Saturday, October 28, 2017

A Tender Heart in the Belly of the Beast

The Diary of Anne Frank -- Playhouse on Park -- Through November 19

Isabelle Barbier as Anne Frank. Photo by Curt Henderson

You know the story. A young girl and her family, along with several acquaintances, hide from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II. The young girl keeps a diary. Those hiding are betrayed near the end of the war, arrested and shipped off to various concentration camps. The young girl will die four days before her camp is liberated. So, if you know the story, why bother going to Playhouse on Park to see The Diary of Anne Frank? Well, because the production is seamless, the cast is outstanding, the direction is perceptive and deft…and, well, the evening is riveting.

Given the dimensions of the Playhouse’s theater, the venue is tailor-made to present this story of human beings forced to live in a confined space, fearful of making too much noise lest they be discovered. Scenic designer David Lewis has made good use of every available inch of space, which means that the audience lives with the family throughout the evening, an impression augmented by director Ezra Barnes’ decision to hold most of the cast on stage during intermission, their characters going about their constrained lives as the audience members are free to go where they please. The effect is subtle yet telling – you come back into the house to find your seat and your first thought is: “They’re still here.” And that’s the point.

For the curtain call, Barnes decided to present the cast as an ensemble, and I can’t argue with the decision (well, I can, but I won’t). However, there’s absolutely no doubt who anchors this production: it’s Isabelle Barbier, who plays Anne. With just a touch of well-placed make-up and her hair cropped, the actress bears a striking, almost haunting resemblance to the real Anne Frank, but that isn’t why you can’t take your eyes off her. Barbier manages, effortlessly (right!) to capture the essence of the Anne Frank we know from the Diary, which was used as the basis for the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and sensitively adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Barbier’s Anne is a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, a perspicacious, verbose (those confined with her suggest she’s a bit too verbose) sometimes awkward gamine who can barely control the life that surges through her. The fact that the audience knows what awaits Anne does not, oddly enough, detract from the enjoyment of watching Barbier create an Anne Frank who, despite everything, embraces life.

Obviously, the Anne Frank character does not stand alone, and Barbier is surrounded by actors who, in their own right, give marvelous performances. Frank van Putten plays Anne’s father, Otto, and Joni Weisfeld her mother, Edith. Strong performances both. You can’t help but be moved by van Putten’s delivery of the father’s low-key soliloquy at the end of the show or by Weisfeld’s climbing onto a table to attack Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman) for eating a piece of bread. Her delivery captures the tension and border-line desperation all the characters are dealing with.

Equally impressive are Lisa Bostnar as Mrs. Van Daan, clutching her fur coat as a symbol of all that has been lost, Ruthy Froch as Anne’s sister, Margot, and Alex Rafala as the Van Daan’s son, Peter, who supplies the love interest (fantasy?) for Anne. Rounding out this exquisitely professional cast are Elizabeth Simmons as Miep Gies, Michael Enright as Mr. Kraler and Jonathan Mesisca as Mr. Dussel. They all work together on stage under Barnes’ direction as if they have been together for years and, of greater importance, that they really are the characters they are playing, confined in a small space and under constant threat of exposure and eventual death.

I return to the idea that the audience knows what will happen to the characters they are watching, but that does not diminish the life-affirming two hours that the audience shares with them. The unique aspect of Anne’s diary and the play that has been adapted from it is that the people we see are not super-heroes and the battles they must fight are not epic but rather those we all, in one way or another (although often without such dire consequences) must fight.

“It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” -- Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl...and that’s what this production is: “good at heart.”

The Diary of Anne Frank runs through November 19. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

"Rags," but Few Riches

Rags -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Through December 10

Samantha Massell and Christian Michael Camporin.
Photo by Diane Sobolewski

How do you respond to a musical that obviously has its heart in the right place, has a great cast and impressive production values? Perhaps not with the shrug I offered it as the rest of the opening night audience leapt to its feet in approbation. I stood also, if only to flex my knees. Obviously, there was a disconnect here, but as I watched Rags unfold at Goodspeed Musicals, I often found myself thinking I was being preached to rather than being entertained, and that Joseph Stein (book – revised by David Thompson) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) were trying just a bit too hard to strum the heart strings (i.e., manipulate), and that Charles Strouse’s music just sounded all of a piece. So, sue me.

There’s no denying that the staging of Rags, under the capable direction of Rob Ruggiero, is up to Goodspeed’s high standards, yet the material simply does not allow the Goodspeed folks to strut their stuff. By that I mean there are no big production numbers that blow you away, no pop and sizzle, and you certainly don’t come away whistling any tunes.

