Friday, February 22, 2013

Metaphors Run Amok

"The Curse of the Starving Class" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru March 10

                        Judith Ivey and Peter Albrink. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Acting wisdom says don’t do a scene with an adorable kid or a puppy. Well, to that you can add stay away from any scene with a lamb, especially a lamb that seems to have an uncanny sense of timing when it comes to emitting “Baaas.” However, the cast of Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class,” which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, really doesn’t have a choice, so there they are, delivering their lines as the encaged lamb does its adorable bit and responds…often on cue…to what the actors are saying. Ah, but lambs, being what they are, or what they symbolize in literature (and religious texts), often meet with less than felicitous ends, and Shepard, who isn’t above milking a good metaphor for all it’s worth, starts by giving us a humorous look at a dysfunctional, hardscrabble family clinging to their California land by their fingernails, a look that, eventually, also meets a less than felicitous end as message trumps drama, symbolism runs riot, and we are left with an existential silence that seems something of a cop-out.

The family in question consists of Ella, the mother (Judith Ivey), a lady who dreams of touring Europe, the alcoholic father, Weston (Kevin Tighe), who dreams of making a big score, when he’s not simply dreaming of oblivion, their son, Wesley (Peter Albrink), who has limited dreams, constrained by the dominance of his parents, and daughter Emma (Elvy Yost), a free spirit who dreams in scenarios – she is a car mechanic, a novelist, an ex-pat living in Mexico. They all live on land that may have value, if it is sold to developers, but currently yields nothing more than angst, in a house with a perpetually empty refrigerator (a much-milked trope) and a broken front door, compliments of Weston’s last visit to the family manse, a visit that required him to knock down and destroy the door to gain entrance. All of the family members, save Wesley, want out, and the means of departure, at least for Mom and Dad, is to sell the land. The problem is, unbeknownst to each other, they are working at cross purposes…and have been gulled by the same con man, Taylor (John Procaccino).

The first act of the play has a skewed “All in the Family” feel to it, for the family’s dysfunctionality goes beyond the norm, what with Wesley urinating on his sister’s 4-H posters as Ella watches dispassionately, the maggot-ridden lamb housed in the kitchen, and Weston, upon his return, bedding down on the kitchen table. There are also a lot of dreams and desires expressed (tenuously connected to an ill-defined American Dream), as well as a discussion of the family curse – the males seem to have nitro-glycerin running in their veins. It’s obvious that this family is held together by spit and bailing wire and it won’t take much to rip it apart.

The ripping apart occurs in the second act, and it is here that the whole shooting match spins out of control as metaphor clashes with metaphor, what with a testicle-eating eagle, an attempted cleansing of the soul and rebirth through a bath-baptism that goes awry, a gorging on the products we buy to soothe our angst-filled lives, a sins-of-the-father scenario that’s just a bit too literal, and multiple sacrifices that do not placate a disaffected God. The characters, if believable in the first act, become pawns that Shepard uses to deliver his muddled, multiple messages, all with a false gravitas that insists there’s more going on here than meets the eye. There isn’t. It’s po-boy Grand-Guignol, with the most devastating moment (it deals with an explosion of a car) lost in the shuffle, for the loss of one of the main characters in said explosion has no impact on the other characters…there’s nary a comment made. I guess this is supposed to be a bit of dramatic irony, but it is mystifying.

Ivey, as is to be expected, turns in a stellar performance, as does Tighe, creating a husband and wife team straight out of Greek tragedy, both driven by their tragic flaws, and Yost has some fine moments, chief among them a temper tantrum early in the first act and a soliloquy that captures her character’s dreams of escape and revenge. Albrink, however, seems to be stuck at a single emotional level so that the zombie-like character he becomes at the end of the play seems not much of a change from the earlier Wesley.

All in all, this graphic take on the American Dream gone rancid is mostly surface sturm und drang, leaving at least one member of the audience completely unmoved by the harrowing events that occur in the second act. There can be no catharsis if you simply don’t care about the characters (although I did feel a bit of emotion for the lamb).

