Sunday, August 25, 2013

Whence "Oblivion"?

"Oblivion" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through Sept. 8
                             Johanna Day, Katie Broad, and Reg Rogers in
                             the world premiere of “Oblivion.” Photo by Carol Rosegg

Dialogue evolves from character. Whether it’s “To be or not to be,” “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” you know when you hear the words that this character, in this situation, is speaking his or her truth, or at least what he or she believes truth to be. Then there are words, be they ever so well written, that are spoken by an actor on stage that just don’t seem to be coming from the character speaking them. You can sense what you are hearing is the playwright’s voice, not the character’s. Such is the case with many of the lines delivered in “Oblivion,” a humorous and, at moments, insightful play by Carly Mensch receiving its world premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse. Parts work. Yet, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
            The play, directed with a good sense of pacing and character interaction by Mark Brokaw, deals with a nuclear family consisting of a father, Dixon (Reg Rogers), a burnt-out lawyer now ostensibly writing a novel that will expose the evils of the legal profession (a la Grisham), a mother, Pam (Johanna Day), a television producer, their rebellious daughter, Julie (Katie Broad), and her high school friend, Bernard (Aidan Kunze), an erstwhile filmmaker with a fixation on the film critic Pauline Kael.

                         Katie Broad and Aidan Kunze. Photo by Carol Rosegg 

There’s trouble in the family, ostensibly because Julie is a teenager and, well, by definition…but it goes deeper than that, for Mom and Dad are freethinkers, of a sort, and Julie has just discovered religion…actually, she’s just discovered Jesus, via Bernard, who is, himself, not too sure about the whole religious thing but is willing to go along for the ride because he loves Julie.
Conflict abounds…Mom and Dad have different views on parenting, and different views on Julie’s sudden fascination with religion, and different views on, well, just about everything, and Julie, well she has shifting views on her parents and God and sex and love and kissing and…well, just about everything a teenager might fixate on…including the kitchen sink. No, sorry, she has no thoughts on the kitchen sink…or, at least, if she does, they aren’t expressed.
As the atoms in this nuclear family whirl about each other, Mensch creates many moments that ring true and elicit laughter, but it soon becomes clear that the playwright is taking on a bit too much: too many themes, too many roads down which her characters half-travel but never arrive at a clear destination. There’s religion and teenage angst and rebellion, mid-life crisis and ennui, marital infidelity (real or imagined)…and filmmaking, both its theory and practice. In the end, which has Bernard screening his first film, there is supposed to be some kind of resolution, the nature of which remains to be seen.

            Katie Broad and Johanna Day. Photo by Carol Rosegg 

The show, however, by and large works, and that is to the credit of the four actors who work well together and generate more steam and heat than the dialogue often allows. Broad gives the audience a perfect example of a teenage girl in faux crisis, with appropriate facial expressions and body language that convey her disdain for anything her parents might suggest, and Day and Rogers are a believable middle-aged couple trying to find again the reasons they once came together. Most of the heavy, playwright-thinking dialogue falls upon Kunze to deliver, and he does what he can with it, but you sense that no teenager, no matter how cinema-smitten, would ever utter these words (or not know that his idol, Kael, has gone off to the big screening room in the sky).
“Oblivion” makes several strong rushes down the runway but never truly lifts off. That is perhaps because the play is unsure of its destination, which was obvious from the audience reaction when it finally realized, “Well, that’s all folks.” Yes, but what about God and religion and…well, everything else that was on Mensch’s mind when she sat down to write her play? All answered with a black-out, which might be translated as a cop-out.
“Oblivion” runs through September 8. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Time, No Matter How Horrific, Stands Still

Time Stands Still -- Hartford TheaterWorks -- Thru Sept. 15

                          Tim Altmeyer and Erika Rolfsrud. Photo by Lanny Nagler.

Much coverage has been given to the problems that combat veterans face during and after their service. Through countless news articles and television specials we have become aware that these young men and women may, as a result of what they have experienced in a war zone, suffer depression, anxiety and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Little attention, however, has been given to those who cover these conflicts – the journalists and photographers who, in words and pictures, attempt to capture “the horror” of war. They are witnesses to carnage, cruelty and chaos, yet must, at least on the surface, maintain objectivity. The price for doing so can be great.

Such is the subject of “Time Stands Still,” a gripping play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies that recently opened at Hartford TheaterWorks under the very capable direction of TheaterWorks’ artistic director Rob Ruggiero.

This 2010 Tony Award Nominee for Best Play, set in a loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 2009, opens with James (Tim Altmeyer) assisting Sarah (Erika Rolfsrud) into the loft, for she, a photojournalist, has just returned from Iraq where she was seriously wounded in a roadside bombing incident – her face is scarred, an arm is in a sling and she has a cast on her right leg. Not long after their entrance it becomes obvious that all is not well in this non-marital relationship that has lasted for over eight years – one of the initial flashpoints being that James, a journalist, left Iraq after experiencing a searing incident in which children were violently killed, his body becoming covered in their blood and viscera. Sarah stayed behind until she was injured.

