Sunday, November 30, 2014

[War] a Drama-Lite Exercise in ideas

[War] -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Dec. 13

                     Tonya Pinkins (foreground) in War. All photos by Joan Marcus.

By Geary Danihy

[WAR}, a new play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that is having its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, starts out as a surreal trip inside the mind of a woman who has recently suffered a stroke, a trip to the Planet of the Apes, if you will, and ends up with a jaunt down Main Street in Disneyland to the tune of “It’s a Small World After All.” As directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, this “family” drama is an exercise in dabbling in themes without fully developing any one of them, dipping one’s toes in many streams but never getting baptized. As such, the classic arc of rising action, climax and falling action is here more a case of several seismic pulses interspersed with back story that leads to an extended Hallmark card exposition (in German, no less) about motherhood and family that brings many of the characters to tears but left at least one member of the audience dry-eyed and wondering where the nearest watering hole might be found.

The play opens on a spare stage: there are two white walls set at a radical angle and two chairs. The lights dim, then come up and the cast ambles out onto the stage and proceeds to start laughing. It gets louder, more raucous. What are they laughing about? What do they know that we, the audience, doesn’t? That tickets have been purchased? No that’s not it. It’s probably they understand we’ve been waiting for Godot for decades and he still hasn’t shown – and won’t show tonight.

The cast exits, still chuckling, and Roberta (Tonya Pinkins) appears. She is having an out-of-body experience guided by Alpha (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), a simian of sorts, backed by a Greek chorus of apes (the rest of the cast, now no longer laughing but still making a hell of a noise). Roberta is having a difficult time remembering anything, but Alpha, communicating with her via guttural sounds and sign language, translated by projected dialogue, is being patient as Roberta stares out at the audience, wondering who all of these people are (turns out, I think, that we’re the dead).

                                      Philippe Bowgen, Rachael Holmes,
                                     Greg Keller, and Trezana Beverley

The lights come up, a bed is rolled in and we are now in an intensive care unit, where Roberta is in a coma. Her daughter, Joanne (Rachel Holmes) is by her side as her brother, Tate (Donte Bonner) enters with an attitude, eventually explained by the fact that he’s a Harvard grad.

Why is Roberta coma-communing with apes? Well, the symbolism here is pretty heavy, because we (including the audience) are all apes, all related, but there’s more, because Roberta’s father, a black man, was a G.I. in World War II and apparently when, once the war was won and American troops were stationed in German towns, the German citizens would make ape sounds when they saw black soldiers, but there’s more, because Roberta had her stroke when she was visiting a zoo with her half-sister, Elfriede (Trezana Beverley), the child her father sired while he was in Germany. Elfriede is a mischlingkinder, that is, a child born of a German woman and an African American soldier.

                            Rachael Holmes, Philippe Bowgen, Tyrone Mitchell
                           Henderson, Donté Bonner, Greg Keller, Trezana Beverley 

So Roberta is somewhere between life and death, having a conversation with Alpha, while her son and daughter snipe at each other at her bedside as they try to figure out who the hell Elfriede is (they, of course, did not know about the war-time liaison) and try to deal with Elfriede’s manic son, Tobias (Phillipe Bowgen), while the nurse (also Henderson – why do all male nurses in plays have to be ostentatiously gay?) tries to calm everyone down. Got it?

We’re into soap opera territory here, and it only gets worse, for in the second act, staged in Roberta’s apartment (she obviously has horrible taste in wallpaper, or perhaps scenic designer Mariana Sanchez Hernadez wanted to emphasize the “ape” metaphor by creating a jungle motif), Tate and Joanne’s husband, Malcolm (Greg Keller), who happens to be white, have an extended argument about the term “African-American,” to what dramatic purpose remains to be seen, but the playwright apparently needed to get this off his chest. Then Elfriede appears with Roberta’s clothes – she was apparently a nurse in a hospice back in Germany – trying to find the right outfit for Roberta to be buried in – BUT – Roberta isn’t dead, or is she? Apparently Elfriede knows a goner when she sees one.

                                        Rachael Holmes and Greg Keller 

Tobias throws a hissy fit that apparently deals with a hereditary disease his mother is suffering from (it’s sins of the father stuff) but is calmed by his mother, who has written a letter (when, exactly, she had the time to write this extended letter is not explained) that she proceeds to read, in German, with her son translating. It’s a four-page letter! It goes on and on. If there was any dramatic tension in the play it is totally defused with the reading of this missive. Then we have familial reconciliation, we come back to it’s a small ape world after all with the extended family members staring out at the audience (we’re not dead anymore, we’re back to being apes), and then curtain, with a final grunt from Alpha.

