Friday, December 8, 2017

A Soul's Dark Journey

Native Son -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Through December 16

Jerod Haynes and Jason Bowen. Photo by Joan Marcus

That’s the best way to describe Bigger Thomas’s life in 1939 Chicago. He is a black man trapped in a racist society, haunted by a voice that suggests that his life, perhaps, is forfeit. “Grim” also captures the tone and feeling of “Native Son,” an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel by Nambi E. Kelley that’s currently running at Yale Repertory Theatre that details Bigger’s descent into a hell partially of his own making. The tone of the production is reinforced by the skeletal evocation of an urban tenement by scenic designer Ryan Emens and the minimalistic, often stark lighting design compliments of Stephen Strawbridge.

As directed by Seret Scott, the play is an almost unrelenting analysis of the effects of racism on the psyche and soul of a human being, how prejudice defines and confines him and how it drives him to do deeds he would not otherwise contemplate.

Jerod Haynes, as Bigger, is a commanding presence on the stage. He exudes a pent violence and frustration that is compelling, a frustration exacerbated by The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), a haunting voice Bigger hears that comments on his life and questions Bigger’s attempt to find his place in a world as a man and as a human being.

In this surreal memory play, Bigger’s downfall begins with his accepting a job as a chauffeur for the Daltons, an upper-class white family. Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman), who is blind, is gently patronizing, while the Dalton daughter, Mary (Louisa Jacobson), a “very modern” young woman, feigns an equality with Bigger that makes the black man uneasy. This unease is enhanced by Mary’s boyfriend, Jan (Joby Earle), a pseudo-Communist who proclaims his feelings of brotherhood with the confused Bigger.

After a night on the town, with Bigger chauffeuring Mary and Jan, Bigger has to deal with an exceedingly inebriated Mary, and it’s here that the play becomes a bit problematic. Bigger carries Mary up to her room only to have Mrs. Dalton appear. Bigger, worried that a black man will be found in a white woman’s bedroom, puts a pillow over Mary’s face. Remember, Mrs. Dalton is blind – she only smells alcohol and chastises her daughter, who is being unintentionally suffocated by Bigger. Mrs. Dalton leaves…and Mary is dead.

Yes, Bigger didn’t intend to kill Mary. Yes, racism, to a certain extent, is involved in Bigger’s actions. Yet there’s the matter of justification. This matter of justification – and guilt – is enhanced when Bigger kills again, this time silencing his girlfriend, Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), lest she turn Bigger into the police. It’s difficult at this point to sympathize with Bigger’s plight – the first murder was an accident, the second is a self-serving attempt to avoid arrest.

What’s missing in Kelley’s adaptation is a major character in Wright’s novel: Boris Max, a left-leaning lawyer who defends Bigger (there is no trial in the play). It is Max’s defense of Bigger that presents the social and psychological underpinnings of Bigger’s actions. Without Max, the play’s audience is left to come to its own conclusions, and these conclusions may not be what Wright intended. Thus, the moral and social issues Wright attempted to deal with become a bit blurred, and it’s easy to simply condemn Bigger as a murderer rather than a victim of a twisted society. In this production, it’s pretty clear who the victims are.
“Native Son” is an engrossing, stylized theatrical experience that, perhaps, may leave audience members with more questions than answers. Is prejudice and racism sufficient justification for Bigger’s actions? It would be an interesting exercise to poll the audience as a jury after the curtain: is Bigger guilty or innocent?

“Native Son” runs through December 16. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to

Monday, December 4, 2017

Mashed Mistletoe

Christmas on the Rocks -- Theaterworks -- Through December 23

Did Charlie Brown ever grow up? And what about Zuzu Bailey, the little girl in “It’s a Wonderful Life”? And what’s with Clara and her dreams of the handsome nutcracker and did Tiny Tim’s life become a bed of roses once Scrooge intervened and how did Ralphie really feel about the bunny pajamas given to him by his aunt? If you’ve lately been pondering these and other questions, the answers await you up at Hartford’s Theaterworks, where “Christmas on the Rocks” is currently running. If you’re already starting to get a certain queasy feeling about candy canes and roasted chestnuts (does anyone still roast chestnuts?), then the medicine you need to take is the 90-minute laugh fest that pokes a finger in the eye of our most cherished holiday stories.
In its fifth iteration, “Christmas on the Rocks,” conceived and directed by Rob Ruggiero, is a “Bah. Humbug” response to the often over-sentimentalized holiday that demands, nay commands that we be of good cheer. The seven skits, written by different playwrights, all suggest that there’s a darker (and hilarious) side to “Merry Christmas.”

The premise is that it’s Christmas Eve and we are in a local bar overseen by a somewhat phlegmatic bartender (Tom Bloom). Business is not brisk – as a matter of fact there’s no one in the bar until the door opens and in walks…well, one after the other, characters from our childhood reappear, albeit somewhat worse for wear and time. The playwrights, and Ruggiero, take great delight in bursting treasured bubbles of holiday memories…and it’s great fun.

Much of the pleasure in basking in the icon-bashing of “Christmas on the Rocks” is watching the two other actors, the marvelous Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, take on diverse roles. Wilkas is called upon to portray Ralphie, who comes out of the closet re. his bunny pajamas, as well as a somewhat depressed Tiny Tim, a henpecked Charlie Brown and, in his most over-the-top role, an aggressively gay elf who has a love-hate relationship with Rudolph and his red nose.

Tom Bloom and Jenn Harris as Clara

Then there’s Harris who is, quite simply, astounding. Whether she is portraying a bell-haunted Zuzu, a Frosty-hating Karen, a Clara who is having relationship problems with her “nutcracker,” or a red-haired girl who actually had deep feelings for a bald-headed kid, Harris is mesmerizing and totally hilarious (her Russian accent alone is worth the price of admission) and her Karen’s monomaniacal fixation on Frosty is a devilish delight from start to finish.

“Christmas on the Rocks” is a no-holds-barred assault on sentimentality and yet, in the final scene, there’s just a touch of hope for all of us – maybe we will, one day, all get a chance to dance with the red-haired girl, to hold her in our arms.

Kudos to Ruggiero not only for coming up with the idea for this assault on treasured memories but also for direction that is deft and subtle. There are so many fine little moments in the seven scenes that they are too numerous to count. Whether it’s an elf leaping up onto a bar stool or Clara grabbing a vodka bottle out of the bartender’s hand, the blocking and stage business Ruggiero has created make for a rich visual accent to the fine writing of his playwrights. It’s obvious that everyone involved in this production – writers, actors and director – are all on the same page, and it makes for 90 minutes of highly entertaining theater that will, if remembered, help you stand in line at the check-out counter at your local store-in-a-box as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are played over and over and over again.