But the couple’s problems run deeper, for while in Iraq alone, Sarah had a relationship with their “fixer,” an Iraqi “guide” of sorts, a relationship James is aware of…but bubbling beneath all of this is Sarah’s continuing commitment to her job and James’ slow realization that he now wants to lead a “normal,” “comfortable” life. It is out of this tension that Marguiles has crafted an often riveting, multi-dimensional drama that deals with both the physical and mental scars of war, the “ethic” of the journalist covering that war, and the mindset of those who must write about or photograph the cruelty that is the nature of combat, especially the devastating impact the conflict can have on civilians.

                         Matthew Boston and Liz Holman. Photo by Lanny Nagler

Adding fuel to the fire is the appearance of the two journalists’ editor, Richard, (Matthew Boston) and his companion, Mandy (Liz Holtan), a woman, an event planner, much younger than Richard. The graying editor is obviously smitten. Sarah, and to a lesser extent, James are initially disdainful of this May-October relationship, but as my play-going partner pointed out, Marguiles uses this initial reaction as one of the means by which he chronicles the changes that James, and especially Sarah (who ‘softens’ as the evening progresses), undergo.

As these four characters interact in the loft, beautifully crafted by set designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella and creatively lit (including a final, fitting black-out) by John Lasiter, the audience is challenged to deal with the cost – and the morality behind – delivering the news seen on television or read about in newspapers or magazines. The major problem, as Mandy points out in an emotionally charged scene (using an anecdote about an elephant and her baby caught in a sandstorm, a segment of a documentary she saw), is that to capture the story or the image the journalist must stand aloof, remain uninvolved, as people are suffering and dying. Mandy asks Sarah how she can just stand there; why doesn’t she help? Sarah’s answer is that by doing her job she is helping – James is no longer so sure.

Ruggiero has directed this quartet of outstanding actors with an eye towards pacing that is, at moments, breathtaking, especially during the numerous arguments as the actors bite into each other’s lines in a manner anyone who has had a heated verbal conversation with a friend or loved one will find totally believable.

Though some of the questions Marguiles raises are answered, and there is resolution of sorts for at least three of the characters, the core question of the ethical nature of what journalists must do to ‘get’ the story is left up to the audience to decide, for though James has found a certain peace, Sarah clings to her first love, which at the end of the show she grips with all of her strength as she looks through the aperture and, for a moment, time stands still for her.

The play runs through Sept. 15. Tickets: 860-527-7838 or go to

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Delightful "Dreamgirls"

"Dreamgirls" -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Through Sept. 1

            Brennyn Lark Langhorn, Jennlee Shallow, Sheniqua Denise Trotman,                                Ashley Jeudy. Photo by Anne Hudson

Every so often, and it’s rare, the Ivoryton Playhouse bites off a bit more than it can produce, especially when it takes on “big” musicals, but such is not the case with its production of “Dreamgirls.” Blessed with a fantastic cast superbly directed by Lawrence Thelen and deftly choreographed by Todd L. Underwoood, this show pleases on just about every level. At the curtain call the cast got the obligatory standing “O,” but in this case it was more than well deserved.

The musical, with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics and book by Tom Eyen, opened on Broadway in December, 1981, won six Tony Awards, and was subsequently made into a film. It tells the story of a three-girl singing group (a la The Supremes and the Shirelles) attempting to find both their style and their “voice” as they deal with demanding managers, record company executives, the pay-offs that grease the palms to get songs played on the radio and their own emotional development.

The plot is simplistic – girls want to achieve – girls fail early – girls fight back and find success – girls start “bitchin’” at each other (mostly over men – and who sings ‘lead’) – girls break up – girls come together in the end. Such is the stuff of Broadway and Hollywood fluff, but it’s enjoyable fluff. So, it’s not gripping drama, but the songs, and how they are delivered, are what this show is all about, and Ivoryton has managed to gather together a host of talented actors who know how to sell the songs they are given. They result is often mesmerizing.

“Dreamgirls” has gone though many iterations, and the version offered by Ivoryton is “Dreamgirls” lite, but that’s okay because it allows the songs to drive the show and the talent to shine. The brightest, if stellar power can be measured, is Sheniqua Denise Trotman as Effie, the disaffected Dreamgirl, the one who should be the lead singer, should get her man, but doesn’t, and has to reinvent herself. The role has been played by many divas, and it is often oversold, but Trotman never loses sight of the ache beneath the false bravado. Hence, her rendition of “I’m Not Going,” which often comes off as strident showcasing, is heartfelt and moving. She really makes you feel the need and the hurt…and the longing. It closes Act I and makes you want to come back for more.

                         Caliaf St. Aubyn as Jimmy Early. Photo by Anne Hudson.

