Monday, February 18, 2019

On the Job

Working -- ACT of Connecticut -- Through March 10

The cast of "Working." Photo by Jeff Butcher

In 1974, Studs Terkel published Working, an oral history of working folks talking about their jobs and how they felt about them. In 1977, Stephen Schwartz, he of Pippin and Wicked fame, created a musical loosely based on the book, with four other composers also supplying music and four writers besides Schwartz penning lyrics. The show previewed in Chicago and then opened on Broadway in 1978, running for 24 performances. Since then, the show has been tinkered with and massaged several times, and its latest iteration is now up at ACT of Connecticut in Ridgefield, with director Daniel C. Levine doing additional massaging and tinkering, with songs now coming from six composers including Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The result? Well, if you’re looking for a strong plot-line you’ll be disappointed, for the show is essentially a series of vignettes (most centered on songs, but there are several monologues), but if you just want to be entertained by a stellar cast backed by a four-man orchestra that jumps, jives and pulsates, then Working is the show for you. It is, at moments, bright and bubbly, emotionally moving, and highly perceptive about the working folks who construct buildings, fight fires, serve food, clean homes and offices and tend to the aged, often going about their jobs without really being noticed.

Levine approached Schwartz, who is a Ridgefield resident, with suggestions about how the show might be modified. Schwartz gave the nod, and Levine proceeded to create his own version of Working, primarily by inclusion of video clips and projections – a lot of videos and projections. Some might complain that, in sum, it creates a certain visual overload, but, oddly enough, the effect is that you have been immersed in the Terkel book and in the lives of the people the actors represent, but it also gives the show a very distinct 21st-century feel, for we have (like it or not) become used to images flashing before our eyes and multiple screens streaming information. Levine has also given a local spin to the production, for as he notes in the Playbill, the show offers insights into “what the waitress at Dimitri’s Diner thinks about,” as well as how the man who trims tree branches away from Main Street’s power lines came to his job or “what the owner of Tony’s Deli dreams about.”

There’s also the fact that the visuals are simply icing on the cake, for the focus remains on the six actors who create multiple characters during the 80-minute run of the show, and they do a hell of a job. You have whores and a grade school teacher, a fireman, a cleaning lady, a waitress, a somewhat addled retired gentleman, a player in the financial market, a housewife and several health care workers. And it all works, primarily because these are not cardboard characters – as the actors appear in different guises their voices change, their body language changes, and the whore magically becomes the cleaning lady.

This is definitely an ensemble effort, but there are moments that seem to glitter more than just shine, and two of them are created by Laura Woyasz, first as the grade school teacher who is bedeviled and confused about how the classroom and the students have changed over the four decades she has been teaching (“Nobody Tells Me How”), and then she reappears as a waitress in “It’s an Art,” in which she leaps, glides and whirls as she serves food and makes nice with customers. Her performances as these two characters, in themselves, are worth the price of admission.

Then there’s Cooper Grodin who plays the nasty finance whiz but reappears later on as the retired man who can barely walk. With a wig (compliments of Liz Printz) and appropriate body language, he becomes a shattered man who struggles to continue to give meaning to his life.

Then there’s Zuri Washington’s turn in “Just a Housewife,” a set-piece that must have resonated with more than a few in the audience. She deftly captures the drudgery and moments of despair that many women – just housewives! – must deal with.

Pointing out these specific performances does not in any way lessen the work of the other actors: Brad Greer, Andre Jordan and Monica Ramirez. Under the deft, creative direction of Levine, they all contribute to what is a tremendously enjoyable evening of musical theater, capped by the show’s final two songs, “If I Could’ve Been,” a heartfelt consideration of what might have been if “life” hadn’t stepped in and demanded that rent be paid and children be fed, and the show’s finale, “Something to Point to,” which emphasizes that people, in their jobs, need to be able to claim that they made a difference, that they helped create something, that they were not just drones eking out a 9-to-5 existence.

The show is a visual whirligig, for the actors are almost in constant motion, the set spins, and the various characters appear and disappear in kaleidoscopic fashion, all of this while projections and video clips (the work of Caite Hevner) propel and punctuate the action. Levine has taken full advantage of the technical resources available to him in this state-of-the-art theater and the result is a carnival of sight and sound, a stroll down a midway where every booth is staffed by working folks offering something intriguing, entertaining, touching and, at moments, entrancing.

Working runs through March 10. For tickets go to actofct.org.