A harsher critic might call the proceedings pretentious claptrap, but there’s a real play hiding amidst the dramatic flotsam and jetsam up there on the stage, a play in serious need of work-shopping and a stern editor who demands development, coherence and internal logic. As it stands, the play offers us characters who are, by and large, stereotypes, vehicles that allow Jacobs-Jenkins to say his piece, or pieces. The playwright has a lot of ideas, and many of them are intriguing, but the ideas have to be infused into the flesh of the characters rather than hung on them like sandwich boards.

[War] runs through Dec. 13. For tickets or more information, call 203-432-1234 or go to

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Wise and Witty "Walk in the Woods"

"A Walk in the Woods" -- Square One Theatre Company -- Thru Nov. 22

                                             Pat Leo and Damian Long

By Geary Danihy

In a theater on Main Street in Stratford, two men sit on a bench…and talk.

That might be the synopsis of Lee Blessings play, “A Walk in the Woods,” as written by a bored high school freshman born well after the demise of the Cold War. And he would be right -- it is a play about two men who sit on a bench in the woods and talk – but this freshman, a bit obtuse and eager to get back to playing “Call of Duty,” would perhaps miss the point of the conversations these two men are having, for inherent in what they touch upon, both directly and obliquely, is both the essence of recent history and, more important, the essence of man’s eternal search for a way to end conflict, an uneasy exercise, fraught with distrust, in finding a formula that might just lead to a tentative setting aside of shields and swords,

As capably directed by Square One Theatre Company’s artistic director Tom Holehan, “A Walk in the Woods,” which was nominated for a Tony award and a Pulitzer Prize when it first appeared in 1988, is invested not only with a sense of the recent historical past but also, in this production, with just a bit of nostalgia, for Pat Leo, who plays the Russian diplomat Andrey Botvinnik, has appeared in this play once before at Square One. He did so 25 years ago, for “A Walk in the Woods” was the first play Square One boarded, and Leo played the role of John Honeyman, the young American negotiator, played in this production by Damian Long, who is making his Square One debut.

The play is set in the woods outside of Geneva, the city where Soviet and American diplomats are trying to hammer out an arms limitation treaty that might just nudge the world several inches back from the abyss of Armageddon. The talks are not going well, for there is distrust and hidden agendas on both sides, but in the woods two of the negotiators meet on a regular basis to see if some common ground can be found. Botvinnik, the Russian, has a wry sense of humor, is sophisticated and a master at the give and take of diplomacy, but as ably portrayed by Leo, he is also jaded, cynical and holds out little hope for the success of the negotiations.

Botvinnik’s counterpart, Honeyman, is new to the negotiation game, and although the American is eager to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion, he is naïve and just a bit stiff and pompous.

There are actually two sets of negotiations going on in this play: the stated one dealing with arms reduction, which the audience hears about but never sees, and the more inter-personal negotiations between two human beings learning how to talk to each other and, if possible, become friends. Thus, Leo and Long are charged with creating an atmosphere that, on the personal level, mirrors the hesitancy and distrust that exists at the negotiating table in Geneva. This they do quite admirably, for over the course of the two-act play each character slowly sheds his status as negotiator and simply becomes a person seeking to understand another person, which is obviously at the heart of playwright Blessing’s message, for if we cannot understand and reach accord as fellow members of the human race, then we will forever be ruled by nationalism and the false pride engendered by our proclaimed “differences.”

It may sound as if the play’s content is weighted down by socio-political theory, but that is not the case. Although the play deals with weighty subjects and touches on the disparate, perhaps intransigent, nature of the two political systems these men represent, the growing relationship between the men, separated as they are by culture and decades, is the play’s focus, and is presented with a great deal of humor, as established in the opening scene when Honeyman is eager to get down to brass tacks and, in response, Botvinnik suggests that they talk about…nothing…trivia…anything but the topics that are on the table back in Geneva. Over the course of the play, the two men, believably brought to full life by Leo and Long, find a tentative common ground where the cynicism of age and the idealism of youth can coexist, and, in the process, may just also find a way to “prevent the total destruction of every living thing on this planet.”