“Curse of the Starving Class” runs through March 10. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Friday, February 8, 2013

"Stones" a Delightful Send-up

"Stones in His Pockets" -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Feb. 16

                           Fred Arsenault and Euan Morton. Photo by Joan Marcus

Now, don’t you know, the Yanks are in town and they’re makin’ a filllem. What’s it about, you’re askin’? Well, I don’t rightly know, but, Jaysus to Jaysus, they’re payin’ forty quid a day for us just to stand around lookin’ like the poor Irish sods we are, so if I was you, I’d get me arse down there and not ask any questions.

Good advice, for “Stones in His Pockets,” runs only until Feb. 16 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and you don’t want to miss the acting tour de force on display there…plus the cows…and the occasional horse.

Written by Marie Jones and beautifully directed by Evan Yionoulis, this send-up of Hollywood types and Irish quirks and idiosyncrasies is an absolute delight, though it takes some easing into, for there are a host of characters – both American and Irish – all played by two phenomenal actors, Fred Arsenault and Euan Morton, who are capable of, at one second, being a crotchety old man (the last surviving extra on “The Quiet Man”), then, in the next second a wild Irish lad on Ecstasy, and then a fey assistant director, all without a costume change.

This kaleidoscopic series of transmogrifications is at first a bit confusing, but soon you get to know the characters – the frustrated film director, the female star, her heavy-handed security guard, and a host of locals – and settle in as scene after scene unfolds, with two extras – the base characters, if you will – Jake (Arsenault) and Charlie (Morton) – commenting on and interacting with all of the other characters (i.e., themselves), often requiring split-second changes that Yionoulis facilitates by having the actors spin around – Arsenault is Jake and then – whoosh – he’s mincing about as the assistant director and then – whoosh – he’s Sean, the young man high on drugs; Morton is Charlie, and then he’s the female lead, and then he’s the film director.

The play shifts gears with the opening of the second act, which has Jake and Charlie sitting down stage as dailies (created by Edward Morris) from the filming are projected on a screen – and the film sequences from “The Quiet Valley” (a nod to “The Quiet Man” and “How Green Was My Valley”) are an unqualified hoot, with Arsenault and Morton as the leads in the film – plus a lot of cows and a scene-stealing horse. There’s a certain wackiness here – think Monty Python – but in what follows Jones feels compelled to deliver several messages about various forms of oppression and (my name is Danihy, so I can write this) the inherent need of the Irish to wallow in suffering. At times it gets a bit heavy but, fortunately, these times are few and far between. Some may cavil that the complaint, made by one of the characters, that an Irish wake without whiskey is a travesty, is an ethnic slur, but having attended many such events, I would concur…as would the corpse, if he or she could sit up and voice an opinion…and some have, or so I am told.

Yale Rep is known for taking chances. Sometimes they work, sometimes (in my opinion) they don’t, but with “Stones in His Pockets” (the title referring to the weight a person intent on suicide by drowning will add to his person), the chances taken are admirable and speak to the Rep’s trust in its audience to be able to shift gears as quickly as do the actors on the stage. If nothing else, “Stones in His Pockets” points out how intimate the relationship is between what is occurring on the stage and what is going on in the minds of those watching. It’s a symbiotic relationship, as it must be. The actors offer up a created reality, but the audience must buy in, must fill in the blanks, as it were. When it’s done right, as it is in this production, everyone can take a bow (even the curtain call is humorous), including the audience.

“Stones in His Pockets” runs through Feb. 16. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"Ancestral Voices" Tugs at the Heartstrings

"Ancestral Voices" -- MTC MainStage -- Thru Feb. 17

                        Seated: Marty Bongfeldt, Michael McGurk and Jo Anne Parady. 
                        Standing: John Little and John Flarhety in the MTC MainStage 
                        production of "Ancestral Voices." Photo by Marc Porier

There was a time called the 1930s and there was a place called Buffalo. The 30s are now chronicled in history books, and Buffalo wears a different face and speaks a different language than it did six-plus decades ago, but you can return to that time and that place at MTC MainStage in Westport to view a very sound production of A. R. Gurney’s “Ancestral Voices,” a play (if you will – some argue about its genre) about change and what is lost and gained in the inevitable process.

