Monday, April 30, 2018

Finding Mr. Right

Love Quest -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru May 13

Are you into chick flicks? Well, if you are – and, truth be told, I am – then you should make your way out to the Ivoryton Playhouse to catch “Love Quest,” a play by Mary Maguire and Steven McGraw that has all the chick-flick elements and more than a dash of humor. Under the able direction of Jacqueline Hubbard, the Playhouse’s artistic director, the two-act play that details the quest of two ladies of disparate ages to find, if not true love, at least a date that doesn’t end in disaster, or extreme distaste, is an easy-going evening of theater that chronicles the ‘dating game’ as it is played on-line in the twenty-first century.

That this is chick-flick material is acknowledged from the first scene in which Kate (Linda Purl) and her daughter Megan (Susan Slotoroff) are in Kate’s kitchen considering the next step in Kate’s life after her husband had left her for a younger woman. Kate’s anxiety is currently being handled by consumption of Krispy Kreme donuts, but Megan wants her mother to “get back out there.” The answer is to register with an on-line dating service called Love Quest that, once you enter your profile, will algorithmically match you up with your perfect date (Not!).

At the same time, Brook (Jes Bedwinek), a high-end fashion designer, is looking for someone, a ‘hunk’ to be exact, to accompany her to an upcoming awards ceremony – think meat on her arm. Her assistant, Bove (Mike Mihmn), who sashays around the office providing her with coffee and fabric samples, questions her need to log onto Love Quest to find said ‘hunk,’ but Brook is determined. This set-up is a bit of a stretch. A top-of-the-line fashion designer should have her pick of ‘hunks’ to escort her to the ceremony but, if we stayed with logic then much of the play couldn’t go forward.

In any event, the two ladies set sail on their individual odysseys onto the uncertain (and perhaps treacherous) sea of dating with less than surprising results. In other words, there appears to be no safe harbor. Kate and Brook meet a series of males (played extremely well by Josh Powell) who, for one reason or another, make female flesh cringe and crawl. The evenings, presented in a series of quick scenes, are all disastrous, especially the very funny speed-dating scenes where both Purl and Bedwinek, in individual scenes, create the lotharios and losers they are confronted with during the timed interaction.

Maguire and McGraw have written a script that screams ‘screenplay,’ and it’s to Hubbard’s credit, with the assistance of scenic designer Daniel Nischan and lighting designer Marcus Abbott, that this remains a play rather than a rehearsal for a film shoot. However, though the evening runs close to two hour (there’s a 15-minute intermission), the play is structured such that I think the audience would have been willing to remain seated for the entire production. There’s a very nice build in the first act that gets interrupted by the intermission and hence the actors have to rev it all up again for the second act and it takes a while for the audience to get back into the swing of things.

There are some really engaging scenes that highlight the show. The first is when Megan brings Brooks to an establishment that caters to women who wish to have some redesign done to hair that does not grow on their heads. As a man, it was funny to watch – I can’t speak for the women in the audience, especially when, in silhouette, Kate has some hair removed. There were, however, some gasps and groans I heard from the audience.

The second scene is Kate imaging she is in a boxing ring, fighting against all of the losers she has met on her dates. She delivers recaps of their inept one-liners and come-ons and then knocks them out. It’s an especially pleasing moment, and one extremely well-acted by Purl.

It’s a chick-flick, remember, so there has to be true love lurking in the background. For Kate, it’s Hal (Joe Candelora), a man she has two dates with – both times he gets up abruptly and rushes out of the restaurants, much to Kate’s confusion. As for Brook, well it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal where her heart comes to rest, but there’s a line that this ‘true love’ delivers near the end of the play that deals with a mirror not wanting to give up Brook’s image that is sheer poetry. I can’t imagine a woman’s heart not melting a bit at hearing this line.

Yes, it’s all a bit contrived, but what chick flick isn’t? You know where all of it is going – the satisfaction is seeing how it gets there, and “Love Quest” satisfies on the levels it’s supposed to. It ain’t Chekhov or Ibsen, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a lighthearted, sometimes frolicsome look at the trials and tribulations of ‘being out there’ as a divorced woman or one who has never had a committed relationship. It may resonate more with women, but men in the audience might be wise to make mental notes, for there’s a lot of truth interspersed amongst the one-liners and sight gags (the best being a dress that falls off a mannequin) that might help to answer the question King Arthur posed in “Camelot” – “How to handle a woman?”

