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