For my money (of course, I didn’t pay for the tickets), what we have in Rags is essentially Ragtime meets Fiddler on the Roof, although it has neither the depth nor the breadth of either show. What it does have is a marvelous cast, headed by the impressive, multi-talented Samantha Massell as Rebecca, supported by a sprightly and engaging Sara Kapner as Bella. Their two characters meet on a boat that is headed for New York harbor, for they are refugees fleeing the numerous pogroms that occurred in middle Europe in the early twentieth century.

When they arrive at Ellis Island, Rebecca doesn’t have the $20 to pay for entry into the country, but Bella urges her father, Avram (Adam Heller) to vouch for Rebecca and her son, David (Christian Michael Camporin). They all soon find themselves ensconced in the cramped rooms of a Lower East Side tenement building, sheltered by Anna (Emily Zacharias) and Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), who do garment piecework for Max Bronfman (David Harris), purveyor of dresses to the up-town crowd, personified by the snobbish Quintet (J. D. Shaw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie and Jeff Williams).

The show deals with the inherent dislike and fear of immigrants that seems to be woven into the American character (excuse me, but is that Donald Trump as Lady Liberty defying immigrant entry, compliments of projections by Luke Cantarella?). There’s also the never-ending class warfare pitting workers against the owners of the means and methods of production, flavored by a lot of scenes that evoke Jewish culture, with a bit of Catholicism thrown in for good measure via the Italians and Irish who got “here” first…and, of course, Rebecca must fall in love with someone not of her faith: Sal (Sean MacLaughlin), a rabble-rousing Italian.

It’s engaging material, and I wanted to care for the characters, but I just couldn’t, mainly because they mostly seem to be stereotypes and also because throughout the evening I kept on hearing and seeing echoes of other musicals. I know, they say there’s nothing new under the sun, but Rags wears its derivations on its ragged sleeve and for me that was off-putting.

Billed as “An American Musical” (vs. what – a Serbro-Croation musical?), Rags does have its moments. The “Shabbos / Latin Mass” scene (Jewish and Catholic rites counterbalanced) is very effective, the “Children of the Wind” theme blended with Cantarella’s projections is, yes, haunting, and as reprised by Massell at the end of the show, certainly rates show-stopper status, and “Three Sunny Rooms,” featuring a dual love interest is sweet and nicely staged. So why am I kvetching? Perhaps because Rags isn’t Fiddler on the Roof or Ragtime. Most will say “That’s not fair!” and perhaps it isn’t, but the echoes compel comparison.

Rags runs through December 10. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit:     

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Amor Vincit Omnia

Fireflies -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Through November 5

Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Sometimes you’re in the mood for a steak dinner with all the fixings and other times you crave a soufflĂ©. If you’re in the mood for the latter, then Fireflies, a play by Matthew Barber, based on Annette Sanford’s novel Eleanor and Abel, receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, will satisfy. This lightweight exercise in boy meets girl (both of a certain age), billed as a “Romance,” has all the dramatic impact of, well, a firefly landing on a leaf, but that’s not to say the experience is not eminently enjoyable thanks to a stellar cast. The fact that you know what will happen right from the set-up does not detract from the delight of watching seasoned pros doing their thing under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, and doing it with a lot of style, flair and grace.

We’re in southern Texas – Jackson County to be exact – in the kitchen, compliments of set designer Alexander Dodge, of Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander), a retired school teacher set in her ways, a classic old maid (if the term is still politically correct – if not, mea culpa!) who is also the owner of what is called the ‘honeymoon cottage,” an adjacent dwelling she has allowed to deteriorate. Living across the street from her, and keeping close tabs on her, is Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), a lady prone to the “I don’t want to say anything, but…” mode of conversation. During one of her frequent visits, Grace informs Eleanor that there has been a man “lurking” around town asking about properties, especially those owned by women! This man turns out to be Abel Brown (Denis Arndt), who soon comes calling. Thus, the stage is set for Abel and Eleanor’s relationship to develop, albeit with the requisite bumps in the road (or fireflies in the ointment).

Will Eleanor and Abel finally find true love? Well, what do you think? The play’s resolution is never in doubt, but as some sage (Harpo Marx?) once said, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that is to be enjoyed, and enjoyable it is. Alexander, Ivey and Arndt, with an assist from Christopher Michael McFarland as Eugene, a sheriff’s officer who once suffered under Eleanor’s tutelage, all give seamless performances, delivering their lines with an admirable pacing and rhythm and creating characters that, well, you simply enjoy being with for the two acts of the play, easily masking the fact that there are some plot points left unresolved.