Friday, February 8, 2019

What the Playwright Heard

Good Faith -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Through February 23

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones
and Ian Bedford. Photo by Carol Rosegg
 
                “Good Faith,” a new play that is enjoying its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, is one of those plays that draws the adjective “important” to it like a magnet draws metal filings. Why? Well, it deals with important issues, a whole laundry list of important issues. As a matter of fact, I don’t think playwright Karen Hartman has missed a single contentious topic that bubbles on or beneath the surface of the troubled waters of 21st-century America. Does this make for an enjoyable or gripping evening of theater? Well, I guess that’s in the eye (or, perhaps more accurately, often the ear) of the beholder.

                As directed by Kenny Leon, this exercise in touching all of the politically correct and incorrect bases was birthed when Yale contacted the playwright and asked her if she would like to write a play about the Ricci v. DeStefano court case that was initiated after 118 New Haven firefighters took a test in 2003 to see who would qualify for promotion to lieutenant.

The results of the test were contested, based on the claim that the test was biased. This led to an investigation by New Haven’s Civil Service Board, which failed to certify the test’s results, which meant all promotions were frozen. Twenty firefighters, primarily white, brought suit on the basis of reverse-discrimination. The case reached all the way to the Supreme Court (2009), which ruled in favor of what had become known as the New Haven Twenty. A subsequent lawsuit was filed by a black fireman, arguing that how the test was constructed and weighted was discriminatory. After a financial settlement was offered to him by the city, the case was dropped. Of course, there’s more, much more, but your eyes are probably already starting to cross (if you want or need clarification – and you may just – read the show’s program).

So, how do your craft a play about all of this? Well, Hartman decided to write a play about how she went about researching to write the play, along the way interviewing many of the key players, these interviews providing the subtitle for the play: “Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department.” Does it work? Well, yes and no.

The play opens with the Writer (an engaging Laura Heisler) telling a family story and then setting the stage for what follows, which is the appearance of four people she interviewed who were involved in the lawsuits: Frank, a white firefighter (Ian Bedford), two black firefighters, Mike (Billy Eugene Jones) and Tyrone (Rob Demery), and Karen, (Rene Augesen), the attorney for the New Haven Twenty who won the Supreme Court case.

The rest of the two-plus hours consists of some insights into how firefighters are trained plus what the playwright heard and recorded at these interviews in scenes in which the Writer mostly sits quietly listening to what is being said. There’s a lot of contention in these interviews, first between Mike, who is erudite (sometimes making up his own words when real ones won’t suffice) and seems to be a walking encyclopedia of race relations in America over the past three centuries, and Tyrone, who eschews flights of philosophical musings mixed with sociological theory for a more down-to-earth look at race relations.

These two characters have a lot to say…I mean, a lot to say. The problem is, they often talk over each other – not just biting into each other’s lines but talking, often at high volume, at the same time for extended moments. The result is an avalanche of words – you hear the rumble and tumble, but it’s often well-nigh impossible to capture what each character is actually saying. Phrases pop out like stones tossed from the avalanche, but there is little to no coherence when this is going on, and it happens several times. Thus, as with being caught in an avalanche, if you survive you cannot help but feel a bit bruised and broken.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), the second-act’s extended scene in which the Writer interviews Karen, the lawyer, quickly turns into a monologue in which what the lawyer says is never truly contested…she just gives her views on the case, on sexism, on politics and how it affects the judicial system and, along the way, takes to task Sonia Sotomayor, who ruled against the plaintiffs when the case came before the Second Court of Appeals in 2007. Her ruling later became a topic when Sotomayor was testifying prior to her confirmation for a seat on the Supreme Court. It all comes off as a guest appearance by a well-known lawyer at some high-profile law school’s seminar, with the play’s audience in attendance, whether they wish to be or not.

The most effective of the “chats’ is the final one, when the Writer finally gets Mike and Frank to sit down and talk. It’s effective because the two men, coming at all that has happened from two different perspectives, both make valid points, and although they do interrupt each other, there is none of the double-dialogue that mars the “chats” between Mike and Tyrone. It’s a strong way to end the play and you just wish there had been more of this type of staging (and writing) earlier on.

I may have truly become a citizen of Curmudgeon Land, but after the very engrossing scene between Mike and Frank, the play ends somewhat gratuitously. As flames roar above them, (compliments of projection designer Zachary Borovay), the characters assemble on stage and essentially ask the audience who is there to save them when they are caught in a fire? Well, of course, it’s the firefighters. Well, as true as that is, and with no disrespect to those who risk their lives battling fires, the moment is a manipulative throw-in and has little to do with what the play is essentially about. In essence, it’s a cheap shot to generate a “feel-good” emotion as the audience exits the theater.

