song proclaims “I’m Alive.” That remains to be seen.

Backed by a six-member orchestra sequestered off-stage, and played out on an adaptive set by Wilson Chin with multiple bookcases boasting a host of lamps and knick-knacks, this two-act excursion into dementia and family heartbreak is not exactly sung-through, but the production consists of many songs – 38 to be exact – that seem to weave into and out of each other almost seamlessly.

At times bewildered, at other times wry and waspish, Noll’s Diana is a study of an intelligent woman bedeviled by her mind. It’s a bravura performance in a difficult role, for it demands a broad range of emotions to be displayed, some subtle, others over-the-top (we first see Diana making lunch for her two-member family by slamming together sandwiches using both the counter and the floor as workplaces). Noll is capable of saying volumes with her eyes, her shoulders and just a twist of her lips, and her vocal range allows her to handle such diverse songs as the manic “Didn’t I See This Movie,” the intimate duet, “Maybe,” with Keleher, and Diana’s touching farewell “So Anyway.”

Harris, as Dan, is the rock upon which Diana’s waves of dementia pound. His role is, obviously, less flamboyant than Noll’s, but he creates a character that is trembling on the brink of despair, and thus his performance if often haunting, no more so than in his rendition of “He’s Not Here.”

Cardoza and Sacks both give solid performances, though one might question the costumes Tricia Barsamian has created for Sacks, especially the brown suit he shows up in to take Natalie to a dance, making him look more like an émigré fresh off the boat than a suitor seeking his fair love’s hand. Daw is also solid, and his brief metamorphosis as the “rock star” doctor is dead on.

Then there is Keleher, who is making her professional debut, though you wouldn’t know it by her performance. This sweet-voiced graduate of The Boston Conservatory delivers a polished, nuanced portrait of a frustrated 17-year-old who dabbles in drugs in an attempt to handle the chaos of her home life.

Given the intimacy of the TheaterWorks venue, the emotions generated by “Next to Normal” wash over the audience in successive waves that evoke laughter, shivers, empathy…and, in the final number, “Light,” a measure of hope. There is a reason why this musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is a gripping portrait of a family in crisis that can’t help but resonate with the audience.

“Next to Normal” has been extended through May 7. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

Monday, March 27, 2017

His Way (Sort of)

"My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra" -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru April 9

Lauren Gire. Photo by Anne Hudson


We’re talking a generational thing here, perhaps two generations. There are those who grew up with Old Blue Eyes as a classic crooner (derisively referred to as the “Skinny Ginney” by servicemen serving overseas during World War II while he made young women swoon at home), and those who perhaps know him more as a member of the Rat Pack or as an actor in such films as Von Ryan’s Express and The Manchurian Candidate. Then there are those who haven’t even considered the possibility of collecting Social Security (aren’t even sure what it is) who might just say, “Frank who?” Thus, you go to the Ivoryton Playhouse to see “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” trailing your own history. Your response may well be dictated by the memories evoked and the DOB on your driver’s license.

Given that this is a “tribute,” the patter that serves as thin thread used to sew together the song segments is light on introspection and analysis of Sinatra the man and his career. There’s mention of his womanizing (in a nudge-nudge manner) and his drinking (Hey, boys will be boys), but no mention of his connection to the Mob or his somewhat physical relationship with the press (or at least the paparazzi). There is, at the start of the second act (“Loser’s Medley), an allusion to the dark side of the Sinatra soul, but “My Way” is not meant to be a Pinter drama, so you have to take it for what it is, and what it is, basically, is an often adept staging of many of the songs Sinatra made famous.

The songs are presented by four very talented actors -- Rick Faugno, Lauren Gire, Josh Powell and Vanessa Sonon.  – who are charged with delivering over 60 songs in the two-hour run. There’s an attempt by director Joyce Chittick (wife of Faugano, who shares directing and choreographing credits) to imply some type of relationship between the actors as characters, but it goes no further than knowing nods and standard stage business interaction as songs are delivered. That’s to be expected in what is essentially a musical revue.

However, there are moments that break out of the mold, and oddly enough they have little to do with the Sinatra legend. The dance routines, performed mainly by Faugno and Sonon (who has a marvelous vocal range), are invigorating, and the interpretive dance done by Sonon as Powell sings “It Was a Very Good Year” is inspired. Which brings us to how Sonon is costumed as a Marilyn Monroe Kewpie Doll look-a-like through most of the show – all I can say is kill the wig and cut down on some of the make-up. Make-up and wig aside, Sonon sure can dance.