“A Walk in the Woods” runs through Nov. 22. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Delightful Merry-Go-Round of Song and Dance

The World Goes 'Round" -- MTC Mainstage -- Thru Nov. 23

                       Melissa Carlile-Price, Aaron Young, Trisha Rapier, Kathy Calahan
                       and Eric Scott Kincaid. All photos by by Joe Landry 

MTC Mainstage is celebrating the opening of its new theater in Norwalk with a production of “The World Goes ‘Round – The Songs of Kander & Ebb,” a tuneful, collection of songs from the creators of such hits as “Chicago” and “Cabaret.” As directed by Kevin Connors, MTC’s executive artistic director, “The World Goes ‘Round” is an excellent choice to showcase MTC’s new digs, for it captures the spirit of the “old” MTC while highlighting the new possibilities that the larger quarters offer MTC, now in its 26th year

“The World…” is basically a revue with a faint attempt at a frame that all but disappears after the first 10 minutes of the show, but that really doesn’t matter. What does matter with a show like this is the cast, because the actors, basically without a book to work with, have to create the mood and context for the songs essentially in a vacuum. Yes, many of the songs will be familiar to theatergoers who have seen Kander and Ebb’s musicals, but in the musicals the songs are delivered by characters the actors have had a chance to develop – when Sally Bowles sings “Maybe This Time,” in “Cabaret,” the audience understands where the song is coming from. When Trisha Rapier sings the song in “The World…,” she does so without the benefit of all that has come before the number in the musical. In other words, it’s all on her. Fortunately, Rapier is more than up to the task – the number is a heartbreaking plea for love, for something more than a one-night stand.

                                                            Trisha Rapier

In fact, the entire cast is more than up to the task. Rapier, Kathy Callahan, Melissa Carlile-Price, Eric Scott Kincaid and Aaron Young sell song after song, shifting gears as necessary with verve, energy and aplomb.

                                     Melissa Carlile Price and Aaron Young

The intimacy that MTC has been known for is still there, but the larger space has allowed for the show to be lit in a truly professional and effective manner by Michael Megliola, and now MTC can present full choreography, this time crafted by Jeri Kansas. However, as with all moves into new and larger quarters, it takes time to get used to the new space, to own it and know how to use it most effectively. Thus, there are certain line-of-sight problems and a question of just how far down-stage the actors should be blocked, but these will be corrected as the creative team becomes more comfortable with the new space. The only really disappointing part of the evening was the set designed by David Heuvelman. It was certainly functional, but there was little glitz or pizzazz. So much more could have been done to enhance the overall look and excitement of the show.

So where does the excitement come from? The actors. In number after number, they sell the songs, creating many high points. There’s the caffeine-frenzy of “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” (you can see the caffeine take effect) and the wistful “Colored Lights.” Each of the extremely talented cast members has his or her moment to shine. There’s the aching pathos of the “Mr. Cellophane” number, ably captured by Kincaid. As mentioned above, Rapier, the belter of the quintet, nails “Maybe This Time,” and leggy Carlile-Price dazzles as the lead in “Ring Them Bells” – and the duo does wonderful takes on “The Grass is Always Greener” and “Class.” And who can resist the delight Calahan evokes as she spends some time with “Arthur in the Afternoon’? Finally, there’s the soulful “Marry Me,” an achingly beautiful cri de coeur that Young makes you believe is truly coming from his heart.
                           Eric Scott Kincaid (foreground), Kathy Calahan, Aaron Young,
                          Melissa Carlile-Price and Trisha Rapier

The best is saved for last, for the show ends with three numbers performed by the entire cast: “The Money Song,” “Cabaret” and the theme from “New York, New York.” The energy is palpable, the talent more than obvious.

Anyone who loves musical theater and appreciates well-honed, exuberant performances will delight in “As the World Goes ‘Round.” You will come away humming a tune and perhaps dancing several steps before you reach your car. The evening is infectious, in the best sense of the word.

“The World Goes ‘Round” runs through Nov. 23. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Law of the Jungle Surfaces in Suburbia

God of Carnage -- Darien Arts Center Stage -- Thru Nov. 22

                   Larry Reina and cast of 'God of Carnage' -- Photo by Jeffrey Wyant

By Geary Danihy

Who trusted God was love indeed
 And love Creation's final law
 Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
 With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

If Tennyson had had the opportunity to see Yasmina Reza’s award-winning “God of Carnage,” which recently opened at the Darien Arts Center Stage under the capable direction of Mark Graham, he might have considered revising his poem, for as Reza would have it, underneath all that love and civilization lurks the beast, the worshipper of the god of carnage, who needs little provocation to bare his, or her, fangs and claws.