Gurney wrote the play to be read on-book (i.e., with the actors holding the scripts in their hands). Many companies have chosen to stage the play differently, but director Kevin Connors has chosen to do it the old fashioned way…and it works. The actors carry their scripts in black binders, often resting them on two metal music stands. When not standing, the actors sit in chairs aligned in a row on the stage. Sound boring? It’s not. In fact, what this type of staging reveals is the power of the word and the skill that actors bring to their craft, for you soon forget the scripts in hand as you are taken back to a time and place when life was, if not simpler, at least bound by rules that, if abided by, provided security, and if broken, placed the sinners under the unflinching eyes of society’s angry demi-gods.

The play, which spans three decades, is narrated by Eddie (Michael McGurk) and opens with a family on a car ride to visit Grandma, but there is tension, for, as Harvey (John Flaherty), the father, drives, listens and gently chastises his children, Jane, the mother (Marty Bongfeldt), must explain to her three bickering children riding in the back seat – Eddie being the middle child -- that Grandma Madeline (Jo Anne Parady) has left Grandpa Ed (John Little) for another man whom they must now call Uncle Roger (also played by Little), a long-standing family friend who is into horse riding (as is, now, Grandma). What follows are three lines of development: Jane’s attempt to attend to the needs of her divorced parents, Eddie’s relationship with his grandfather, and the growing tension over what will happen when Grandma and Grandpa finally meet again, all set against a running commentary on Buffalo’s hidebound caste system and the growing threat of world-wide conflict.

In one respect, the play speaks to anyone who has ever asked himself or herself: “Should I stay or should I leave?” The staying may mean security at the price of a stultifying sameness that leads to a death-in-life existence; the going may open up glorious possibilities or introduce problems undreamt of.

At the heart of the play are three set-pieces: the fishing trip that Grandpa Ed and Eddie go on; a family dinner wherein the price Grandma has paid for her ‘liberation’ is revealed; and the final confrontation between Grandma and Grandpa at a family wedding. Although the set consists of nothing more than the aforementioned chairs and music stands in front of a simple archway, all three of these set-pieces are fully realized by the actors…with the help of the audience, which must suspend it’s disbelief and ‘imagine’ the milieu in which the set-pieces occur. As such, as Gurney notes in the printed program, the “form itself has an archaic quality, invoking, in some way the old radio plays that disappeared after the war.”

Under Connor’s direction the actors work extremely well together as they move forward and back as if they are spirits from the past taking on physical form to tell their parts of the story, then slipping back into the shadows. Especially moving is the fishing trip set-piece in which Little wistfully comments on all that has passed from the world while McGurk, evoking child-like eagerness and hero-worship, takes it all in. Equally engrossing is the wedding scene. Here Gurney posits three possible scenarios, two of which involve Grandpa finally winning the day, with the third – what really happened – so touching because, though somewhat anti-climactic, rings so true.

This is a gentle tale about gentler times, though those who lived through them found them as fraught with angst, danger, anxiety and confusion as we do in our time, and that is why the play – call it what you will – works so well without all the usual theatrical trappings. It speaks to the human condition, which is eternal.

“Ancestral Voices” runs through Feb. 17. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Midnight" is Manic Fun

"Midnight and Magnolias" -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Feb. 10

                                 Kevin Elden, Bill Mootos and Allan Greenberg

What do bananas and peanuts have to do with “Gone With the Wind?” Well, if you buy into Ron Hutchinson’s “Moonlight and Magnolias,” which recently opened at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, without the fruit and the legumes the epic story of Scarlett and Rhett might never have made it to the silver screen.