“Christmas on the Rocks” runs through December 23. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to   

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Bah-Humbug" With a Twist

A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play -- MTC Mainstage -- Through December 17

On the heels of “A Christmas Carol” opening at Hartford Stage comes “A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play” opening at MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) Mainstage in Norwalk. Yes, they’re both based on the same Dickens story, but the experience is totally different. Relying on the same spin he gave to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” playwright Joe Landry has given us a hybrid “Christmas Carol,” the conceit being that we are in a radio studio watching a live production of the play, so it’s sort of a play within a play within a production of Dickens’ tale. It may sound confusing, but it isn’t, and the result is a delightful evening that allows you to enjoy the Dickens’ story while, at the same time, enjoy watching actors do their thing, with scripts in hand, as they create characters who, well, create characters while generating their own sound effects using a wind machine, thunder sheet, chimes and various and sundry other noise makers.
The cast consists of five – Mike Boland, Elissa Demaria, Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe and Jacob Sherburne – but, as you well know, there are a host of characters in Dickens’ story, so the five take on many guises as they rush from microphone to microphone and adjust their accents and delivery to conform to the characters of the moment. Again, it sounds confusing, but director Tim Howard keeps things easy to grasp.
Since it’s a radio show, there must be commercials, and Landry, with tongue in cheek, provides several, including one for a massive fruit cake (five- and ten-pound varieties available) that elicited chuckles from the audience.

There doesn’t need to be much explanation of the plot – just about everyone knows the tale of Scrooge’s miserliness and eventual epiphany, so the fun here is watching the actors shift, sometimes in mid-sentence, from one character to another. The basic set, created by Jordan Janota, is on multiple levels, which allows for Howard to move his actors around so there’s no visual ‘lock-down’ (i.e., actors in the same position throughout the show). In fact, given that the stage microphones (not live) are positioned on the different levels (something that wouldn’t actually occur in an actual broadcast), there’s almost constant movement.

The basic trick here is that the actors actually perform the play. By that, I mean that there are a lot of emotive gestures and character interactions that wouldn’t be necessary in an actual radio broadcast. So, the audience gets two plays for the price of one – the actors playing their roles as the radio personalities (with some rather humorous credits) as well as the characters in the Dickens’ story.

All in all, it’s a lighthearted, jolly evening of theater, and a good seminar on the art of acting. If you have any budding thespians in the house, bring them over to MTC so they can see, up close and personal, what the craft is all about – and how an actor can, in but a moment, go from a sophisticated gentleman to a young boy with a crutch who proclaims, “God bless us all.”

“A Christmas Carol – A Live Radio Play” runs through December 17. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to   

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Bah! Humbug!

A Christmas Carol -- Hartford Stage -- Through December 30

There are many different ways of measuring and evaluating a theatrical production. With regard to the current production of “A Christmas Carol” up at Hartford Stage under the brisk direction of Rachel Alderman, I will use the “Bounce/Gasp/Giggle” method. This method is seldom used because it requires that you have two or three young ladies, basically in their tweens, sitting in the row in front of you. Alas, they are seldom available when attending a production of “Hedda Gabler” or “Mother Courage,” but I was fortunate to have said tweens sitting in front of me at a Friday night performance of Dickens immortal story, so I am glad to report that the show gets a “12-Bounce, 10-Gasp, 6-Giggle” rating. For those not familiar with this system, that translates to: it was an engaging, eye-filling, sumptuous production of a Christmas classic that will warm the hearts (right down to the cockles – whatever they are) of even the most jaded theatergoers.
This is the 20th year that the Stage has offered this particular Christmas present, and there are vestiges of earlier productions merged with some new twists (and turns), the newest being Michael Preston taking on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge (Buzz Roddy will also play the role at select performances). For those not familiar with the Stage’s take on the Dickens’ novella, there’s an emphasis, as the program’s sub-headline indicates, that this is “A Ghost Story of Christmas,” and ghosts there are aplenty, ghosts that dance and whirl and fly through the air, demons that rise from the fiery pits, ghosts that tease and tantalize, the most impressive being that of Scrooge’s deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), who is exceptionally spry given that he has been dead for seven years.
Since most people are familiar with the plot, attending a performance of “A Christmas Carol” offers little dramatic tension – you know what’s going to happen – you probably already know most of the dialogue. So, much of the entertainment is to be found in the show’s production values and how the lead actor handles the role of Scrooge.
Returning to the Bounce/Gasp/Giggle theory of critical evaluation, this show’s production values meet all expectations. The Bouncing quotient began to rise with the first appearance of the ghosts, choreographed by Hope Clarke, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel ably moved the Gasp needle up several notches, especially when hell opens up and Marley’s ghost appears (flying effects courtesy of ZFX, Inc.). The Giggle aspect was noted to first take effect when Mrs. Dilber (also Shropshire), Scrooge’s dyspeptic servant, makes her first appearance. As the evening progressed, the Bounce-Gasp-Giggle meters maintained their upward ascent, spiking with the appearance of the three Christmas spirits: Christmas Past (Rebecka Jones), Christmas Present (Alan Rust), and the bicycle-riding Christmas Future (no attribution provided).
Alan Rust as the Spirit of Christmas Present.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
As for Scrooge, you couldn’t ask for a more curmudgeonly, bah-humbuggedly miser than what Preston provides. At least the Grinch wanted to steal Christmas – Scrooge will have nothing to do with it and, of course, begrudges the fact that he must give his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis), the day off. For 10 years a member of the ensemble known as the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Preston brings an agile, quirky presence to his creation of the fabled disdainer of festivity in any form. Because he emphasizes Scrooge’s cold-heartedness his character’s epiphany is all the more moving.
There’s a reason Hartford Stage has stayed with this production for 20 years, and it can be seen in the demographics of the audience, for it’s an opportunity for grandparents to introduce grandchildren to the theater (and for the grandchildren – especially the little girls -- to dress up), and for families to share a visually exciting experience. Spinning clocks, flying ghosts, flames and smoke and rattling chains – it all makes for a delightful evening of theater that registers high on the Bounce/Gasp/Giggle metric of critical evaluation.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 30. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to       

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A World of Difference

The Chosen -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Through December 17

Can two objects exist in the same space? Nature says no, and yet…? Can two opposing ideas both be true? Logic says no, and yet…? Can there be both this and that? We are uncomfortable with the possibility, and yet this is what “The Chosen,” a play by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, based on Potok’s novel of the same name, wrestles with in a very strong production currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre. This tightly written play, deftly directed by Gordon Edelstein, deals with multiple ideas but never loses sight that ideas are generated by human beings who, as they ideate, also feel, hurt and must confront the confusions that life presents.