Given the number of songs in the show, the preponderance of which is presented in the first act, reaction may be dictated by which generation you fall into. For those who have been alive for the length of Sinatra’s career, it may be a pleasant stroll down Memory Lane, but for those who don’t have a visceral connection with the 40s, 50s or 60s, the 30-plus songs in the first act may seem a bit overwhelming. At one point early on in the show it is suggested that just about everyone can relate to one of the songs – but that’s what “My Way” is banking on, that there’s an inherent relation to “Summer Wind” or “One For My Baby” or “Somethin’ Stupid” or “That’s Life” or “All the Way.” In essence, what you come away with is dictated by what you went into the theater with. Know the songs, have the memories – well, then, “My Way” will please beyond expectations. If you weren’t there, or didn’t grapple and grope in the glow of the dashboard lights as Sinatra crooned, well, it’s a nice if undemanding evening that will not resonate beyond the pleasure of watching four talented actors sing lyrical songs (and occasionally dance up a storm).

My Way runs through April 9. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Not So Smart People

Smart People -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru April 9

Peter O'Connor, Sullivan Jones, Ka-Ling Cheung, Tiffany Nichole Greene
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Theories and research are not the stuff of great plays. That’s not to say that a playwright shouldn’t deal with theories and shouldn’t do research, but the material needs to be distilled and infused into characters rather than draped over their shoulders like a multi-colored serape, there for the world to see…and supposedly admire. Unfortunately, there are a lot of serapes in evidence currently at Long Wharf Theatre, which is presenting Lydia Diamond’s Smart People. When the four outstanding actors don said serapes didacticism seems to be a fifth character in the play; when they are allowed to shrug off the cloaks, especially in the second act, the stage lights up, sparks fly, and the audience gets to engage with people rather than ideas that walk and talk.

The premise of the play is, as noted, based on research, said research done by Susan T. Fiske on what has been termed “implicit bias.” What, pray tell, is implicit bias? Well, put simply, it suggests that our prejudices are in our DNA – it’s not so much cultural or generational as it is genetic. Hence, white people, no matter how liberal they believe themselves to be, how non-racist their actions may appear, are inherently prejudiced against those who are “different” (They can’t help but view black dolls as “ugly,” for example.) Put another way, scrape a liberal down to his or her core and you will find a racist.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but it lies heavily on much of the evening. Diamond brings us four characters, under the direction of Desdemona Chiang, to illuminate and test the hypothesis: Ginny Yang (Ka-Ling Cheung), an Asian-American psychologist and something of a shopaholic and control freak; Valerie (Tiffany Nichole Greene), a young black actress who cleans houses to make the rent; Jackson Moore (Sullivan Jones), a surgical intern who also happens to be black and has some authority issues; and Brian White (Peter O’Connor), a Harvard professor, an angry middle-aged man who has done the research that can prove that whites are inherently prejudiced – they just can’t help themselves. His premise is bound to stir up the cultured folks, especially those deans and professors at Harvard who pride themselves on their liberal pedigrees.

It’s often difficult to distinguish when these characters represent stereotypes and when they actually become living, breathing “people,” for much of their dialogue, especially in the first act, carries the weight of the research Diamond relies on. Thus, one might often ask, are we listening to the character or the playwright as she checked off items on her note pad?

There are also some off-putting moments that might make the audience wonder what the playwright is trying to say. Two of these deal with sexual encounters – a Valerie and Jackson quick roll on the couch and a Ginny and Brian exercise in what…sexual exploitation?…ethnically driven sexual fantasies? It’s not that the depiction of the sex acts is off-putting -- both are actually quite demure -- it’s that they do not seem to have any relevance to the play’s themes or to the characters – especially the female characters. In other words, unless I’ve missed some inner meaning, the sex scenes seem gratuitous.

As is often the case with plays that deal with social issues via the interaction of couples, the second act features a meal during which all four characters are brought together to bring everything to a head. It’s at this meal that the serapes are dropped and the characters truly come to life. However, this is followed by a conclusion that is both enigmatic and an easy out, an imperator ex machina if you will. The play ends with – and this is not a spoiler – the inauguration of President Obama. Revealing this is not a spoiler because the final scene has little to do with the ideas being dealt with, unless it’s a statement that all of that white DNA has somehow passed through an alembic that purified it, alchemically converting the dross of implicit bias into the gold of…what?

Punctuated by many humorous lines and some very interesting vignettes (chief among them Valerie auditioning for a role that requires her to do a verbal Stepin Fetchit), Smart People ends up being part doctoral thesis and part play.

Smart People runs through April 9. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Tea and Sympathy for Two

Chapatti -- Square One Theatre Company -- Thru March 19

Al Kulcsar and Lucy Babbitt

Tom Holehan, artistic director at Square One Theatre Company in Stratford, has over the theater’s 27 seasons had the knack for often selecting what might be called “actor plays,” by which I mean that many of the theater’s productions allow the actors to simply show their stuff, to create engaging, believable characters without the assistance of all the bells and whistles that Broadway playgoers seem to demand these days. Such is the case with Chapatti, a tender two-hander by Christian O’Reilly and directed by Holehan that runs through March 19. With little more than some tables, chairs and a coat rack, Holehan’s cast brings to life a play that ever so slowly embraces you until, in the final moment before the blackout, a moment sans dialogue, all you can do is smile.