“Love Quest” runs through May 13. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to    

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Queens and Their Crowns

Crowns -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru May 13

Stephanie Pope, Danielle K. Thomas, Rebecca E. Covington
and Latice Crawford. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

There’s a whole lotta shoutin’ and singin’ going on at Long Wharf Theatre right now, along with a lot of cymbals clanging and drums pounding, so much so that you may, at moments, feel a bit assaulted, at least your ears might. What’s currently on the boards right now is “Crowns,” a co-production with McCarter Theatre Center under the direction of Regina Taylor, who adapted the storyline from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Billed as a “musical celebration,” it’s more specifically a celebration of African-American culture with an emphasis on the distaff side, for the “crowns” of the title refers to the hats that many black women wear, especially when they attend church services. This blend of rap, hip-hop, jazz and gospel is, if nothing else, exuberant, thought it may not be to everyone’s taste.

The storyline is somewhat slight: after her brother is shot, a young black girl, Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), who lives in Chicago, is sent down South to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison). There she comes in contact with a covey of women who will, over the course of the one-act musical, seek to soothe Yolanda’s wild, rebellious, grieving heart. The group includes Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Velma (Latice Crawford), Wanda (Stephanie Pope) and Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas). There is also a Man (Lawrence Clayton), who will take on multiple roles as a preacher, a husband, a grandfather and Yolanda’s slain brother. Backing up this coterie are two of the hardest-working musicians I’ve seen on stage: Jaret Landon on keyboard and David Pleasant handling (one might say assaulting) percussion.

The evening is an exercise in soul-saving, with the women attempting to teach Yolanda the hard lessons they’ve learned, lessons that deal with love and loss and, in the face of travail and tragedy, getting up to face a new day. Their hats are not mere adornments, they are bold signifiers of a spirit that may often be challenged but is never crushed.

Perhaps it’s the theater’s acoustics, or the sound design by Robert Kaplowitz, but there are many moments when the music and the singing need to be brought down a notch or two. There’s also a problem with the delivery of many of the spoken lines – the words come out so fast that your mind simply can’t catch up with what’s being said. When things do slow down a bit and the musicians use some restraint, there are quite a few effective moments enhanced by Dianne McIntyre’s choreography, but then things speed up again and you often find yourself simply awash in sound.

The set for the thrust stage, created by Caite Hevner, is minimalistic, with a stairway thrown in for no obvious purpose and projections designed by Rasean Davonte Johnson, shown behind a series of scrims, that are mostly irrelevant (perhaps because they are difficult to see).

“Crowns” certainly seems to have its heart in the right place, and an enthusiastic opening-night audience responded with ovations at the end of several numbers, but it’s difficult to just settle in and enjoy the show given the decibel level that often prevails coupled with the machine-gun delivery of a lot of the dialogue. Perhaps if everyone involved just calmed down a bit, the show’s warmth and heart would become more manifest.

“Crowns” runs through May 13. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Going Home Again