Set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near the end of WW II and following, the play focuses on two families, both motherless. There’s the Malter family, David (Steven Skybell), a writer and Zionist and his son Reuven (Max Wolkowitz), hoping to become a college professor, and the Saunders family, Reb Saunders (George Guidall), a tzaddik, leader of a Hasidic sect, and his son, Danny (Ben Edelman), destined to take his father’s place within the tight-knit community. The families, though they live only five blocks apart, do not interact until there is a baseball game between a team of intense Hasidic young men and Reuven’s team of more casual Jews. Late in the game, Reuven is pitching and Danny is at bat. Danny hits a ball back at Reuven. The ball hits Reuven in the head, smashing his glasses and wounding one of his eyes. Following this, Danny visits Reuven in the hospital seeking a form of forgiveness and thus a tentative friendship begins between two young men who are complete opposites.

Beyond the religious differences between the two families, there is how Reuven and Danny have been raised. Reuven’s relationship with his father is warm and extremely verbal, while Danny lives essentially in a world of silence, his father speaking to him only when they are studying the Talmud. Danny tells his father that he has met Reuven and that they have become friends, and Reb Saunders allows the friendship, which will become the heart of the play as the two young men seek their place in life, Israel struggles to be born and two distinct and divergent views of Yiddishkeit confront each other.

“The Chosen” is a play of both ideas and emotions, and one of its primary strengths is that Posner and Potek have interwoven the two so that beliefs and emotions, often conflicting, must exist in the same space. It makes for often compelling moments.

With the aid of set designer Eugene Lee, and supported by subtle yet evocative lighting overseen by Mark Barton, Edelstein utilizes the Theatre’s thrust stage to great effect, often blocking his actors to emphasize the divide between the two families. His job is made all the easier by the strength of the four actors playing the primary roles.

Wolkowitz, who is charged with providing the narration that knits the scenes together, is entirely believable as a young man on the brink of adulthood who must find a moral center in a world that often seems to be composed of irreconcilable opposites. Equally engaging is Edelman as the alienated son, though one might have wished Edelstein had allowed the actor not to be locked into a submissive, Uriah Heep posture throughout the play – there were moments, especially in the plays denouement, when Danny should have stood a bit taller than he was allowed to.

Then there are the two fathers, and Skybell and Guidall create contrasting portraits of fatherhood that are, each in its own way, exceptionally effective, though it is Guidall who comes close to stealing the show, especially with his second-act monologue that evokes the tenderness he has hidden and the reason for his silence with the son. As Danny rushes into his father’s arms there was more than one hand in the audience raised to wipe away a tear.

“The Chosen” may be, at moments, a bit long on polemics, but it delivers a satisfying emotional arc, bolstered by dialogue that never fails to engage. One true benchmark of a play is whether or not you care about what happens to the characters, and this production of “The Chosen” allows you to develop emotional ties with all four primary characters, so much so that the two hours you are in the theater seem to fly by.

“The Chosen” runs through December 17. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Music of the Night

The Phantom of the Opera -- Palace Theater -- Thru November 26

A thought arose as I was driving up to Waterbury to attend a performance of The Phantom of the Opera at the Palace Theater. To wit: how do you review a show that has been running for almost 30 years? What can you possibly say that hasn’t been said before? Probably nothing. Then there was the fact that this was a road show production – surely corners had been cut, if only because of the needs and necessities of traveling from venue to venue. As I picked up my tickets another doubt arose: I was informed that, due to illness, the actress playing Christine Daae, Eva Tavares, had been replaced. Oh, well…it was Friday and I had nothing better to do. So, with a somewhat jaded attitude I took my seat…and became entranced minutes into the performance. Quite simply, this is a production you do not want to miss. It confirms, in spades, why this musical, ably directed by Laurence Connor, continues to entrance and, at moments, enthrall.
Major doubt: it’s a road show so you’ll see a discount version of the show. Wrong. There’s all the flash, bang and spectacle of the Broadway production, plus some, and given the marvelous acoustics of the venue, no matter where you sit you will be enveloped by the music. Major kudos to Paul Brown for the magnificent set design which, at one moment evokes a painting by Degas and at another, aided by the spot-on lighting by Paaule Constable, creates an eerie, threatening mood reminiscent of Murnau’s film Nosferatu – the first descent into the Phantom’s subterranean lair is visually stunning.

Second doubt: the lead has been replaced, so there will be a second-rate, tentative performance. Silly boy. Kaitlyn Davis as Christine is everything you could ask for. Blessed with a silver-toned voice and impressive emotive skills, she makes what could be a cardboard character into a flesh-and-blood woman fighting for her soul. Equally impressive are Derrick Davis as the tortured Phantom and Jordan Craig as Christine’s love interest, Raoul. In fact, the entire cast is first-rate – no one phones in a performance.

It’s probably almost impossible not to be familiar with many of the songs in the show, even if you’ve never seen a production. This might lead to a certain “tuning in” response – the song is being played on the radio or is a YouTube download you listen to while making a grilled-cheese sandwich. Background noise. Well, as familiar as I am with the score it seemed fresh and new…and vibrant…and the staging of the major set-pieces was more than could be asked for. After intermission, I eagerly awaited the second act’s opening number, “Masquerade,” and my eagerness was amply rewarded, thanks to the enthusiasm and artistry of the cast and Scott Ambler’s choreography. It was, quite simply, a wonderful theatrical moment.

As can probably be deduced, I had no great expectations for the evening. After a wearisome week I was not inclined even to be in the theater. This production – as all great productions should – made me forget my toils and troubles. Outside, after the final curtain, my play-going buddy said: “I could have stayed and watched it for another hour.” I agreed. So, if you are looking for something to do over this extended holiday weekend, if you have children or grandchildren who have never had the opportunity to be enraptured by live theater, consider wending your way to the marvelous Palace Theater for an evening that you will talk about for years to come. Come be embraced by the music of the night.
The Phantom of the Opera runs through November 26. For tickets or more information call 203-346-2000 or go to 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Ah, the heartbreak!

