Saturday, December 17, 2011

“A Wonderful Life” and Pavlov -- Long Wharf Theatre

Dan Domingues in "It's a Wonderful Life"
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Do we well up when Clarence, guardian angel second-class, gets his wings because we’re happy for him and for George Bailey and for…well, just being alive, or is it because we’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” so many times that, like good old Pavlov’s dog (who was conditioned by the Russian physiologist to salivate when a bell rang), we just can’t help ourselves. The bell hanging on the Christmas tree rings, Zuzu tells us an angel has just gotten his wings, and suddenly there’s a catch in our collective throats and tears start to flow.

As an experiment, I invited someone who has never seen Frank Capra’s film (yes, there is someone living right here in Connecticut who has never seen the movie) to the opening of Joe Landry’s adaptation at Long Wharf Theatre. I said nothing about the film or the adaptation, just sat next to her for the 80 or so minutes the show runs and when the lights went up turned to see her response. Her eyes glistened as she said, “I loved it.” So much for Pavlov.

There really is quite a lot to like and…well, love… about the show, although there’s a bit of a false step at the start, which I must ascribe to director Eric Ting. The premise is that we are an audience viewing a radio broadcast of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with five actors playing all of the roles and a foley artist (Nathan A. Roberts) providing the myriad sound effects.

For some unknown reason, Ting opts to begin the evening with the studio (designed by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams) in mothballs – equipment shrouded in sheets, dust on the scripts. The rear door opens and a young man (Alex Moggridge) enters with a flashlight. He wanders around the studio as if he is investigating a crypt. Suddenly the other actors appear, the studio comes to life, and the announcer (Dan Domingues) proclaims the name of the evening’s production, which will star, much to his surprise, the young man as George Bailey.

Okay. An interesting premise, I guess, but it goes absolutely nowhere because Ting chooses not to develop the idea that our young man is a fish out of water (nor does Landry’s script support this idea), though there are occasional moments when the character (not the actor) seems a bit confused as to what it happening, as a sub-plot it’s a non-starter.

I guess our take on this premise is supposed to be that this young man gets so caught up in the proceedings (as is expected of the audience) that he suspends his disbelief and actually becomes George Bailey. Maybe…maybe not. It’s all an unnecessary directorial spin on a pretty straightforward premise. Fortunately, it’s also not central to enjoyment of the production, which has a script that is a feast for character actors.

Along with Moggridge and Domingues, Kate MacCluggage, Kevyn Morrow and Ariel Woodiwiss bring the townspeople of Bedford Falls to vivid life. Besides George, there’s the cold-hearted Mr. Potter (played by Domingues, who does a great Lionel Barrymore impersonation), Mary Hatch (MacCluggage’s main assignment), the love of George’s life, Uncle Billy and Clarence the angel (both played by Morrow), and Violet, the tease and potential tart (Woodiwiss’s characters).
When they aren’t playing their main roles, the actors convincingly (and in rapid fire) shift responsibilities to the lesser characters: Ma Bailey, Ernie, Bert, Mr. Gower, Sam Wainright, George’s brother, Harry, Giuseppe Martini, the three Bailey children (Woodiwiss gets to be Zuzu) and Nick the surly bartender (Domingues also does a great Sheldon Leonard). They also gather together on occasion to provide crowd noises.
The power and magic of the theater is in evidence here in this production, for the audience is being asked to watch actors in a radio studio putting on a play…and buy into what is going on in the play and care about the characters. That this, in fact, is what happens, as was evident from the heartfelt standing ovation given to the cast at the end of the evening, is a credit to the audience, to Landry, the actors and to Ting, who once he sheds himself of the opening trope, gets down to business with a vengeance, giving us non-stop dialogue, movement and sound effects that allow the evening to span 30 or so years in the lives of the characters without giving the audience time to take a breath.
Pitch this play to a producer in 1911 and you would have been laughed out of the office: “They’ll never believe it. The audience will be confused. Where is this supposed to be happening, a radio station or a town? You mean the actors play different characters but there ain’t no costume changes? Get outta here, kid!”
Yes, the audience believes it. No, the audience is not confused. Yes, it all happens in a radio station and in Bedford Falls and…in the audience members’ minds. So, as the bell rings and George says, “Way to go, Clarence,” we can also say, “Way to go, Long Wharf,” you’ve created a wonderful holiday gift for Connecticut theater-goers.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” runs through Saturday, Dec. 31. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Monday, December 5, 2011

"The Laffer" and the Doctor -- A Review of "A Doctor in Spite of Himself"