The basic problem with “Good Faith” is that the audience is often twice-removed from what occurs on stage due to Hartman’s decision to frame the play in terms of what the playwright saw and heard during her research (and the fact that the Writer is always there, watching). In essence, we are seeing what the Writer saw rather than experiencing the “chats” and inherent confrontations on our own. It’s like Ibsen is a character in “The Doll’s House,” telling us what he saw as he took meticulous notes while observing the goings-on in the Helmer household. Nora does finally slam that door, but Ibsen is there watching.
“Good Faith” runs through February 23. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Precious Ring

The Engagement Party -- Hartford Stage -- Through February 3



                When Samuel Baum was writing his play, The Engagement Party, I imagine he was fresh from reading Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” You know the one – it’s where Burns writes: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley,.” Or perhaps while he was tapping on his keyboard, Baum was playing Joe South in the background, South singing “The Games People Play” – “Oh the games people play now / Every night and every day now / Never meaning what they say now / Never saying what they mean.” Maybe not, but this tightly-written play about how things can fall apart and the games even best friends play certainly evokes thoughts of both the poem and the song.

                Astutely directed by Darko Tresnjak, with a major assist from scenic designer Alexander Dodge, who deftly utilizes the theater’s turntable stage to reveal various rooms in a Park Avenue apartment, this engaging one-act play perceptively plays with the audience’s emotions: a rise and fall, then another rise and fall, and yet another until we get to the denouement that, though expected, is still satisfying.

                So, what do we have here? Well, it’s an engagement party that Josh (Zach Appelman) and Katherine (Beth Riesgraf) are hosting for Kate’s family and some close friends. There’s some initial couple-nuzzling between the two and some pickle-arranging and then the guests start to arrive.

First are Kate’s parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins) and Gail (Mia Dillon – kudos for her subtle, hush-puppy Southern accent), both of whom are apparently delighted with the pending marriage of their daughter to Josh. The bell rings, the door opens, and Haley (Anne Troup) and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh) stroll in. At this point it becomes obvious what costume designer Joshua Pearson has brought to the party, for while Kate is dressed in a stylish, clinging gown, Haley, her college friend, is wearing drab clothes that seem to want to shun her body.

Another doorbell ding-dong and Alan (Teddy Bergman) appears, appropriately dressed as the professor he is. The group sits down for some social chit-chat, mostly dealing with how Josh and Kate met and whether Josh, jokingly, really deserves Kate. There’s a slight bit of tension when Conrad questions Alan, a sociology professor, about his antagonism to the consumer society, but the pot, right now, is only on a very low simmer.
Anne Troup, Brian Lee Huynh, Richard Bekins, Mia Dillon
Beth Riesgraf, Teddy Bergman and Zach Appelman

A final doorbell, and in bursts Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh’s childhood friend who is back from a recent tour in Iraq. He’s loud, profane (his shirt, compliments of Pearson, says it all) and his entrance jerks the audience out of its expositional lethargy. There’s a sense that things are about to happen, and they soon do.

Given the nature of the play, writing about it opens up many spoiler-pitfalls. I will try to skirt them, but it’s impossible not to mention the engagement ring ($300,000 of diamonds) that Josh has given Kate. This is what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin, the object that has really no true value to the plot but motivates the characters to act in certain ways and pursue certain goals…and in this case, reveal underlying discontents and several dark secrets. What triggers the rising action of the play is the loss of the ring – it disappeared when Kai spilled some wine while at dinner. Where has it gone? Has someone…horrors!...stolen it?

  What follows is the breakdown of friendships as Josh’s suspicions, with underlying motivations that will eventually be revealed, turn from one guest to another. This leads to some intensely emotional confrontations in the living room, the kitchen, and finally a bedroom (as the set turns), all deftly acted out by this superb cast. In the process, the loving, familial, fraternal relationships established in the early exposition are challenged and fractured.

Part of the play’s appeal is that there’s nary a cardboard character on the stage. Baum has peopled his play with flesh-and-blood folks complete with their own fears, desires and ghosts. Thus, as they interact, ostensibly motivated by the ring’s disappearance, the audience is involved. Whether it’s Kai confronting Josh about his suspicions, or Kai challenging Alan about what he has said (or revealed), or Kate confronting Josh about how they met and his true motivations, or a major reveal late in the play that involves Gwen, Conrad, Josh and Kate (the reveal a tad melodramatic; it’s a soap-opera moment but, whatever), it all engages the audience because there have been emotional connections made with these characters.