Billed as “A Comedy of Manners…without the Manners,” “God of Carnage,” translated by Christopher Hampton, presents two oh so civilized couples whose children, two sons, have had a schoolyard fight. Benjamin, son of Annette and Alan Raleigh (Jessie Gilbert and Lawrence Reina), apparently took a stick to Henry, son of Michael and Veronica Novak (Gary Betsworth and Eileen Lawless), giving the lad a puffed lip and damaging two teeth. The Novaks have invited the Raleighs over to discuss the matter as mature adults, because mature adults can work things out in a calm, logical, sophisticated manner…Not!

What begins as a politically correct discussion of the schoolyard altercation soon devolves into a visceral autopsy of the two couples’ lives, with recriminations and insults flying as fast and deadly as arrows at Agincourt. Reza takes delight in scraping away at the two couples’ veneer of suburban sang froid, but she goes deeper as the play questions humanity’s true nature, suggesting that we really haven’t distanced ourselves from the club-wielding Neanderthals.

Much of the play’s humor is to be found in the peeling away of the four adults’ surface personas to reveal the feral, frightened children that huddle beneath, with the operative irony being that the catalyst for the adult confrontation is…kids getting into a fight.

The danger in choosing to board Reza’s play is that her four characters border on caricature. Thus it falls to the actors, and the director, to ensure that what the audience sees on the stage are flesh and blood humans rather than cardboard cutouts. This task the four actors in the DAC production accomplish, by and large, with skill. As in most relationships there will be an alpha and a beta – in the case of these two couples, the alphas are Alan, a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company, and Veronica, an author and champion of human rights. Reina nails the amoral lawyer, giving us a man surgically attached to his cell phone who, throughout the evening, continues to take calls dealing with a pending scandal about one of the company’s drugs. His advice embraces lying and across-the-board denial.

Given the nature of alphas, Alan and Veronica immediately antagonize each other, and Lawless plays well off Reina’s work-obsessed character, creating a woman who is just this side of self-righteous, who wraps her opinions and sense of self in the flag of suffering humanity.

The two betas are Michael and Annette. Betsworth sometimes takes his character’s submissive nature just a bit too far, but his eruption over the death of a hamster (don’t ask) is priceless. It is, however, Gilbert who gives us the most nuanced performance of the evening, transforming her character from a somewhat put upon adjunct to her husband’s life into a tigress defending her young while literally dousing her husband’s cell-phone ardor.

The single set by David Eger is functional but somewhat linear, which Graham initially seems to succumb to in the opening scenes as he aligns his characters stage right to left and then leaves them there, standing behind a table, delivering their lines. Perhaps the blocking here is meant to convey the couples’ initial awkwardness, but it’s just a bit too static. However, Graham soon has his actors using the full (limited) stage area, wisely rearranging the two couples as alliances form and dissolve and allegiances are challenged – it’s a visual enhancement of the ebb and flow of the couples’ changing relationships and the power shifts that occur during the one-act play.

Inevitably, the meeting over a schoolyard fight leads to violence, which provides a catharsis of sorts, and concludes with the four adults emotionally drained, left to contemplate the damage they have wrought, the truths that have been revealed, and to face the uncomfortable question uttered by Michael in the play’s final line: “What do we know?”

This tidy, often trenchant production has many humorous moments, but the laughter is tinged with a certain amount of discomfort for it doesn’t take long to realize that what we are laughing at are our own foibles, shibboleths, hypocrisies and neatly constructed “civilized” personas.

"Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
 And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.” – Rudyard Kipling

“God of Carnage” runs weekends through Nov. 22. For tickets or more information call 203-655-5414 or go to

Saturday, November 1, 2014

"Gracie" -- Nostalgic and Touching

"Say Goodnight, Gracie" -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru Nov. 18

                      R. Bruce Connelly as George Burns-- Photo by Rose Picarelli

As you sit watching “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a question slowly arises: must you be of a certain age to truly enjoy this one-character, one-act play? The answer is yes…and no, for “Gracie” is as much a love story as it is a trip down Memory Lane. It is also a quintessential American story that embodies the spirit of the Horatio Alger novels: a young lad of low beginnings, through luck and pluck, makes his way in the world and becomes a success.