                        Liam Craig, Justine Williams and Stephen Epp. Photo by Carol Rosegg

I once had a student who couldn’t stop laughing. He’d start to answer a question and then begin giggling. Any attempt at repression caused the reverse: he’d end up laughing so hard tears rolled down his chubby cheeks. At first his uncontrolled giggling and guffaws was humorous, but soon it became a distraction and, finally, a royal pain in the derriere. I bring this up because it may explain my reaction to Moliere’s “A Doctor in Spite of Himself,” which recently opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre under the direction of Christopher Bayes, who also adapted the work, along with Steven Epp, who stars in the comedy as the pseudo-doctor, Sganarelle.
            The opening-night audience was well primed for the shenanigans and tom-foolery to follow when, minutes before the curtain, the ushers and house manager started dancing to Harry Nilsson’s “Lime in the Coconut.” Soon audience members were on their feet clapping and dancing in the aisles, setting the mood for the light-hearted farce to follow – benign silliness would rule the evening.  
            The lights dimmed and across a bare stage, with brick back wall revealed, hobbled an Old Man (Chivas Michael – who also plays Leandre) doing what might best be called a geriatric goose-step. The sight was mildly humorous, but a lady sitting immediately behind me in the center of the theater (I will henceforth refer to her as The Laffer) began laughing as if the punch line to the greatest joke ever written had just been delivered…and she didn’t stop laughing for the entire performance. Far be it for me to suggest that the Rep has stooped to planting a shill in the audience, so I will lay her unbridled hilarity on the doorstep of having ingested more liquids than solids during her pre-theater meal.
            Her constant braying – yes, it was that loud – was immediately distracting and soon engendered the aforementioned pain. Thus, the lime/coconut mood quickly evaporated, at least for me, replaced by a growing exasperation not conducive to truly appreciating what was going on up on the stage. I guess you might say I viewed the play through glasses coated in sour grape juice.

The cast of "A Doctor in Spite of Himself" Photo by Carol Rosegg

            To the play. The Old Man wheels out an out-house which is quickly transformed into a puppet stage, which Bayes uses for a sight gag that initially is amusing but, with repetition, loses its humor. Sganarelle quickly appears along with his wife, Martine (Justine Williams), whose bouncing dugs elicited shrieks from The Laffer. Martine, harridan-extraordinaire, soon begins railing against her husband, who gives as good as he gets. He is quickly sent off to chop wood (much is made throughout the evening of how he handles his wood), leaving Martine to devise her revenge. She doesn’t have to think long, for Valere (Jacob Ming Trent) and Lucas (Liam Craig) quickly appear on the scene. This Laurel-and-Hardy duo are in search of a doctor to cure the sudden selective mutism of Lucinde (Renata Friedman), daughter of their master, Geronte (Allen Gilmore). As Martine’s has suggested, the two beat Sganarelle with sticks until he agrees that he is, in fact, a renowned doctor, and off to Geronte’s mansion they go.
            To allow for a set change there is a scene-in-one that has most of the cast dressed as masked Renaissance doctors wearing blood-stained smocks and white cones on their heads and doing a song and dance routine, accompanied by Greg Powers and Robertson Witmer, that satirizes the medical profession, Unfortunately, what with The Laffer roaring behind me I missed many of the lyrics – I must assume they were very funny.
            At the mansion, Jacqueline (Julie Briskman) fills in Geronte on his daughter’s current plight, her sudden silence brought on by her father refusing to allow her to marry the penniless Leandre. Sganarelle et al soon appear on the scene and what follows is a series of skits in which much is made of Jacqueline’s breasts and Geronte’s belly. All is brought to resolution when Leandre, disguised as Sganarelle’s assistant, agrees to disguise himself as himself so that Lucinde will marry him and will be shaken out of her mutism when she finds she has married the wrong man who, of course, is the right man. Get it? Got it. Good!
            There is, of course, a lot of physical comedy – outright slapstick – which is performed with a great deal of panache by the entire cast, and Bayes and Epp have updated the script to allow for quite a few theatrical and topical allusions (including the “Occupy” movement). There are many moments to smile at, especially if you are at all familiar with the stage stereotypes and acting techniques associated with commedia dell’arte, but somehow, save for the magical Briskman as Jacqueline (she does an extended scene in which she is a Blanche DuBois clone, a cockney maid, and a foul-mouthed version of Ethel Merman), the performances seem a bit forced – everyone is working just a bit too hard at being funny to be funny. Then again, maybe everyone was very funny but I was so busy being bedeviled by The Laffer that I missed it all.
            “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” runs through Dec. 17. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to