The danger inherent in plays like The Engagement Party, with its multiple reveals and rising emotions, is that, as things heat up, actors might have a tendency to go over the top. Tresnjak doesn’t allow this to happen. Yes, there’s disillusion and disappointment expressed and voices are raised, but the heightened scenes never become an excuse for the characters to lose their inherent civility. In other words, they tremble on the “eve of destruction” of relationships but pull back from the ultimate abyss – they opt to leave rather than drive a stake into the heart of their relationhips. This makes what has been fractured in the relationships over the course of the evening all the more poignant. Although there are flashes of anger, the operative emotion at the end of the play is sadness and a sense that it all didn’t have to happen, punctuated by a very simple sound, almost inaudible, at the end of the play that is a wonderful theatrical moment.

The pleasure in watching The Engagement Party unfold is that every member of the audience can relate, in one way or another, to what occurs. We have all told “social lies,” we have all become heated and perhaps irritated to the point of mania over something that, in the end, is revealed to be trivial. We have all said things that, with the dawn, we wish we could erase from the tape of life. We have all done things that, over the years, weigh us down, that we form mental scabs over and yet, still, there is pain. The play compresses all of this into one evening’s social gathering that is meant to be joyous and yet becomes a slashing of the fabric that holds us all together.

As I exited the theater, a man in front of me turned to his companion and said. “Wasn’t that a wonderful play?” She nodded and said: “I want to cry for all of them.” Well, yes, you do want to cry for all of the characters because, well, to edit the immortal words of Pogo, “They are us.”
The Engagement Party runs through February 3. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Murder Most Melodic

Murder for Two -- Playhouse on Park -- Through February 3



                What if Agatha Christie had written one of her mystery novels under the influence of peyote while Irving Berlin was staying with her as a house guest? The result might very well have been Murder for Two, a zany musical whodunit that recently opened at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. Under the sure-handed direction of Kyle Metzger, with a book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, music by Kinosian and lyrics by Blair, this exercise in controlled silliness takes a tried-and-true Christie premise – a murder in a manorial home with all present as possible suspects – and infuses it with Marx-brother’s manic zaniness, all created by just two piano-playing actors.

                The evening opens, appropriately, with a murder. A surprise birthday party has been planned for Arthur Whitney, author of numerous mystery novels. However, as soon as he enters he is shot in the head. Who could have committed such an evil act? Soon on the scene is a police officer, Marcus (John Grieco), who hopes to be promoted to the rank of Detective. While the actual Detective is on his way, Marcus decides to solve the case and thus garner the attention of his boss, something he knows he can do if he just follows protocol, which means interviewing all of those present.
Tevor Dornor and John Grieco

                Quite a few have been invited to the party, and part of the silliness is that they are all played by one actor – the rather deft, agile and talented Trevor Dorner. Over the course of the evening he’s called upon to play the murder victim’s wife plus a femme fatale ballerina, a bilious businessman and his wife (whom he claims has murdered before), a psychiatrist, a young college student writing her thesis on murder and members of a boys’ choir.

                So, it sounds a bit like Irma Vepp or the 39 Steps parody, but there’s a difference, for both actors play the piano, and much of the plot development and interrogations are done via song. There’s an early paean to the value of “protocol,” and, perhaps the high point of the evening, three of the members of the boys’ choir bursting out into song. Then there’s the murder victim’s wife just dying to sing her show-stopping song (she finally gets the chance).

                Along the way there’s quite a bit of audience interaction, starting even before the lights go down. At one point, an audience member is invited on stage to portray a man dying of poison. All of it requires a huge suspension of disbelief, but if you buy the premise early on you won’t have any trouble embracing this one-act exercise in pun-riddled goofiness.