The Bridges of Madison Country -- MTC Mainstage -- Through Nov. 19

The term is used to categorize primarily films that deal with women who, in one way or another, give up what they most love, be it a man, a child, or the possibility of love itself. Perhaps the most successful “weepie” of late has been The Bridges of Madison County, the novel by Robert James Waller that was turned into a film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. The book was a phenomenal success, the movie a blockbuster…and the 2014 musical? Well, it won some Tony and Drama Desk awards but it ran for only three months on Broadway. Now, under the direction of Kevin Connors, it’s at Music Theatre of Connecticut, and the musical’s flaws and strengths are there for all to see.
For those who adamantly refused to be moved to weep (i.e., those who did not read the book or see the film), the basic premise is that Francesca (Juliet Lambert Pratt) was a young girl living in Naples during World War II. She marries an American soldier, Bud (Greg Roderick), and after the war is transported to Iowa, where she proceeds to have two children, Carolyn (Megan O’Callaghan) and Michael (Matt Grasso). Life is pleasant if a bit banal (it’s Iowa after all), until Bud, Carolyn and Michael go off to a state fair and who should show up in Francesca’s driveway but Robert (Sean Hayden), a world-traveling photographer for National Geographic on assignment to photograph the covered bridges in the county. He asks for directions. She falls in love (again, it’s Iowa – corn and cows). He responds in kind. So, what will happen? Will Francesca leave her family (and the corn and the cows) to live a peripatetic, possibly romantic life with Robert or stay put? It’s a “weepie,” so you know what happens.
Okay, let’s deal with the flaws first. The musical’s book by Marsha Norman is padded; by that I mean that there are scenes inserted to justify the two-plus hours the show runs and to allow Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) to insert musical numbers that, as sweet as they often are, should be in another musical. There are also comic-relief set-pieces that are enjoyable – can’t not like the neighbors, Marge (Kirsti Carnahan) and Charlie (Frank Mastrone) as they argue about an imagined infidelity -- yet the moments are somewhat beside the point. And what is the point? Well, it’s Francesca and Robert’s relationship, and although there needs to be a certain amount of exposition to create an understanding of what is at stake, it often goes far beyond the necessary.
The strengths? Well, that’s easy. Chief among them is the mesmerizing performance by Pratt as Francesca. Talk about a woman torn! All you need do is watch her body language – it speaks more volumes than the Oxford English Dictionary offers -- and her delivery of her signature songs is impeccable. Playing against her, Hayden seems a bit less than charismatic in the first act, but shines as his character realizes that he must let the love of his life escape him, and his final soliloquy, “It All Fades Away,” wrenches the heart.
The rest of the cast does some fine work, some in multiple roles, but there’s a sense that they are not so much in supporting roles as peripheral to what everyone has come to see, which is the Francesca-Robert story. There’s also the somewhat distracting placement of the four-piece orchestra, which is essentially center-stage. As designed by Jordan Janota, the set seems to push much of the action to extreme stage-left or stage-right, with the visual focus on the musicians. Given the constraints of the MTC stage there perhaps was no other choice, but there are certain pivotal scenes – chief among them Francesca and Robert waking after their first night together – that occur extreme stage-left when they should be occurring center-stage. Often attention is as much on the musicians watching the actors interact as it is on the actors themselves -- a somewhat strange theatrical experience.
By and large, Bridges works and is engaging because of Pratt’s performance, which is well worth the price of admission. Given the reaction of the largely female audience present at the matinee performance I attended, the basic message of the musical was delivered loud and clear. In the parking lot after the performance, one woman turned to the others in her group and said, “And now we go home to Bud.” They all laughed.
The Bridges of Madison County runs through November 19. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A Tender Heart in the Belly of the Beast

The Diary of Anne Frank -- Playhouse on Park -- Through November 19

Isabelle Barbier as Anne Frank. Photo by Curt Henderson

You know the story. A young girl and her family, along with several acquaintances, hide from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II. The young girl keeps a diary. Those hiding are betrayed near the end of the war, arrested and shipped off to various concentration camps. The young girl will die four days before her camp is liberated. So, if you know the story, why bother going to Playhouse on Park to see The Diary of Anne Frank? Well, because the production is seamless, the cast is outstanding, the direction is perceptive and deft…and, well, the evening is riveting.

Given the dimensions of the Playhouse’s theater, the venue is tailor-made to present this story of human beings forced to live in a confined space, fearful of making too much noise lest they be discovered. Scenic designer David Lewis has made good use of every available inch of space, which means that the audience lives with the family throughout the evening, an impression augmented by director Ezra Barnes’ decision to hold most of the cast on stage during intermission, their characters going about their constrained lives as the audience members are free to go where they please. The effect is subtle yet telling – you come back into the house to find your seat and your first thought is: “They’re still here.” And that’s the point.

For the curtain call, Barnes decided to present the cast as an ensemble, and I can’t argue with the decision (well, I can, but I won’t). However, there’s absolutely no doubt who anchors this production: it’s Isabelle Barbier, who plays Anne. With just a touch of well-placed make-up and her hair cropped, the actress bears a striking, almost haunting resemblance to the real Anne Frank, but that isn’t why you can’t take your eyes off her. Barbier manages, effortlessly (right!) to capture the essence of the Anne Frank we know from the Diary, which was used as the basis for the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and sensitively adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Barbier’s Anne is a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, a perspicacious, verbose (those confined with her suggest she’s a bit too verbose) sometimes awkward gamine who can barely control the life that surges through her. The fact that the audience knows what awaits Anne does not, oddly enough, detract from the enjoyment of watching Barbier create an Anne Frank who, despite everything, embraces life.

Obviously, the Anne Frank character does not stand alone, and Barbier is surrounded by actors who, in their own right, give marvelous performances. Frank van Putten plays Anne’s father, Otto, and Joni Weisfeld her mother, Edith. Strong performances both. You can’t help but be moved by van Putten’s delivery of the father’s low-key soliloquy at the end of the show or by Weisfeld’s climbing onto a table to attack Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman) for eating a piece of bread. Her delivery captures the tension and border-line desperation all the characters are dealing with.

Equally impressive are Lisa Bostnar as Mrs. Van Daan, clutching her fur coat as a symbol of all that has been lost, Ruthy Froch as Anne’s sister, Margot, and Alex Rafala as the Van Daan’s son, Peter, who supplies the love interest (fantasy?) for Anne. Rounding out this exquisitely professional cast are Elizabeth Simmons as Miep Gies, Michael Enright as Mr. Kraler and Jonathan Mesisca as Mr. Dussel. They all work together on stage under Barnes’ direction as if they have been together for years and, of greater importance, that they really are the characters they are playing, confined in a small space and under constant threat of exposure and eventual death.

I return to the idea that the audience knows what will happen to the characters they are watching, but that does not diminish the life-affirming two hours that the audience shares with them. The unique aspect of Anne’s diary and the play that has been adapted from it is that the people we see are not super-heroes and the battles they must fight are not epic but rather those we all, in one way or another (although often without such dire consequences) must fight.

“It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” -- Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl...and that’s what this production is: “good at heart.”

The Diary of Anne Frank runs through November 19. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

"Rags," but Few Riches

Rags -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Through December 10

Samantha Massell and Christian Michael Camporin.
Photo by Diane Sobolewski

How do you respond to a musical that obviously has its heart in the right place, has a great cast and impressive production values? Perhaps not with the shrug I offered it as the rest of the opening night audience leapt to its feet in approbation. I stood also, if only to flex my knees. Obviously, there was a disconnect here, but as I watched Rags unfold at Goodspeed Musicals, I often found myself thinking I was being preached to rather than being entertained, and that Joseph Stein (book – revised by David Thompson) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) were trying just a bit too hard to strum the heart strings (i.e., manipulate), and that Charles Strouse’s music just sounded all of a piece. So, sue me.

There’s no denying that the staging of Rags, under the capable direction of Rob Ruggiero, is up to Goodspeed’s high standards, yet the material simply does not allow the Goodspeed folks to strut their stuff. By that I mean there are no big production numbers that blow you away, no pop and sizzle, and you certainly don’t come away whistling any tunes.