Set in modern Dublin, Chapatti tells the story of two essentially lost souls who might just find solace in each other’s arms. Yes, it sounds like “chick-flick” fodder, but playwright O’Reilly seems attuned to the spirit of the short story, a genre that focuses on character development and revelation more than plot development and conflict, although there is certainly a plot and conflict in the play, but it is secondary to learning about the two people up on the stage.

Dan (Al Kulcsar) is a dog person, for he is the owner of Chapatti, a canine of indeterminate breed who is his soul mate. Betty (Lucy Babbitt) is a cat person, tending to a host of kittens and a dementia-challenged elderly lady. Their worlds, framed by past relationships, do not so much collide as stumble into each other when a cat is run over by a car. Dan sets out to seek its owner and knocks on Betty’s door.

As Dan and Betty begin to interact there are revelations, the nature of which needn’t be discussed lest I be labeled a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Dan, after loving for so long but never having the comfort of his true love as his own, is ready to say goodbye to the cold, cruel world he now inhabits. Betty, no longer a maiden but still thirsting for love, sublimates her passions through her devotion to her cats.

The plot points in the play are important, but that’s not what’s enjoyable about or central to Chapatti. For anyone who likes to see two actors “do their stuff,” this is your ticket. Kulcsar gives us a man defeated by desires deferred, whose only wish now, after making sure Chapatti, the dog, has a new, good owner, is to, through suicide, perhaps gain total attachment to the woman he has loved for over 30 years. He gives us a man who wants to live but believes that he can only find meaning in death. He has some heavy “message” lines to deliver near the end of this one-act play, and he handles them as best as they can be handled, but for the bulk of the evening he offers us a tormented, tender soul that we can easily embrace.

As for Babbitt as Betty, all you can really say is “Wow!” She is dead-on perfect as an insecure yet perceptive woman who accepts what her life has become but senses that there just might be an alternative. Her Betty is edgy, flighty, given to outbursts of riotous, nervous laughter and a windmill of fluttering arms and hands as she tries to contain her growing excitement that she may have found…someone. Near the end of the play, Betty has invited Dan over for dinner and there is an extended scene that involves preparation and a red dress, a scene that Babbitt pulls off with exquisite aplomb, heightened by the actual dinner when she must seem to accept Dan’s decision to kill himself while fighting for his life. It’s a petite tour de force.

When watching a play you can never be totally sure who is responsible for what in terms of interpretation and stage business. To do that you would have had to be privy to the possible table talks and rehearsals. Thus, it’s difficult to determine where the touch of director Holihan’s hand influenced what the audience sees, but what is obvious is that, whoever suggested what to whom, Holehan has created an atmosphere that allows his actors to shine, and shine they do.

Chapatti runs through March 19. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to www.squareonetheatre.com    

We need your help

The Connecticut Critics Circle is currently raising funds for its 2017 Awards Ceremony, an event that honors the best in CT theater. Last year over 400 people attended the ceremony at Hartford Stage. Think of it as the CT version of the Tonys. If you would like to help, just click on this link:

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Friday, February 24, 2017

So Many Issues, So Little Time

Napoli, Brooklyn -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru March 12

Christian Pumariega, Jordyn Dinatale, and
Carolyn Braver. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

An all-suffering mother. An abusive, racist father. A sharp-tongued daughter who’s been told to get thee to a nunnery, another daughter, this one earnest but a bit slow, and the youngest, a feisty, Scout-like imp testing lesbian waters. Sounds like a casting call for a soap opera, but it’s the line-up playwright Meghan Kennedy gives us in her Napoli, Brooklyn, which is receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

Set in Brooklyn circa 1960, this kitchen drama is the woeful saga of the Muscolino family, with Dad and Mom first generation Italian immigrants and their three daughters assimilated Americans. As might be imagined, the Muscolino home is not a happy one, nor does it provide for riveting drama, for the characters are stereotypical, their plights ripped from the pages of a Days of Our Lives script, and the vehicle for change is a deus ex machina in the form of an airliner that crashes into a church (although you have to give credit to Eugene Lee, set designer, and Ben Stanton, lighting designer, for the pyrotechnical crash – it certainly woke up the country folk).