Then there’s Caliaf St. Aubyn as Jimmy “Thunder” Early (think James Brown morphing into Jackie Wilson). His performance as the Soul Brother who has to turn the funk down to play to the larger record-buying audience (read white audience) is a tour de force. He has the moves, he has the gyrations, he has the manner, he has the style.

Who else shines? Well, just travel out to Ivoryton, pick up a program and read down the “Cast of Characters.” This is a “big’ show in a relatively small theater, made more special by the efforts of lighting designer Marcus Abbott. Any problems? Well, sitting in the balcony it was often difficult to hear all of the dialogue. Whether this was because of speed of delivery or sound levels was difficult to determine. Frustrating, but overall a minor distraction.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Ivoryton decides to extend this run…word-of-mouth alone is going to create ticket demand. Right now, “Dreamgirls” runs through Sept. 1. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Delight

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- Ct Free Shakespeare -- thru Aug. 4 in Stratford; Aug  7 thru 11 in Bridgeport

                                     "The Mechanicals" -- photo by Judy Barbosa

This is not a suggestion, this is an order: go see CT Free Shakespeare’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” You won’t regret it, for this is Shakespearean comedy as it should be played, broad and farcical, with the actors (and what a cast!) enjoying themselves almost as much as the audience members.

As directed by artistic director Ellen Lieberman, who also guided last year’s marvelous production of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Dream” is a non-stop delight from start to finish. The plot is classic Shakespeare: Lysander (Mark Friedlander – last year’s Romeo) loves Hermia (Caitlyn Chuckta), Helena (Rebekah Dunn) loves Demetrius (Brian Vaughan), but the course of true love is never smooth, for Hermia’s father, Egeus (Matthew Catalano) would rather see his daughter marry Demetrius. To make this happen, he calls upon Theseus, Duke of Athens (Andrew Spieker), who offers the rebellious lass three options: marry Demetrius, spend her life in a nunnery or death. Hermia and Lysander flee into the forest, a big mistake, followed swiftly by Helena and Demetrius, an even bigger mistake.

In the forest, Oberon (Jonathan Holtzman) and Titania (Saluda Camp), King and Queen of the fairies, are having a bit of a marital spat over a boy Titania has adopted. As husbands will, Oberon seeks to influence his wife by having her fall in love with the first creature she sets eyes upon. To accomplish this, Oberon instructs his servant, Puck (Eric Nyquist) to pick up some magic love drops. Yes, the drops will be used…a bit too liberally.

To complicate matters, a group of craftsmen under the direction of Peter Quince (an absolutely marvelous Uma Incrocci) are rehearsing a play, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” to be presented for the Duke at his wedding. The craftsman who is to have the starring role is one Nick Bottom (Ian Eaton), but alas, he runs afoul of Puck, who thinks it’s a great idea if Bottom should be graced with the head of a donkey. Once transformed, Bottom is, of course, the first person Titania sets eyes upon when she wakes.

                             Jonathan Holtzman as Oberon. Photo by Judy Barbosa

What follows is controlled, riotous confusion as lovers fall in and out of love with each other and the craftsman continue to rehearse. Of course, everything works out in the end, but not before the craftsmen get to present their play, one of the funniest set-pieces you will see this year.

Lieberman is also responsible for the adaptation, and she has nipped and tucked the five-act play so that it moves along handily – the whole shooting match, including the group’s signature intermission (which involves singing, dancing and audience participation) runs just slightly over two hours, concluding with the cast members, after the curtain call, coming out and joining the audience. If nothing else (and it is so much else) the show is extremely viewer-friendly.

As for the cast, well, you just couldn’t ask for a better ensemble, so much so that it is difficult – and possibly unfair – to praise any one cast member. Yet, among the many fine performances several deserve mention, the first being that of Eaton, whose Bottom is brash, pretentious and completely taken with himself. Once transformed by Puck, Eaton, now sporting donkey ears, simply owns just about every scene he is in. He plays to the crowd (fortunately not threatened by cutpurses or distracted by pie sellers) and the crowd eats it up. But there’s competition, especially from Incrocci, who is blessed with great timing and a knack for physical comedy (especially when it involves balloons – yes, balloons). Then there’s Stephen Humes, who plays Francis Flute and, in the play within a play, has the role of Thisbe, a role he artfully and hilariously struggles with (along with the aforementioned balloons), much to the delight of the audience.

All in all, CFS’s “Dream” is a wonderful piece of theater, one that will appeal to all age groups. The cast members give the impression that they are having a ball as they weave the magic of Shakespeare’s tale, and their enthusiasm and enjoyment is infectious, so much so that you can’t but walk away from the evening with a large, satisfied grin on your face.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plays through August 4 on the grounds of the Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford (how sad to see what’s become of that once marvelous venue), and then moves to the McLevy Green in Bridgeport for performances running from August 7 through August 11. Admission is free but donations are accepted.

For more information go to