Barber has given his characters some absolutely wonderful dialogue, often creating little set-pieces that reveal character as they also entertain. Alexander, using body language to great effect, and Ivey are yin and yang, the former clutching her life to her bosom to protect her privacy and the latter genetically inclined to intrude. Their friendship, developed over the years, is a graceful, grudging give-and-take. Their scenes together, as Grace banters and gossips and Eleanor reacts, are little treasures. Obviously, the appearance of Abel disrupts this comfortable, gently antagonistic relationship.

Arndt, playing the destabilizing force, gives a solid performance as a man with a somewhat troubled past who woos the reluctant Eleanor with patience and a lot of handyman expertise. He often lifts his baseball cap and scratches his head as he tries to figure out how best to deal with Eleanor’s prickly-pear personality. McFarland, on stage at the start of the second act, nicely portrays a grown man still under the sway of his former teacher’s stern persona, and his hesitant rendering of the opening lines of Coleridge’s “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan” is his character’s touching acknowledgement that she has had a lasting effect on him (Eleanor’s response to the recitation is just one of the many one-liners Barber has given his characters that elicit laughter).

There’s a certain sitcom quality to the play – think Golden Girls – so nothing that occurs during the play’s two hours needs to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean the evening can’t be enjoyed for what it is, and for the skill the cast brings to making their characters welcome into our lives. It’s a gentle slice-of-life piece that generates a lot of laughter. There are no earth-shattering moments, no great truths to be told, save that on a daily basis little affairs of the heart are being enacted, that for every Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde there are countless Eleanors and Abels who somehow find their way into each other’s arms.

Fireflies runs through November 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Sunday, October 15, 2017

His Own Enemy

An Enemy of the People -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Oct. 28

Enrico Colantoni and Reg Rogers

So, the creative team at Yale Repertory Theatre is weighing whether to board a play in which you have a man, an upright soul, who discovers deception and duplicity in a civic project that will line the pockets of those in power and fill the tills of local businesses but possibly cause illness and suffering. He’s determined to be a whistle-blower but the forces of cupidity and ignorance conjoin and he is labeled an enemy of the status quo and all but hounded out of town. Should Yale Rep stage the play? It’s a no-brainer, for the material, as evidenced by the response of the opening night audience to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, is tailor-made for those uncomfortable with the current political situation in the United States.

Give credit to director James Bundy, the Rep’s artistic director, for not allowing the staging of the play to become a mere polemic. What’s currently on stage at Yale’s University Theatre is a nicely nuanced study of the price one pays for going against the tide, defying the crowd, trying to maintain the moral high ground and realizing, perhaps too late, that it is often a slippery slope.

Much of the credit for the success of this production has to go to Reg Rogers, who portrays Dr. Thomas Stockman, the erstwhile whistle-blower. There’s a temptation when taking on this role to play it for all of the “holier-than-thou” the actor can get out of it, but Rogers gives us a hero with, if not feet of clay at least a bit of dust on his shoes. His take on the character is sophomoric, and by that I mean he plays Stockman as a wise fool, committed to seeing justice done but somewhat blind to the inevitable consequences. Thus, Stockman is a flesh-and-blood character, a principled man with flaws. It’s a thoroughly engaging performance, no more so than when, near the end of the second act, he confronts Hovstad (Bobby Roman), the editor of a local newspaper, and conveys via laughter the weakness of those who trim  their sails based on the direction the wind of public sentiment is blowing.

Impressive performances abound in this production. Joey Parsons, as the doctor’s wife, Catherine, skillfully let’s the audience see the price Stockman’s family will pay for his rectitude, and in a lovely moment of mime conveys her frustration with her husband for choosing to tilt at windmills. Equally engaging is Enrico Colantoni as the doctor’s brother, Peter, who is also the mayor of the small Norwegian town where the action is set. Venal and manipulative, Colantoni’s character is a wonderful foil to his brother’s perhaps slightly misguided nobility. And then there’s Jarlath Conroy as Morton Kill, Catherine’s adoptive father, who proves that there’s no such thing as a small role.

A note about the staging. There seems to be a conscious effort to emphasize that, well, “Hey, folks, we’re putting on a play.” The actors appear on stage before the opening curtain and mingle with the audience, and Emona Stoykova’s impressive set design leaves the wings entirely open so the audience can see the actors waiting to make their entrances and the stage hands doing their thing. I’m not exactly sure what the creative team’s motivation or intent was or how this toying with suspension of disbelief adds to the play – in fact, the open wings are often a bit distracting, pulling attention away from what is happening on stage. Then again, it’s Yale Rep, so you often have to expect the unexpected and off-beat, along with the head-scratching.