The primary problems with Napoli, directed by Gordon Edelstein, rest with the script, which just lays on the problems a bit too thick and does little to get us to really care about these characters. Thus, the cast is faced with bringing to life a reality that just doesn’t connect. As the all-suffering mother Luda, Alyssa Bresnahan gives us a woman who, dominated by her husband, expresses her love through cooking (and prays to an onion since God doesn’t seem to be answering her prayers). Her performance is admirable, even though she’s asked, in the play’s coda, to make decisions and say lines you just can’t conceive of a first-generation Italian mother doing – at this point there should have been a sign above the stage flashing MESSAGE! MESSAGE!

As the abusive, ever-so-macho Nic, the pater familias, Jason Kolotouros manages to be both macho and menacing, although he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the Italian accent he has to use to deliver his lines. Somewhat of a cardboard character in the first act, he comes to life for the extended dining scene in the second act, a scene in which the three daughters also seem to come into focus and have their say: Vita (Carolyn Braver) gets to confront her father, Tina (Christina Pumariega) finally finds her voice and her courage (a moment that elicited applause from the opening-night audience) and Francesca (Jordyn Dinatale) ignites the fire that forces Nic to finally back away, or back out.

Kennedy has also written in two minor characters who are more statements than they are flesh and blood people. There’s Albert Duffy (Graham Winton), an Irish butcher who loves Luda from afar, and Celia Jones (Shirine Webb), a black woman who works with Tina at a factory. What are the statements these two characters stand for? Well, there was tension between the Irish and Italian immigrants, a love-hate relationship, and tension between the Italian immigrants and African Americans. Yup. That’s all true, but the characters seem to be after-thoughts, additions meant to make the play more “meaningful.”

Finally, there’s Albert’s daughter, Connie (Ryann Shane), love interest for young Francesca. Hers is perhaps the most difficult role to bring to life, for this love interest, or puppy-love interest, has two adolescents playing in a lesbian sandbox, not sure of their actions or desires. This relationship, such as it is, is one of the weakest elements of the play, mainly because it becomes the focal point of the play’s conclusion in which Luda issues a Declaration of Freedom for women to be who they are, whatever that might entail. Remember, this is 1960. Luda prays to her Catholic God (or her catholic Onion), yet she ultimately embraces Connie’s relationship with Francesca (it’s never made clear exactly how Luda discerns this relationship) and basically tells Connie as she hands her money: “Go for it, girl!” One might ask, “Really?”

Watching Napoli, Brooklyn you can’t help but hear Kennedy saying to herself: “I want to deal with this and I want to deal with that and then I want to deal with…” It’s the intention to deal with so many issues that keeps this play from soaring. It not only wears its issues on its sleeve, it wears them as shackles on its wings.

Napoli, Brooklyn runs through March 12. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.



Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Stories They've Never Told

The cast of War Stories. All photos by the author


Arms and the man I sing…

Thus begins Virgil’s The Aeneid, one of civilization’s first “war stories.” It seems that ever since man has taken up arms he has felt compelled to chronicle his experiences in the storm of battle and, in quieter moments, reflect on what he saw, heard, felt and contemplate his service, how it echoes in his soul.

Many memoirs have been written about a soldier’s life, but on Friday, March 31, and Saturday, April 1, the voices of those who have served their country will “sing” their own particular stories at the Wien Experimental Theatre located in Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Performing Arts.

Billed as “War Stories: A Veterans Project,” a creation of Peter Van Heerden, Nina Bentley, and Sonya Huber, it has been underwritten by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the CT Office of the Arts and Fairfield’s Quick Center. The evening will feature 13 men and three women in a performance work that will allow them to give voice to what they experienced during their time of service and, perhaps more important, what they have had to deal with since they left the service.

Most of the participants are homeless veterans from ARBI/Homes for the Brave in Bridgeport, an organization that, since 2002, has provided safe housing, vocational training, job placement, and life skills coaching to help more than 1,000 individuals -- primarily veterans -- leave homelessness behind. 
 
Sign posted on a rehearsal table
 

As Van Heerden explained at a recent rehearsal at the black box theater, the production is an effort in “courageous story telling,” for many of the actors are “at war every single day of their lives.” They are men and women who served their country and who, after their service, “are not supported by the system.”

Before beginning rehearsal the actors, none of whom have ever acted before, gathered together to speak about why they had chosen to become involved and what the project means to them. Kenny, who did not serve but has become part of the project, said that he did so “to learn something new,” to prove to himself that it’s “something I can do.” Nate, a former Marine, said he enlisted in the service because his brother was killed in Viet Nam. “I enlisted because I wanted vengeance,” he said. Participation in War Stories is “something to keep me active.”
 
 

These are primarily homeless men and women whose days can seem to stretch on to eternity and whose lives have perhaps lost meaning. Ricky, who served in the Army, signed on with War Stories because it was “something new, challenging.” As the former GI fell silent, Van Heerden emphasized that one of his goals, a goal he is imbuing in his actors, is that he wants them – and their stories – “to connect with the audience.” He would come back to that theme later on in the rehearsal.