For my money (of course, I didn’t pay for the tickets), what we have in Rags is essentially Ragtime meets Fiddler on the Roof, although it has neither the depth nor the breadth of either show. What it does have is a marvelous cast, headed by the impressive, multi-talented Samantha Massell as Rebecca, supported by a sprightly and engaging Sara Kapner as Bella. Their two characters meet on a boat that is headed for New York harbor, for they are refugees fleeing the numerous pogroms that occurred in middle Europe in the early twentieth century.

When they arrive at Ellis Island, Rebecca doesn’t have the $20 to pay for entry into the country, but Bella urges her father, Avram (Adam Heller) to vouch for Rebecca and her son, David (Christian Michael Camporin). They all soon find themselves ensconced in the cramped rooms of a Lower East Side tenement building, sheltered by Anna (Emily Zacharias) and Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), who do garment piecework for Max Bronfman (David Harris), purveyor of dresses to the up-town crowd, personified by the snobbish Quintet (J. D. Shaw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie and Jeff Williams).

The show deals with the inherent dislike and fear of immigrants that seems to be woven into the American character (excuse me, but is that Donald Trump as Lady Liberty defying immigrant entry, compliments of projections by Luke Cantarella?). There’s also the never-ending class warfare pitting workers against the owners of the means and methods of production, flavored by a lot of scenes that evoke Jewish culture, with a bit of Catholicism thrown in for good measure via the Italians and Irish who got “here” first…and, of course, Rebecca must fall in love with someone not of her faith: Sal (Sean MacLaughlin), a rabble-rousing Italian.

It’s engaging material, and I wanted to care for the characters, but I just couldn’t, mainly because they mostly seem to be stereotypes and also because throughout the evening I kept on hearing and seeing echoes of other musicals. I know, they say there’s nothing new under the sun, but Rags wears its derivations on its ragged sleeve and for me that was off-putting.

Billed as “An American Musical” (vs. what – a Serbro-Croation musical?), Rags does have its moments. The “Shabbos / Latin Mass” scene (Jewish and Catholic rites counterbalanced) is very effective, the “Children of the Wind” theme blended with Cantarella’s projections is, yes, haunting, and as reprised by Massell at the end of the show, certainly rates show-stopper status, and “Three Sunny Rooms,” featuring a dual love interest is sweet and nicely staged. So why am I kvetching? Perhaps because Rags isn’t Fiddler on the Roof or Ragtime. Most will say “That’s not fair!” and perhaps it isn’t, but the echoes compel comparison.

Rags runs through December 10. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit:     

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Amor Vincit Omnia

Fireflies -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Through November 5

Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Sometimes you’re in the mood for a steak dinner with all the fixings and other times you crave a soufflé. If you’re in the mood for the latter, then Fireflies, a play by Matthew Barber, based on Annette Sanford’s novel Eleanor and Abel, receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, will satisfy. This lightweight exercise in boy meets girl (both of a certain age), billed as a “Romance,” has all the dramatic impact of, well, a firefly landing on a leaf, but that’s not to say the experience is not eminently enjoyable thanks to a stellar cast. The fact that you know what will happen right from the set-up does not detract from the delight of watching seasoned pros doing their thing under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, and doing it with a lot of style, flair and grace.

We’re in southern Texas – Jackson County to be exact – in the kitchen, compliments of set designer Alexander Dodge, of Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander), a retired school teacher set in her ways, a classic old maid (if the term is still politically correct – if not, mea culpa!) who is also the owner of what is called the ‘honeymoon cottage,” an adjacent dwelling she has allowed to deteriorate. Living across the street from her, and keeping close tabs on her, is Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), a lady prone to the “I don’t want to say anything, but…” mode of conversation. During one of her frequent visits, Grace informs Eleanor that there has been a man “lurking” around town asking about properties, especially those owned by women! This man turns out to be Abel Brown (Denis Arndt), who soon comes calling. Thus, the stage is set for Abel and Eleanor’s relationship to develop, albeit with the requisite bumps in the road (or fireflies in the ointment).

Will Eleanor and Abel finally find true love? Well, what do you think? The play’s resolution is never in doubt, but as some sage (Harpo Marx?) once said, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that is to be enjoyed, and enjoyable it is. Alexander, Ivey and Arndt, with an assist from Christopher Michael McFarland as Eugene, a sheriff’s officer who once suffered under Eleanor’s tutelage, all give seamless performances, delivering their lines with an admirable pacing and rhythm and creating characters that, well, you simply enjoy being with for the two acts of the play, easily masking the fact that there are some plot points left unresolved.

Barber has given his characters some absolutely wonderful dialogue, often creating little set-pieces that reveal character as they also entertain. Alexander, using body language to great effect, and Ivey are yin and yang, the former clutching her life to her bosom to protect her privacy and the latter genetically inclined to intrude. Their friendship, developed over the years, is a graceful, grudging give-and-take. Their scenes together, as Grace banters and gossips and Eleanor reacts, are little treasures. Obviously, the appearance of Abel disrupts this comfortable, gently antagonistic relationship.

Arndt, playing the destabilizing force, gives a solid performance as a man with a somewhat troubled past who woos the reluctant Eleanor with patience and a lot of handyman expertise. He often lifts his baseball cap and scratches his head as he tries to figure out how best to deal with Eleanor’s prickly-pear personality. McFarland, on stage at the start of the second act, nicely portrays a grown man still under the sway of his former teacher’s stern persona, and his hesitant rendering of the opening lines of Coleridge’s “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan” is his character’s touching acknowledgement that she has had a lasting effect on him (Eleanor’s response to the recitation is just one of the many one-liners Barber has given his characters that elicit laughter).

There’s a certain sitcom quality to the play – think Golden Girls – so nothing that occurs during the play’s two hours needs to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean the evening can’t be enjoyed for what it is, and for the skill the cast brings to making their characters welcome into our lives. It’s a gentle slice-of-life piece that generates a lot of laughter. There are no earth-shattering moments, no great truths to be told, save that on a daily basis little affairs of the heart are being enacted, that for every Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde there are countless Eleanors and Abels who somehow find their way into each other’s arms.

Fireflies runs through November 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Sunday, October 15, 2017

His Own Enemy

An Enemy of the People -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Oct. 28

Enrico Colantoni and Reg Rogers

So, the creative team at Yale Repertory Theatre is weighing whether to board a play in which you have a man, an upright soul, who discovers deception and duplicity in a civic project that will line the pockets of those in power and fill the tills of local businesses but possibly cause illness and suffering. He’s determined to be a whistle-blower but the forces of cupidity and ignorance conjoin and he is labeled an enemy of the status quo and all but hounded out of town. Should Yale Rep stage the play? It’s a no-brainer, for the material, as evidenced by the response of the opening night audience to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, is tailor-made for those uncomfortable with the current political situation in the United States.