Distractions aside, this production of Ibsen’s take on bureaucracy, greed and thwarted idealism moves swiftly through it’s two acts. It obviously speaks to the Rep’s primary audience (there was applause when some lines were delivered) but doesn’t pander to liberal sensibilities. Yes, Dr. Stockman is fighting the good fight, but he does so with blinders on, and though there’s a heartwarming gathering of the Stockman family at the final curtain you get the feeling that there will be additional prices to be paid for defying the status quo.

An Enemy of the People runs through October 28. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to  

Monday, October 2, 2017

Publish or Passion

Sex With Strangers -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru Oct. 14

Jessica Love and Chris Ghaffari. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In 1956, Frankie Lyman & the Teenagers hit the Billboard charts with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Laura Eason presents the same question in Sex With Strangers, albeit she’s substituting writers for fools (or perhaps she isn’t). This two-hander that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse basically throws together two people of antithetical personalities and then observes what happens (well, you know what’s going to happen – it’s the bread and butter of many a romantic comedy). Toss in a lot of info about the publishing world and our modern, wired (perhaps over-wired and thus alienated) society, plus a critique of the Millennial dating scene, shake and bake, and what you still have is the story of a relationship, romantic and otherwise, which means if you are to be drawn in you have to care about this couple, care what happens to them and, by and large, you do.

Deftly directed by Katherine M. Carter, who has a superb eye for blocking that emphasizes and enhances what’s going on in the script, the success of Sex With Strangers rises or falls on its cast, for you’re going to spend close to two hours with the characters they bring to life, so there better be more than a bit of chemistry – and there is.

The first act finds Olivia (a superb Jessica Love) ensconced in a bed and breakfast in upstate Michigan in the midst of a snowstorm. She’s basically got the place to herself until headlights flash, a car grinds to a halt and Ethan (Chris Ghaffari – recently seen as Romeo in Hartford Stage’s Romeo and Juliet) bursts on the scene. She’s a teacher who’s come to this hideaway to work on her novel; he’s – well, a snowbound B & B is not exactly his scene, but we learn that he’s traveled north to meet her. Their initial confrontation has all the elements of a wolf stumbling upon a rabbit (kudos to Love for body language that conveys, more than the dialogue, exactly how uncomfortable her character is with Ethan’s encroachment), but given that there’s a blizzard they accept they are stuck with each other and must interact.

Ethan knows (through a mutual acquaintance) that Olivia is a writer; Olivia knows nothing about this brash young man but soon comes to learn that, under his nom de blog of Ethan Strange, he is the author of two best-sellers, the first being Sex With Strangers, an outgrowth of his blog that chronicles his multiple sexual exploits and gleeful denigration of women. She is not thrilled; he could care less.

What transpires is the expected emotional pas de deux plus a witty weighing of the values of the old versus new publishing world, with Ethan slowly enticing Olivia into considering a venture onto the Internet with her work. What also transpires, and here some audience members may have to suspend their disbelief a bit, is that Olivia and Ethan take more advantage of the bed than any possibility of breakfast. Given the “Ethan Strange” reputation, and his age, you might just wonder why Olivia so quickly falls into his arms. Yes, she’s had some wine, but…well, if you buy into this, then the rest of the play is engaging and, in the second act confrontation, even gripping.

There’s a certain echo of A Star is Born in the play, for Olivia’s rise will, to a certain extent, be contingent upon Ethan’s fall after he has taken her under his wing. There is also the intriguing question – left unanswered – of who has actually been using whom in this dance of authorial egos. What’s most intriguing about the play is the transformation (or the attempt at transformation) the two characters undergo as they interact with each other on two sets designed by Edward T. Morris that also go through a pronounced transformation.

Love deftly gives us an uptight Olivia, unwilling to roll the authorial dice and face criticism, who is transformed (accented by the costume given her by Caitlin Cisek in the final scene) into a mature, confident woman, albeit one who is unsure of the price she has paid for the transformation. Ghaffari’s Ethan, brash and confident at the start of the play, is on the cusp of change by its conclusion, though Cisek’s costuming for him suggests that the change may not be consummated. The actor does a nuanced job of portraying a man whose success has been contingent on the selling of his soul, a contract with the devil he tries to void.

As with all well-written plays, there’s a lot to mull over about Sex With Strangers once the curtain has fallen. Eason asks us to ponder the impact of the Internet on the lives of those who have known no other world and the attendant slow demise of privacy. What does it mean that we can learn “everything” about someone before we ever meet them and yet know really nothing about them? What consequences ensue when we all play roles on an electronic stage, roles that, unlike those of actors, we cannot walk away from?

Sex With Strangers runs through October 14. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to