Ronald, who also served in the Army, was also intrigued by the possibility of experiencing something new. “It’s all about expressing myself,” he said, “talking about what I’ve experienced in my life.”

For Ronald and the other members of the cast, it would also seem to be about the opportunity simply to be heard, to have someone listen, attentively, and perhaps understand. Too often they are seen as mere statistics, faceless shadows, forced to be mute in a society that has neither the time nor the interest in hearing their stories.

Romano (“You know, like the cheese.”), who served in the National Guard, said that being involved in War Stories was interesting because he “liked to be creative.” Aubrey, who served in the Army, put a different spin on why they were all there. “Many veterans,” he said, “never step out of the box,” meaning that they can’t break out of the constrictions that they find themselves defined by, either by society or themselves. Acting is Aubrey’s effort to step out of that “box.”

James, a Coast Guard veteran, said that Van Heerden and Bentley came to Homes for the Brave to speak about the project and he thought, well, “I can talk about the issues.” Then he added, “Maybe this will be my big break,” a comment that elicited laughter and a bit of joshing from his fellow actors.

Although the atmosphere in the theater was convivial, there was also an underlying tension, not so much about the upcoming show but, it would seem, the very fact that the production was urging these veterans to open up, to verbalize, to confront what many of them may have kept bottled up. Christina, sitting in the back row, the only woman of the three in the show who made it to this rehearsal, referenced an earlier remark made by Van Heerden. “It’s like what Peter said, about how we fight a war every day.” She tussled her hair and smiled. “I wanted to get involved with this group, to get myself out into the world.” She said she had gone through a rough patch over the past three months, didn’t elaborate, but there was a sense that the cast knew what she was referring to, if not the specifics then the general sense of dealing with chimeras.
 
Peter Van Heerden at rehearsal
 

Her words stirred Felix, an ex-marine, to speak up. He said his story, the one he would tell in the show, was “very deep.” He paused, considering his words, then said, “They turn you on, they flip a switch, and then when you get out,” meaning out of the service, “they don’t turn you off.” Asked to explain, he said, “The trigger is always there.” He shrugged. “A lot of vets get into trouble.” Joseph, also an ex-marine, spoke up: “I had war stories in me before I even enlisted – inside of me. This,” gesturing at his surroundings, the black box theater, “is therapeutic.”

And what, exactly, is the therapy? Well, part of it is learning how to be an actor. James commented: “I didn’t realize it would be as hard as it is. It’s not just about reciting lines. It’s all the little details that make the show.” No, perhaps it’s not just about the lines, but maybe it is. Nate looked around at the group and said “If it wasn’t for this we wouldn’t be communicating the way we are with each other. I call it fellowship.” With that, Romano chimed in: “It’s like getting stuck in a fog, but every time you talk it gets a little better.”

With that, Van Heerden sat forward and spoke directly to his cast. “Everyone is on stage,” he said. “Everybody will have their moment.” He turned to expand on what the cast has been preparing. There will be ‘The Telephone Call,’ which explained all of the phones sitting on the chairs and tables. “It’s the first call you make when you get on base – who you call – and maybe it’s the last call you will ever make.
 
 
 
Then there’s the ‘Flag Sequence.’ Everyone made their own flag.” Apparently there’s been discussion about a proposed sequence in which the American flag will be allowed to fall to the floor. The cast was silent as Van Heerden became more animated. Perhaps the audience will react negatively to allowing the flag to hit the floor. “We want to make the audience complicit,” Van Heerden said. If they react to the flag falling, a symbol, then “how could you let that man fall on the ground?”

“We want the audience to ask that question themselves,” Christina said.
 
 

These actors – this cast – are all venturing into an unknown world, not just the world of the theater but a world that will allow them to say what they have to say, to confront an audience that represents a society that has often chosen to disregard or deny the pain and suffering they have gone through, the dismissal of their humanity. The trust they have placed in Van Heerden is palpable. As Gerald pointed out, “It’s like two prize fighters – you go into the ring and all you see is the other fighter, but when the round is over and you go to your corner there’s the trainer, the coach, telling you what to do. He can see more than what you can see. You gotta trust your coach, do what he tells you to do.”

Why do they trust Van Heerden? Because he doesn’t hide his concern and his anger. “Everyone here is telling the ultimate truth,” he said. “These are stories you may not want to hear but these are stories you have to hear.”

After speaking about what they were doing and what it meant to them, the group got down to the business of rehearsing. Specifically, Van Heerden started to run though the opening moments of the show when the cast members will be sitting in chairs ringing three sides of the theater. As the audience walks in the actors will be talking amongst themselves, quietly. Van Heerden urged them to go for restraint, to create a tension without any overt movements or gestures so that the audience will get a sense that there are stories being withheld, stories they can’t quite hear yet. Yes, it’s theatrical, but it looks like it will work. This will be followed by each one of the cast members being called to the microphone.