Give credit to director James Bundy, the Rep’s artistic director, for not allowing the staging of the play to become a mere polemic. What’s currently on stage at Yale’s University Theatre is a nicely nuanced study of the price one pays for going against the tide, defying the crowd, trying to maintain the moral high ground and realizing, perhaps too late, that it is often a slippery slope.

Much of the credit for the success of this production has to go to Reg Rogers, who portrays Dr. Thomas Stockman, the erstwhile whistle-blower. There’s a temptation when taking on this role to play it for all of the “holier-than-thou” the actor can get out of it, but Rogers gives us a hero with, if not feet of clay at least a bit of dust on his shoes. His take on the character is sophomoric, and by that I mean he plays Stockman as a wise fool, committed to seeing justice done but somewhat blind to the inevitable consequences. Thus, Stockman is a flesh-and-blood character, a principled man with flaws. It’s a thoroughly engaging performance, no more so than when, near the end of the second act, he confronts Hovstad (Bobby Roman), the editor of a local newspaper, and conveys via laughter the weakness of those who trim  their sails based on the direction the wind of public sentiment is blowing.

Impressive performances abound in this production. Joey Parsons, as the doctor’s wife, Catherine, skillfully let’s the audience see the price Stockman’s family will pay for his rectitude, and in a lovely moment of mime conveys her frustration with her husband for choosing to tilt at windmills. Equally engaging is Enrico Colantoni as the doctor’s brother, Peter, who is also the mayor of the small Norwegian town where the action is set. Venal and manipulative, Colantoni’s character is a wonderful foil to his brother’s perhaps slightly misguided nobility. And then there’s Jarlath Conroy as Morton Kill, Catherine’s adoptive father, who proves that there’s no such thing as a small role.

A note about the staging. There seems to be a conscious effort to emphasize that, well, “Hey, folks, we’re putting on a play.” The actors appear on stage before the opening curtain and mingle with the audience, and Emona Stoykova’s impressive set design leaves the wings entirely open so the audience can see the actors waiting to make their entrances and the stage hands doing their thing. I’m not exactly sure what the creative team’s motivation or intent was or how this toying with suspension of disbelief adds to the play – in fact, the open wings are often a bit distracting, pulling attention away from what is happening on stage. Then again, it’s Yale Rep, so you often have to expect the unexpected and off-beat, along with the head-scratching.

Distractions aside, this production of Ibsen’s take on bureaucracy, greed and thwarted idealism moves swiftly through it’s two acts. It obviously speaks to the Rep’s primary audience (there was applause when some lines were delivered) but doesn’t pander to liberal sensibilities. Yes, Dr. Stockman is fighting the good fight, but he does so with blinders on, and though there’s a heartwarming gathering of the Stockman family at the final curtain you get the feeling that there will be additional prices to be paid for defying the status quo.

An Enemy of the People runs through October 28. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to  

Monday, October 2, 2017

Publish or Passion

Sex With Strangers -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru Oct. 14

Jessica Love and Chris Ghaffari. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In 1956, Frankie Lyman & the Teenagers hit the Billboard charts with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Laura Eason presents the same question in Sex With Strangers, albeit she’s substituting writers for fools (or perhaps she isn’t). This two-hander that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse basically throws together two people of antithetical personalities and then observes what happens (well, you know what’s going to happen – it’s the bread and butter of many a romantic comedy). Toss in a lot of info about the publishing world and our modern, wired (perhaps over-wired and thus alienated) society, plus a critique of the Millennial dating scene, shake and bake, and what you still have is the story of a relationship, romantic and otherwise, which means if you are to be drawn in you have to care about this couple, care what happens to them and, by and large, you do.

Deftly directed by Katherine M. Carter, who has a superb eye for blocking that emphasizes and enhances what’s going on in the script, the success of Sex With Strangers rises or falls on its cast, for you’re going to spend close to two hours with the characters they bring to life, so there better be more than a bit of chemistry – and there is.

The first act finds Olivia (a superb Jessica Love) ensconced in a bed and breakfast in upstate Michigan in the midst of a snowstorm. She’s basically got the place to herself until headlights flash, a car grinds to a halt and Ethan (Chris Ghaffari – recently seen as Romeo in Hartford Stage’s Romeo and Juliet) bursts on the scene. She’s a teacher who’s come to this hideaway to work on her novel; he’s – well, a snowbound B & B is not exactly his scene, but we learn that he’s traveled north to meet her. Their initial confrontation has all the elements of a wolf stumbling upon a rabbit (kudos to Love for body language that conveys, more than the dialogue, exactly how uncomfortable her character is with Ethan’s encroachment), but given that there’s a blizzard they accept they are stuck with each other and must interact.

Ethan knows (through a mutual acquaintance) that Olivia is a writer; Olivia knows nothing about this brash young man but soon comes to learn that, under his nom de blog of Ethan Strange, he is the author of two best-sellers, the first being Sex With Strangers, an outgrowth of his blog that chronicles his multiple sexual exploits and gleeful denigration of women. She is not thrilled; he could care less.

What transpires is the expected emotional pas de deux plus a witty weighing of the values of the old versus new publishing world, with Ethan slowly enticing Olivia into considering a venture onto the Internet with her work. What also transpires, and here some audience members may have to suspend their disbelief a bit, is that Olivia and Ethan take more advantage of the bed than any possibility of breakfast. Given the “Ethan Strange” reputation, and his age, you might just wonder why Olivia so quickly falls into his arms. Yes, she’s had some wine, but…well, if you buy into this, then the rest of the play is engaging and, in the second act confrontation, even gripping.

There’s a certain echo of A Star is Born in the play, for Olivia’s rise will, to a certain extent, be contingent upon Ethan’s fall after he has taken her under his wing. There is also the intriguing question – left unanswered – of who has actually been using whom in this dance of authorial egos. What’s most intriguing about the play is the transformation (or the attempt at transformation) the two characters undergo as they interact with each other on two sets designed by Edward T. Morris that also go through a pronounced transformation.

Love deftly gives us an uptight Olivia, unwilling to roll the authorial dice and face criticism, who is transformed (accented by the costume given her by Caitlin Cisek in the final scene) into a mature, confident woman, albeit one who is unsure of the price she has paid for the transformation. Ghaffari’s Ethan, brash and confident at the start of the play, is on the cusp of change by its conclusion, though Cisek’s costuming for him suggests that the change may not be consummated. The actor does a nuanced job of portraying a man whose success has been contingent on the selling of his soul, a contract with the devil he tries to void.

As with all well-written plays, there’s a lot to mull over about Sex With Strangers once the curtain has fallen. Eason asks us to ponder the impact of the Internet on the lives of those who have known no other world and the attendant slow demise of privacy. What does it mean that we can learn “everything” about someone before we ever meet them and yet know really nothing about them? What consequences ensue when we all play roles on an electronic stage, roles that, unlike those of actors, we cannot walk away from?