                Is the murder solved? Well, yes, although to accept the resolution you can’t be a slave to logic. Oh, yes, you will also learn who stole the party’s ice cream. Of course, the murder investigation is merely the frame to allow two very talented actors to show their stuff and their piano-playing prowess. It’s a tongue-in-cheek production from start to finish and a must-see for those who don’t demand that every theatrical production deliver a message and deal with relevant, soul-searching issues. Sometimes you just go to the theater to have fun.
                Murder for Two runs through February 3. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Much Ado About a Lot of Things

Miller, Mississippi -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Through February 3


                I think I’ll write a play. Hmm, let me see, what can it be about? Well, how about racism and the Civil Rights movement – that’s always a hot topic. But maybe it could be about generational incest, or perhaps homosexuality and AIDs, or maybe I’ll create a portrait of the South in the middle of the 20th century, with so many issues still left unresolved (and just a smidgen of Southern Gothic thrown in for good measure – the Flannery O’Connor thing), or just bring my audience into the lives of the members of a dysfunctional family. So many possibilities. What’s a playwright to do? Well, why choose? Why not deal with all of these topics. That, apparently, is what Boo Killebrew decided to do in writing Miller, Mississippi, which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Lee Sunday Evans. As might be imagined, the results are, at best, mixed.

                Spanning some 30 or so years in the life of the Miller family, this somewhat unfocused play attempts to be many things to many people and, as a result, as the person who accompanied me suggested, it is often “tediously entertaining.” That may seem a bit oxymoronic, but it’s apt. The play opens with a bang (literally – Daddy-dearest has shot himself)) followed by the Miller’s housekeeper, Doris (Benja Kay Thomas), telling a story to the three Miller children: Thomas (Roderick Hill), Becky (Leah Karpel), and John (Jacob Perkins). The three actors playing the children do their best to portray adolescents, but their physical appearances belie their purported ages. In any event, it’s a haunted house tale, and it soon becomes apparent that the house in the story is a symbol for the Miller abode, although Killebrew doesn’t make as much of this as she might have.

                Essentially aloof from the intimate goings-on in the family is the children’s mother, Mildred (Charlotte Booker), whose parental guidance, fueled by a couple of stiff drinks, consists of bromides and nods to the social mores of mid-century Mississippi; thus it falls to Doris to provide guidance and a certain amount of stability to the children’s lives (think Scout and Jem’s relationship with Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird, although Atticus certainly wasn’t aloof).
              The nature of the various familial dysfunctions is slowly revealed over a rather long first act – a lot is implied that will be confirmed in the second act. Given the nature of the play, the actors are required to age, and once their characters reach their maturity the actors seem a lot more comfortable in their roles. It’s Karpel who handles this process the best, for with just a change of hairstyle and a growing slump of the shoulders she is quite believable both as a teenage girl and finally a totally repressed woman who has essentially become a slave to the house.

                Whether you resonate with any of the multiple plot lines is probably determined by what you bring to the play. Are you sensitive to racial issues and the continuing struggle for racial equality? Then the play, at moments, will speak to you. Have you ever had to deal with incest, either personally or within a broader family construct? Well, then, there will be moments for you, although John’s explanation for the incest (essentially: “Daddy did it, so I thought it was okay. I was just walking in his footsteps.”) seems a bit lame, and why Becky succumbs and allows the relationships to continue is never really dealt with (that would take an entire play in and of itself). Have you had a parent who was in denial? Well, you’ll respond to Mildred and why she doesn’t do more to protect her children. Are you of Southern heritage? Well, then, the depiction of the Mississippi mind-set will possibly evoke memories.

          It’s often difficult to figure out how to end a play, especially with so many narrative strings being interwoven. In the case of Miller, Mississippi, it’s not clear what we are to think about the final extended scene: Thomas prostrate in a bed, dying of AIDs, while on the television John, a newly elected state senator, proclaims the glories of Mississippi. What’s being said? What’s the point? Evil and mendacity triumph? One might wish that Killibrew had reflected a bit more on how she began the play – that story about the haunted house oozing its evil – and used that to at least bring everything full-circle.

                Quite simply, Killibrew puts too much on her play’s plate, so it’s difficult to savor any single offering, and thus, at the end, you might feel over-stuffed and under-satisfied. The basic problem is that causation for this family’s problems is unclear: is it Mississippi and the Southern mind-set (and the fact that many white children were essentially raised by black women)? Or could it be within the family itself, which means the play could just have easily been set in Vermont. Is the evil of racism at the core of the family’s dissolution? The theater’s lobby display is heavy on the history of the Civil Rights movement and the atrocities that occurred during that period, but is that supposed to explain the incest or Thomas’s alienation because of his homosexuality or Mildred’s detachment from her children’s problems? Or can it all be placed at the doorstep of the turbulence and violence the country went through in the three-plus decades the play covers? ‘Tis a puzzlement.
                Miller, Mississippi runs through February 3. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.