At this moment in the rehearsal the transformation in the cast was electrifying, and spoke volumes. As the cast members’ names were called, each stood, executed a sharp left or right turn, strode confidently to the microphone and in a military voice, a voice not heard before that day, announced their names and their military affiliations, if there were any. It was a roll call and they were responding as they had been trained to do. These homeless veterans knew about discipline, knew about duty, knew about camaraderie and dedication to the service. They were once again standing proud and tall and answering the call of duty.

During a break in the rehearsal, Berice, an Army veteran who had arrived late, was asked why he had chosen to become involved in the show. He smiled. “Well I volunteered,” he said. “A while ago, I became an electrician because I was scared of electricity.” He looked out at the stage and his fellow actors. “I want to do this,” he said.
 
 

For tickets or more information go to http://center.com or call the box office at 203.254.4010.     

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Comedy Tonight

The Comedy of Errors -- Hartford Stage -- Thru Feb. 12

Louis Tucci, Paula Leggett Chase and
Alexander Sovronsky

What does “Never on Sunday” (the song and the film) have to do with Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors? Well, not much, one would think. Why would the citizens of Ephesus break out into an extended Bollywood dance sequence? Well, for no particular reason. Is it true that it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings? Apparently. The Hartford Stage’s production of one of Shakespeare’s early comedies is an exercise in indulgence, specifically director Darko Tresnjak’s delight in such films as Never on Sunday, Zorba the Greek, various Bollywood musicals and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I might add Beach Blanket Bingo, though it’s not mentioned in an interview with Tresnjak printed in the show’s program. The question is, should a playgoer indulge Tresnjak? The answer is “Yes,” for The Comedy of Errors is 90 or so minutes of controlled insanity and mayhem that cries out: “Damn the logic, let’s go with it!” This over-the-top production vibrates with the excitement of never knowing exactly what Tresnjak and cast will do next.

If there’s one drawback to the production it’s that many of the lines are delivered in such a rapid-fire, frenetic manner that you might find yourself saying “Say what?” However, that doesn’t mean you won’t know what’s going on, for the acting is emotive in the extreme (something farce requires) and the body language of all concerned is sufficient to convey meaning when the dialogue sometimes becomes merely a stream of sounds, often in iambic pentameter.

As with previous Stage productions, director Tresnjak is also the scenic designer, and he has given the audience a pastel paradise that seems more Middle-Eastern (Istanbul?) than specifically Greek. In fact, it’s a Disney World environment that embraces the look and feel of the films mentioned in the program and allows for the various anachronisms that proliferate.
 
Jolly Abraham and Tyler Lansing Weaks
 

If you refer to Shakespeare’s text, here’s how the play opens:

SCENE I. A hall in DUKE SOLINUS'S palace.
(Enter DUKE SOLINUS, AEGEON, Gaoler, Officers, and other Attendants).
AEGEON: Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall / And by the doom of death end woes and all.

Well, that’s not good enough for Tresnjak. Instead, we get a Courtesan (Paula Leggett Chase) enticing the audience with a sultry version of “Never on Sunday,” accompanied by two Musicians (Louis Tucci and Alexander Sovronsky). Then there’s some background exposition that sets out the basic premise: Two twin brothers, along with their twin servants, were separated as children by a storm; one set, Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler) end up in, of course, Syracuse, and the other set, also named Antipholus (Ryan-James Hatanaka) and Dromio (Matthew Macca) land in Ephesus. The former set, now adults, arrives in Ephesus where Aegeon (the two Antipholuses’s – or is it Antipholi’s – father has been arrested because a Syracuse merchant ain’t supposed to be in Ephesus).
 
The cast
 
The boys from Syracuse are footloose and fancy free, but Antipholus of Ephesus is married to Adriana (a marvelously bitchy and inebriated Jolly Abraham) and his Dromio is attached to the rather rotund serving maid Nell (the athletic Tara Heal). To add to the mix, Adriana has a sister, the prim and proper Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) who will eventually let down her hair (literally and figuratively), as well as various policemen, prostitutes, fun-loving tourists, waiters and Ephesians.

Well, you know what happens. The Syracuse duo is mistaken for their Ephesian twins. Oh, the confusion – consider the possibilities (Shakespeare did). Who is married to whom? Who owes whom what? To who or to whom, that is the question. Does it all matter? Not really. In Tresnjak’s hands the basic play is like pizza dough – it all depends on what you put on top -- and Tresnjak has decided to use unexpected ingredients. You may not have tasted them before in concert, but after the initial “Does that go with that?” you realize that it all works and is altogether pleasing to the play-going palate.
 