Sex With Strangers runs through October 14. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Saturday, September 30, 2017

After the Quake

I Hate Musicals: The Musical -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru October 15

Will Clark, Stephen Wallem, Amanda Huxtable. Photo by Anne Hudson

So you’re a joke-meister who wrote for some of the best comedy shows on television only to wash up on the shores of middle-age and find yourself no longer relevant – ergo: unemployed. You go East to write serious drama for the theater, but you’re no O’Neill or Miller, so back you go to Hollywood, hat in hand, in a desperate attempt to pitch a sitcom based on the pope’s rapscallion brother (It’ll be a laugh-riot!).

In the midst of your pitch there’s an earthquake and a goodly portion of the building falls on you. What happens next? Well, what happens next is I Hate Musicals: The Musical, which is receiving its world premiere at the Ivoryton Playhouse. The show is an irreverent satire that takes on Hollywood executives, talent agents, inane TV shows and Broadway musicals while giving a few pokes in the eyes to such icons as Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Sigmund Freud.

Who would come up with such a premise? Well, the show is written by Mike Reiss, who has been writing for The Simpsons for almost three decades, and if you know anything about this ground-breaking animated show, you know that nothing is sacred. Thus, in I Hate Musicals, the satire is broad, the humor often hits below the belt and the show’s musicality is essentially derivative – original music is credited to Walter Murphy but there aren’t many tunes that won’t elicit a: “Wait a minute, isn’t that melody from…?”

Under the direction of James Valletti, the six actors, almost all of whom play multiple roles, cavort and camp it up, much to the delight of the opening night audience, many of whom might associate the goings on with Marx Brothers’ films as much as with the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa. As for the plot, well, after the seismic disruption there isn’t much that is logically connected, for what we are seeing is a coma-induced phantasmagoria of characters that rise and fall (often to taunt, tease and/or terrorize) in the mind of the comedy writer. As Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, entered a world of magical make-believe after the tornado, so Alvin (Stephen Wallem) enters the world of his somewhat warped mind after the earthquake, complete with a pair of ruby slippers and a dead witch, or is that bitch?

There are some slow moments in this one-act romp when Reiss gets “serious,” or beats the dead horse about how Hollywood turns brilliant writing into crap, but for most of the evening it’s just plain silliness. To get a feel for where Alvin’s mind wanders while in coma-mode we have the multi-talented Amanda Huxtable first playing a bitchy TV executive wearing a nifty pair of red shoes (you just know she’s doomed). After the fall of the building, she reappears as Brie, Alvin’s ex-wife, a somewhat ditzy blonde a la Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls and then, near the end of the show, when Alvin is being judged as to whether he’s worthy of entering heaven (consumption of a Big Mac hamburger is key to the decision – don’t ask), she reappears as the Blessed Virgin Mary, which she plays with a Bronx accent, and then, to top it off, she morphs into Alvin’s mother (Freudian symbolism anyone?).

The rest of the cast, accompanied by Michael Morris working the electronic keyboard, is equally appealing and eagerly willing to sell the lunacy Reiss has given them to work with. Sam Given first appears as a security guard but soon shows his true talent as Jerome, who is so GAY (here Reiss, in typical Simpsons fashion, takes a stereotype and blows it up in your face), and then reappears as a hyperactive Sigmund Freud. Not to be outdone, Ryan Knowles enters as Alvin’s purported father, a pompous English Lit professor who scorns his son’s profession, only to work a quick costume change (of which there are many) and become Natasmi (Who? Not sure? Well, spell it backwards and all will become clear). Will Clark plays Alvin’s actual dad, a real mensch, as well as Jesus (also a real mensch) – it’s with these two characters that Reiss works in some Borscht Belt Jewish jokes. Finally, there’s the ever-reliable R. Bruce Connelly who plays Lee, Alvin’s agent who is currently in Florida with his grandchildren (He’d rather be in LA in an earthquake) but maintains contact with Alvin via phone (“So, how did the meeting go?”) and is finally asked to negotiate with the BVM over Alvin’s eternal destination.

Does most of the evening make any sense? Well, no and yes. If you’re looking for standard dramatic development you’ll be sorely disappointed, but that’s not really the point, because Alvin’s delirium is the frame that allows all of these somewhat bizarre characters to enter and do their “thing.” It’s Saturday Night Live on steroids, a theatrical tradition that harkens back to Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’. You get the set-up, then the earthquake, and then comedic chaos. It has the feel of something Beckett might have written if he had had a sense of humor.

I Hate Musicals: The Musical runs through October 15. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On the "Avenue"

Avenue Q -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru October 8

E J Zimmerman, James Fairchild, Weston Chandler Long,
Colleen Welsh, Peej Mele, Ashley Brooke and
Abena Mensah-Bonsu. All Photos by Curt Henderson

Some people don’t like the musical Avenue Q. These are probably the same people who don’t like hot fudge sundaes, puppies and beach volleyball. Okay, that may be a little unfair (they probably abide puppies), but what’s not to like about a tongue-in-cheek musical with puppets that takes on racism, homelessness and homosexuality, amongst other topics, and keeps you smiling from start to finish? Done right, Avenue Q is a hoot, and it is being done very right up at Playhouse on Park under the capable direction (and choreography) of Kyle Brand.

So, what is this Tony-winning musical that had its gestation (2002) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, all about? Well, it takes the PBS children’s show, Sesame Street, and turns it on its head – focusing on a group of primarily twenty-something losers and misfits who reside on an avenue of stifled or shattered dreams (apartments on Avenues A through P were too expensive). Written by Jeff Whitty, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who came up with the concept), the two-act show’s major premise is that most of the characters are puppets manipulated by actors who mirror the puppets’ actions and emotions. It’s a delightful symbiotic relationship.

Ruling the run-down roost is Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) – yes, the Gary Coleman best known for his role as Arnold Jackson in TV’s Diff'rent Strokes. Fallen on hard times, he is the superintendent of the apartment building where all of the other characters live. Seeking low-cost shelter, Princeton (Weston Chandler Long), a frustrated college grad with a “useless” degree in English, is soon introduced to the building’s other residents. There’s Kate Monster (Ashley Brooke), a kindergarten teacher who dreams of opening a school for little “monsters,” and the roommates Rod (also Long), an uptight banker, and Nicky (the versatile Peej Mele), a layabout. Then there’s Brian (James Fairchild), a stand-up comic with no sense of humor, and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (E J Zimmerman), a true tiger lady. Finally, there’s Trekkie Monster (Mele), a creature with an inordinate interest in Internet porn and the Bad Idea Bears (again Mele and Colleen Welsh).
Colleen Welsh, Weston Chandler Long (standing)
Ashley Brooke and Peej Mele

I can’t think of another musical that so brazenly takes the frustrations and despair of the downtrodden and turns it all into delightful comedy. The tone is set immediately as Princeton laments the uselessness of his degree (“What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?’), which segues into “It Sucks to  Be Me,” in which the characters argue about who has the worst life. The audience has to quickly buy into the puppets-as-people-and-people-as-puppets premise, but it’s not hard to do, for this skilled ensemble of actors ably crafts the illusion (or delusion) with insouciant style and elegant flair.