Who is Gracie? Well, that’s part of the generational conundrum that is at the heart of embracing the play and appreciating R. Bruce Connelly’s performance, for Gracie is Gracie Allen, the ditzier part of the Burns and Allen comedy team that made it big in vaudeville, then on radio, in movies and finally on television, a career that spanned multiple decades.

And who is the man up there on the stage reminiscing? Well, it’s the other half of the team, George Burns. So, who’s George Burns? There’s the rub, because if you know who George and Gracie are then you’re into the play from the moment Connelly walks out onto the stage, cigar in hand, and has a conversation with God (whom he played in three movies – turns out God and George are big fans of each other). If you’re clueless, well, it will take some time for the play, written by Rupert Holmes and directed by Michael McDermott, to bring you up to speed…and you may never get to full open throttle. Hence, depending on when you arrived on this planet, you may well have a different experience watching “Gracie.”

Since I arrived six-plus decades ago, I had no problem relating to and appreciating Connelly’s take on the iconic comedian. Connelly has the mannerisms – the pensive, somewhat perplexed pauses, the open-mouthed smile – down pat, as well as the somewhat gravelly drawl with which he delivers his lines. He also does a great Jack Benny – ah, who’s Jack Benny and what’s the deal with the violin? Again, another Checkpoint Charlie that either lets you into the play or keeps you out – Ah, what’s Checkpoint Charlie? Stop it. You’re making me feel my age.

The frame for the play is that Burns has just passed and now finds himself before the Pearly Gates. However, before he can enter Paradise and be united with his beloved Gracie, he is asked by God to audition. Audition? Yes. How? By telling the story of his life…and we time-travel back to the tenements of turn-of-the-century New York.

What follows is oral autobiography, as Connelly weaves a tale of a young Jewish boy who sells papers and ice to help his family make tattered ends meet, a boy who begins singing with three other Jewish lads and soon comes to realize that there might be money to be made by entertaining people.

Then it’s on to vaudeville, with the young Jewish boy taking on many roles (and names, most of them Irish) and finding limited success until he happens on a wisp of an Irish lass named Gracie. He suggests that they form a team. She hesitantly agrees. They rehearse and then try out their act, with Gracie delivering the straight lines and George following with the zingers. Only problem is, Gracie’s straight lines get more laughs than George’s comedic rejoinders. George, a savvy veteran of the vaudeville circuit, realizes that a change needs to be made in the act if the team is going to survive: the audience loves Gracie, and she’s getting the laughs, so…he becomes the straight man and Gracie, well, Gracie blossoms in all of her character’s ditziness. It’s a formula that will take them to stardom and last for decades.

Oddly enough, the play’s pacing mirrors the graph of Burns’ career, for things start to drag a bit as Connelly relates, perhaps with greater detail than necessary, the ups (few) and downs (many) of Burns’ vaudevillian efforts, but Gracie saves the day, for although there is no actress playing her, there are stills of her projected onto a screen (later, clips from the films they made and then from their television show), and then there’s her voice, high-pitched, somewhat scratchy, with every line she delivers seeming to end with a question mark, as if she herself is unsure of what she is saying. From the moment Gracie “appears,” the show takes on a new life, and it’s to Connelly’s and Holmes’ credit that Gracie is given her due. There’s an especially lovely moment, soon after Burns realigns the act and makes himself the foil to Gracie’s zaniness, when Connelly sits in a chair as we hear Gracie prattle on, her illogical statements making a weird sort of sense. With each line that Gracie delivers, Connelly turns towards the audience and smiles – he doesn’t have to say it, but we know he’s thinking, “That’s my Gracie.”

I wish I had had one of my grandsons with me during opening night, not only for his company but to ask him on the drive home what his take was on the show. He would not have recognized the theme from George and Gracie’s television show, he probably wouldn’t know who Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante or Fanny Brice were, but that’s okay. What I would have wanted to know is if he had gotten what the play was about. Did he see that, beyond show business, beyond fame and fortune, what’s important is the magical intermingling of two lives, an intermingling that was played out for all of America to see. Was he moved when George visits Gracie’s grave every week just to talk with her and keep her updated on what is happening in his life? Did the final moment of the play perhaps bring a tear to his eye, when Gracie tells George that he, himself, should say goodnight? I can only hope that he would have answered in the affirmative.

“Say Goodnight, Gracie” runs through Nov. 16. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to