Matthew Macca and Ryan-James Hatanaka
 
Take your pick as to what pleases your palate the most, but for my money the extended Bollywood dance scene (choreography by Peggy Hickey) near the end of the show is something I’d order up on a regular basis (and it would bring me back to the theater for a second serving). First, it is totally unexpected. Second, it’s extravagantly exuberant. And third, it’s just sheer fun, and the cast (it’s an ensemble dance number) just seems to have been waiting for this moment to let it all hang out. For those not familiar with this type of production dance number, you might want to check out Bride and Prejudice on You Tube.

On opening night the theater was packed, and it probably will be for the show’s run. We all go to the theater for different reasons, and one of them is just to have a hell of a good time, to not brood, despair or ponder but simply to revel in excess, to set aside our political-correctness for a moment and unabashedly laugh at the fat lady’s pratfalls. We may feel a bit guilty in the morning, but what the hell.

The Comedy of Errors runs through February 12. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Playing the Game to the Bitter End

Endgame -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Feb. 5

Brian Dennehy and Reg E. Cathey. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The detritus of life – chairs piled atop chairs, torn and dusty books, various small appliances – are what set designer Eugene Lee has chosen to frame the otherwise empty room where life is coming to an end or, horrors of horrors, never-ending. Such is the setting for Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre. If you are in any way bedeviled by depression, this is perhaps not the play to see, for although there’s humor, it is mere punctuation to the despair that comes when life, at its end, gradually becomes meaningless and the stories you tell trail off into silence.

Originally written in French and translated into English by the playwright, Endgame, at least in its English title (the original title was Fin de partie), refers to the final moves in the game of chess when the outcome is all but apparent, as is the eventual outcome for all those alive is also apparent. As directed by Gordon Edelstein, this bleak look at the end of existence is both riveting and enigmatic. As a playgoer, if you demand meaning and message writ large you will be sorely disappointed.

This four-character, one-act play defies easy interpretation. There is a symbiotic relationship at its core, for Hamm (Brian Dennehy) is blind and confined to his wheelchair, while his servant (Slave? Ward?), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) cannot sit down. Hamm demands and Clov complies, but the relationship keeps both men alive. Then there are Hamm’s parents, Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Lynn Cohen), both of whom live, if you can call it that, in what look like large laundry baskets, or perhaps dustbins. Then there’s a stuffed, three-legged dog, a flea and a rat. The stuffed dog, created by Clov, has yet to have its genitals added, but the flea and the rat are fully capable of rampant procreation, much to the distaste of both Hamm and Clov, for procreation means continuation, perhaps of hell on earth.
 
Lynn Cohen and Joe Grifasi
 

Many critics have taken a shot at interpreting what Beckett wrote. Some have suggested that the two small windows set high in the room are eyes and hence the set is really a cranium and what we are experiencing are the random, frightened, disconnected thoughts of a human slowly descending into oblivion, complete with rambling diatribes that are often little more than fractured bits of biography. Perhaps. And yet there is also an underlying aching need for human contact that runs through the play – Nagg wishes Nann to scratch an itch, down low, and they attempt, unsuccessfully, to kiss; near the end of the play, Clov, who swore that he could not touch Hamm, leans his head down on Hamm’s shoulder in a tentative embrace.

Whatever you think might be going on up on the stage, and whatever you suppose it might mean, is secondary to the delight to be found in watching and hearing these four fine actors ply their trade. Grifasi and Cohen, as the aged parents, are pitch-perfect, and even though you only see the top halves of their bodies their body language is wonderfully evocative. Cathey does wonders with a step-ladder and captures the frustrated need of a man who is both enslaved and in need, and Dennehy, without moving from his perch, creates a man who is in conflict with himself, eager for death yet clinging to life, his shield, his means of denial of the inevitable, an overt verbosity…and a whistle that, when blown, signifies his need for attention, for contact.

The program notes, written by dramaturg Christine Scarfuto, point out that during World War II Beckett did volunteer work in a hospital in Saint-Lo, a town that was essentially leveled during the Allied invasion of Normandy. She writes that there were “only a few shells of bombed out buildings left standing.” Perhaps that is what Clov is seeing when, at Hamm’s command, he looks out the two small windows in the room – nothing is moving, the sea is dead, a gray pall hangs over everything, the sun has been obliterated. Faced with such devastation, faced with the inevitability of demise, this dark, devilish play suggests that “And yet we go on” – to our credit or to our despair.