I’ve seen several productions of this musical and am familiar with all the musical  numbers, but the Playhouse’s production, with its fine cast, made the musical offerings seem fresh and new. Each number offers some standout performances. To single out a few, there’s “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” with Zimmerman nailing the faux-Japanese delivery of her lyrics (those of an extreme PC bent might squirm a bit). Zimmerman also soars with “The More You Ruv Someone” number – I’ve never seen it performed with such panache.

The multi-talented Long continuously delivers, no more so than, as Rod, he desperately tries to deny his homosexuality in “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada.” It’s a wonderful moment, with Long whirling and leaping about the stage as he attempts to sell his friends on the existence of this fictitious friend named Alberta…from Vancouver, no less.

Citing the “The Internet is for Porn” number allows me to heap praise on two other actors: Mele and Brooke. Mele is able to embody the perverse weirdness of Trekkie Monster, the devious, manipulative nature of one of the Bad Idea Bears, and the needful nature of Nicky with wondrous ease. Then there’s Brooke, who effortlessly owns the stage whenever she is called upon to portray Kate Monster or the teacher’s alter-ego, Lucy T. Slut (often at the same time). It’s a treat to watch her “merge,” if you will, with the two puppet personas (personae??) – tentative and a bit shy when she’s Kate, slinky and seductive when she’s Lucy.

As an audience member, one often never really knows who is responsible for what in a production. So, who was responsible for training these actors in the manipulation of their puppets? Perhaps it was the director, or maybe it was a collective effort, but if you read carefully through the Production Staff listings you will come across the name of Susan Slotoroff, credited as the “Puppetry Coach.” Well, she should get star billing, for the result of her coaching is well nigh perfect. From opening scene to the closing number, the puppets are “real,” with the actors giving these furry creatures believable body language (just watch Kate Monster and Princeton go at it as they consummate their relationship, or Princeton [the puppet] flat on his back enduring deep despair). It’s an exercise in stage magic that makes Avenue Q somewhat unique.

Now in its ninth season, Playhouse on Park continues to offer productions that often delight and sometimes even surprise. With Avenue Q, which runs through October 8, the Playhouse shows that you don’t need a huge stage to deliver big entertainment. You just need to pick the right property, cast wisely and then allow all involved to do what they do best.

For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Appropriating the Past

Appropriate -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through September 2

    Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem,
and David Aaron Baker. Photo by Carol Rosegg

There are some who say the most difficult thing about writing a play is knowing how to end it. In the case of Appropriate, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, the problems also encompass how to start the play. So what we have is some head scratching during the first moments of the play, followed by some truly engaging theater and some fine acting, until we get to the closing moments when, once again, the dandruff starts to fall as you scratch away and say, “Well, okay…so what?”

Deftly directed by David Kennedy (save for the opening and closing moments – and it’s up for grabs as to who is responsible for these moments), this excursion into family history written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is tinged with just a touch of gothic overtones and includes some skeletons in the closet (or photo album or graveyard – take your pick) as a somewhat dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) gathers at the decrepit family mansion to prepare it to be sold and its contents auctioned off.

The pater familias has recently died, leaving the mansion, a decrepit hulk bulging with junk (the whole scene nicely created by scenic designer Andrew Boyce) weighed down by debt. The family gathers to deal with what has been left behind: embittered sister, Toni (a gripping Betsy Aidem), a brother, Bo (David Aaron Baker), a corporate executive worried about downsizing, and the black-sheep brother, Franz (aka Frank – Shawn Fagan). In tow are various children and significant others: there’s Toni’s recalcitrant son Rhys (Nick Selting), Bo’s wife, Rachel (Diane Davis) and their two children, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and Cassie (Allison Winn), and finally River (an engaging Anna Crivelli), Franz’s earth-mother girl friend.

Once the clan is gathered there is initial friction dealing with who actually gave up the most in caring for dear old Dad in his declining years, but the arguments soon escalate with the discovery of a photo album that apparently contains pictures of lynchings. Was Dad a racist? Rachel reveals a telephone conversation she overheard, with her father-in-law referring to her as the “Jew wife.” Was Dad an anti-Semite?

There’s more kindling thrown on the fire to bring the pot to a boil, mainly dealing with Franz’s addictions and child molestation (I told you the family was dysfunctional). Denials, accusations and recriminations tumble over each other in crisp, acerbic dialogue that Kennedy allows to be bitten into by the actors, giving the confrontations a realistic rhythm – after all, when you’re arguing do you really let the other person finish what they have to say before attacking?

A nice touch of irony is added by Jacobs-Jenkins when the bickering family learns that the lynching photographs may have significant historical (or collectors) value. In other words, they can make a lot of money off pictures of black men who have been lynched. This leads to a battle-royal (deftly set up by fight director Michael Rossmy) that is ended in a dramatic appearance that drew appreciative gasps from the opening night audience. Sometimes (cliché warning!), a picture is worth a thousand words (of dialogue), and in this case it might just have made a provocative ending to the play.

The major questions about Dad are left for the audience to decide, but there’s no doubt that this family has, by the final curtain, been deconstructed. There are moments over the course of the two-plus hours that are painful, others that are revelatory, and the actors allow their characters to dig, slice and dice each other with abandon.

So, the problems with the opening and closing moments? Well, there’s an operative audio metaphor that is established when the lights first go down: it’s the irritating rasping (desperate mating calls) of cicadas. We, the audience, hear them, and get the message, but the lights don’t go up. The cicadas continue to rasp and twitter – the volume rises and falls and then rises again, evoking some chuckles from the audience in the darkened theater. We will again hear the offending mating calls every time there’s a scene change (consider it a scene-in-one delivered by insects).

Okay, so a little too much chirping before the play gets started, but what’s wrong with the final moments? More cicadas going berserk? No. It’s now the moment for Boyce, as well as lighting designer Matthew Richards, sound designer Fitz Patton and props master Alison Mantilla to take center stage for a series of quick vignettes that depict the physical dissolution of the mansion (of the family??) The effects are impressive, but they seem extremely beside the point – it’s a series of, well, okay, here’s what we can do with the set – like that? (blackout) – this is also what we can do (blackout) – okay, we can also do this. Has the destruction been caused by ghosts or Mother Nature? Your guess is as good as mine.

In the final moments of dialogue the actors have deftly established disruption, dissolution and, in the end, despair. What follows visually is simply overkill.

Appropriate, though it runs a bit long, is often gripping, intense theater marred by production values that call too much attention to themselves. The show runs through September 2. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to