It’s 1939, and David O Selznick (Kevin Elden) has just halted production on “Gone With the Wind” because the script just isn’t working and the director, George Cukor, is not working fast enough. Rumors start to fly and Louis B. Mayer, the autocratic head of MGM – and Selznick’s father-in-law – is on the phone constantly. The project is as high-profile as it can be and if Selznick fails he will be just another one of the many mighty who have fallen. To save the project, Selznick taps Victor Fleming (Bill Mootos), who is currently directing “The Wizard of Oz,” to take on the directorial task, and Ben Hecht (Allan Greenberg) to rewrite the script – in five days. That’s the set-up. What follows is an entertaining blend of slap-stick, farce and message-driven drama that, under the wise, creative hand of director Russell Garrett, speeds along to an engaging final, visually satisfying (and humorous) coup de theatre.

The fact that Fleming will direct and Hecht will do the rewrite is not dramatic in itself, so Hutchinson has envisioned what went down during those days when the film was saved, first and foremost by having Hecht and Fleming come to Selznick’s office and being locked in, at Selznick’s command, by Miss Poppenghul (Denise Walker), Selznick’s secretary. The three men will stay in the room – sustained by only peanuts and bananas (Selznick believes the fruit is “brain food”) until the task of rewriting the script has been accomplished. There’s only one problem: Hecht has never read the book, and as he is filled in on the basic plot he believes the film will never be made. Selznick doesn’t have time for Hecht to read through the Margaret Mitchell’s tome, so he and Fleming set out to act out the story. Thus, the two will play, at one time or another, all the major characters. The result runs the gamut from the merely humorous to the outrageously hilarious.

Once Hecht agrees to write the script, director Garrett gives us an inspired four or five minutes of mime (which will be somewhat indecipherable to anyone who has not read the book or seen the film), in which Elden and Mootos play out many of the film’s opening scenes to the strains of Leroy Anderson’s “Typewriter,” an inspired choice of musical accompaniment, the actor’s moving to the syncopated rhythm of the music as the “clacking” of the typewriter captures Hecht’s frantic efforts to capture all that is going down. Garrett will return to this music as the second act opens, although this time it is slowed down until it becomes a dirge, audibly telegraphing the mood in the office as the lights come up.

Garrett is blessed with a fine cast, each member blessed with a sharp sense of comic timing. Elden’s Selznick runs the gamut from elation to despair as he prances, commands, begs and pleads, and, at times, goes slightly haywire. Playing off him, Greenberg’s Hecht is satiric and snide, creating a character who is torn between plying his trade (which he is very good at) and trying to live up to a certain set of ideals. It is here that Greenberg stumbles a bit, although it is perhaps not his fault, for his character is charged with being the conscience of the play – the one who speaks out against racism in all of its forms. Thus, he is tasked with delivering some soliloquies that scream “Message.” In these moments his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it, as if the actor knows that he’s the mouthpiece for the playwright and he can’t wait to get back to being the sharp-shooting Chicago reporter who takes no verbal prisoners.

Mootos, as Fleming, is given many of the best lines -- “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a shit!” -- and Garrett has given him some of the play’s best moments, chief among them the “birthing” scene and the banana scene early in act two in which Fleming, now reduced to wearing an undershirt, boxer shorts and black socks held up by garters, discovers an uneaten banana under a couch. He then tries to open the banana – the effort produces some delightful visual humor culminating in his attempt to use his head as a vise as a much bedraggled Miss Poppenghul stares in wonder and confusion.

Walker’s much put upon Poppenghul is dutifully subservient – and confused with the goings-on in the office. She eventually has a lovely break-down scene in which she cannot distinguish between past, present or the task at hand…is given the day off…and returns to lift a banana high in the air (don’t ask – just go and see).

This is a play in which the set, created by Erik Diaz, is essentially destroyed in every performance as the actors tumble and fight, throw bananas and peanuts at each other, and generally have a hell of a good time. So does the audience, although I suspect that a lot of the visual and verbal references will be lost on those who have never known a world without a computer. A line like “Stalin…he’s too nice” will mean nothing to those who think the Comintern refers to a dance.

This is a sprightly production of a play that, although lumbered a bit by too many messages, rises above being meaningful to be delightfully silly, and will engage anyone who grew up in an era when the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” was considered risqué.

“Moonlight and Magnolias” runs through Feb. 10. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

-- Geary Danihy