Endgame runs through Feb. 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

Monday, January 16, 2017

[headline of review]

[title of show] -- Playhouse on Park -- thru Jan.29

Peej Mele, Miles Jacoby, Amanda Forker, Ashley Brooke,
Austin Cook. Photo by Photo by Meredith Atkinson

I am sitting at my desk at 6:54 a.m. writing a review of [title of show], which I saw on Sunday at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. I am drinking a cup of coffee and weighing whether I should call the musical a meta-musical, because it’s a musical about itself, about the writing of a musical. An image comes to mind – [title of show] is akin to an embryo writing about its own gestation, so maybe it’s an embryonic musical. That image is supplanted by the word “solipsistic,” because [title of show] is absorbed with itself. Right now I’m not sure what tag I will use.

It’s now 7:03 a.m. The elements of a review require that I now give a hint about what I think about the production being reviewed. That’s because most people don’t read beyond the first or second paragraph of a review. I want to do this, but what I really want to write about at this point is a lady with a walker who sat in the first row house left (there were many people with walkers at this matinee performance – as they gathered to enter the house it reminded me of that scene from The Producers when all the potential backers of Springtime for Hitler [all ladies of a certain age] do a chorus line number). In any event, about 30 minutes into the show this lady stood up and, hands on her walker, toddled to her left, then she turned and walked to her right, then turned and again walked to her left, then right, then left. Given that the Playhouse is configured as a thrust stage, the five actors, Miles Jacoby as Jeff, Peej Mele as Hunter, Ashley Brooke as Susan, Amanda Forker as Heidi and Austin Cook as the pianist, Larry, must have seen her and wondered, “What the hell is she doing?”

Well, 14 minutes have elapsed and I still haven’t given that hint. My bad. Okay, the production is enjoyable but the performances are a bit uneven and the last 10 or 15 minutes of this one-act show seem to go on forever. There, that’s done. Now, what’s next. Oh, yes, a little bit of exposition, background, etc.

Well – wait, I have to get a coffee refill ------------------- Hi, back again. Okay, so back in 2004 Hunter Bell learns that the New York Musical Theater Festival is seeking submissions. The only problem is, the deadline is three weeks away. Undaunted, Bell, with his friend Jeff Bowen, a composer and lyricist, proceed to create a musical about, well, doing what they’re doing: creating a musical. They enlist the help of two actresses, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, and the effort becomes a chronicle of their efforts. The musical gets six performances at the festival (lots of revisions), is work-shopped at the Eugene O’Neil Theater Center (lots of revisions), finally makes it to Off-Broadway (Obie awards! Lots of revisions) and then – Broadway! Okay, enough of that.

What’s next? Well, I haven’t yet told you who directed this production. That would be David Edwards, a theater pro who is very familiar to Ivoryton Playhouse patrons, having starred in the Playhouse’s production of La Cage aux Folles and directed the outstanding staging of South Pacific. The challenge for Edwards is that [title of show] seems to cry out for presentation in a proscenium format, i.e., the audience members all staring in one direction at what is going on up on the stage. In blocking this production, Edwards had to take into account that the patrons are viewing the goings-on from three different directions. He succeeds up to a point, but there are moments – chief among them when Heidi does a quasi-nudity reveal and must turn so that the entire audience gets to see her juggling her brassiered breasts – that draw attention to themselves. Thus, the energy of the musical, which should be thrust forward out at the audience, is, by necessity, somewhat diffused.

Okay, another cup of coffee and a quick check of emails – just received my electricity bill and two people want to be Friends on Facebook (don’t know either one of them). Oh, look, a new version of Adobe Acrobat is available. Sorry. Back to the review. What’s up next? Oh, yes, the acting. Well, let’s just say it’s early days for this ensemble – the show runs through January 29 – and the disparate performances may very well find a common ground. Right now, these “friends” simply don’t seem to mesh in terms of energy levels. Mele, as the overtly gay book writer, seems to own the stage, challenged only by Brooke’s barefoot portrayal of Susan, who uses excellent body language to punctuate her lines and does a knock-out rendition of “Die, Vampire. Die!” Jacoby and Forker, at least at this point in production run, have yet to “find” their characters. They deliver their lines well but there’s yet no sense of who these characters are – in essence they’ve yet to find the “juice” that will allow Jeff and Heidi to come alive, though Forker does shine when she and Brooke have their moment alone onstage in “Secondary Characters.”

Now, what’s required is a wrap-up, and given the nature of a review I must return to how I opened and determine what as yet hasn’t been explained. Oops – a phone call – at 8:14 no less! – from a company that wants me to consider my electricity-supplier options. Okay, so what about the last 10 or 15 minutes of the show? Well, I search for an image or metaphor. None comes to mind (bad writer – bad writer). What am I trying to convey? At the end of the (heavily revised) show there’s just a lot a yackety-yack when there should be a “rush” towards a conclusion. It’s not the time for exposition – a litany of then this happened and then this happened. You know there’s something wrong when the audience has to be told that this is the final line of the show – that should be inherent in the line itself and the emotions that have led up to it.

[title of show], a meta-embryonic-solipsistic musical, runs through January 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org