Fun Home -- MTC Mainstage -- Thru May 6

            It may be true that there’s no place like home, but that can sometimes be read ironically. Such is the case with the household featured in “Fun Home,” an off-beat musical that recently opened at MTC Maintsage in Norwalk under the direction of Kevin Connors. Based on the best-selling graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, with music by Jeannie Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, this musical, which has won multiple awards, dissects a family that is held together by the sheer determination of its members not to face the truth. “Annie” it ain’t but, then again, sometimes the sun comes out tomorrow to reveal who we really are, as disturbing as that might be.
            The musical slides back and forth in time, anchored by three actors playing Alison at various stages in her life. There’s the Small Alison (Caitlin Kops) who is precocious and obsessed with drawing, the Middle Alison (the tremendously engaging Megan O’Callaghan), a college student, and Alison herself (Amy Griffin), who makes this something of a memory play as she revisits her family as they once were, all the while adding “captions” to the scenes and, parenthetically, the graphic novel she will eventually create.
            The family also consists of the father, Bruce (Greg Roderick) and the mother, Helen (Raissa Katona Bennett) as well as two young brothers, Christian (Jonah Frimmer) and John (Ari Frimmer). To say the least, this is not a happy family, for as the opening number suggests, father, who is an English teacher, a part-time mortician (hence the Fun Home title – read funeral home) and a restorer of homes (yes, there’s irony there), wants things a certain way…his way. Simmering beneath this need for control there’s a rage that boils up on occasion, primarily directed at his wife, Helen. Why? Well, she has the misfortune of being the wrong gender.
            Okay, Dad is in the closet, though the door is slightly ajar, a door that is flung wide open when Middle Alison, while at college, accepts that she is a lesbian (in scenes that profile O’Callaghan’s exceptional skill and talent as an actress). She writes home – her own apologia pro vita sua – and her letter leads to revelations and deadly consequences. This may all sound like so much soap opera foam, but it’s deftly and engagingly handled, especially since the emotions expressed in so many of the songs convey honest angst and justified confusion. These are not cardboard characters but “real” people trying to deal with the reality of their lives, as confused as that reality might be.
            This is an ideal musical for MTC, given the enforced intimacy of the house, the thrust stage and the proximity of the audience to the actors. In essence, there’s no escaping the familial angst and anxiety portrayed on the stage, nor can you not become absorbed in the emotional travails of the characters attempting as best they can to figure out…well…how to live with each other and with themselves. Though there are no chart-topping songs in the show, many of them cut to the heart, no more so than the finale which has the three Alisons confronting each other in “Flying Away,” which brings us back to the touching start of the show when father and daughter shared a moment of exuberant innocence. You may not leave MTC humming a happy tune, but you will leave with Small Alison, Middle Alison and Alison herself imprinted on your mind for days to follow, as well Helen’s haunting rendition of “Days and Days,” an attempt to explain and describe to Middle Alison what it has been like to live with Bruce, to maintain a fiction while raising a family. It cuts to the quick and captures the essence of what Muriel Rukeyser once wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
“Fun Home” runs through May 6. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Question of Innocence

The Age of Innocence -- Hartford Stage -- Thru May 6

The cast of "The Age of Innocence." All photos by T. Charles Erickson

            There was nothing really innocent about what Edith Wharton labeled “The Age of Innocence,” it was just that human frailties and foibles, at least for a certain class that lived below 23rd Street in the New York of the latter part of the nineteenth century, kept the flaunting of the Ten Commandments wrapped in damask and silk…and silence. In this world premiere of an adaptation by Douglas McGrath of the Wharton novel, produced in association with The McCarter Theatre Center, the damask and silk are in abundance and the society Wharton so deftly captured in her novel is on full display for all to see.

            McGrath has decided to handle the adaptation as a memory play, with The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines) providing the memories. It’s a smart move, for although the first third of this one-act play, directed by Doug Hughes, seems to drag a bit, there’s really no other way, at least on the stage, to provide the exposition necessary to understand the setting, introduce the primary characters and establish the milieu that they inhabit.

            Besides critiquing (and sometimes pillorying) the upper crust of New York society, Wharton’s main focus was on a delicate love triangle that involves May (Helen Cespedes), her suitor, Newland (Andrew Veenstra), and the Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), and once the stage is set, so to speak, it is this triangle that drives most of the play, with the Old Gentleman offering wistful commentary and pianist Yan Li providing the background music that captures the emotional flow of the play.
Boyd Gaines, Sierra Boggess and Andrew Veenstra
        May and Newland have an “understanding,” although their engagement has yet to be announced. Both are children of the upper crust, and thus their courtship is bound by rules and regulations that will, once the couple’s intentions are made public, require a year of “getting to know each other” before the actual nuptials. Although feeling somewhat constrained, Newland is willing to go along with the arrangement until the arrival of the Countess, a soiled dove (she left her reportedly abusive husband in Europe and perhaps ran off with his clerk) who Newland finds entrancing. She is a breath of fresh air, all the more enticing for it perhaps being a bit tainted.
Helen Cespedes

           Once all of this has been established, the play seems to drop ballast and sail forward spiritedly. The wind in the sails is provided by Cespedes, Boggess and Veenstra, who in their respective scenes together develop an engaging chemistry. This is especially true in the scene, somewhat late in the play, when May, now married to Newland, announces that she is pregnant. This announcement elicited sighs and gasps from the audience for various reasons. It’s a compelling scene, as are the scenes between Newland and the Countess as they teeter on the brink of infidelity.

            As is often expected of the Hartford Stage, the production values for “The Age of Innocence” are outstanding. Kudos first of all to costume designer Linda Cho, who captures the multiple styles of the era, including bustles and shortened bodices, with accentuated drapery where appropriate. Lighting designer Ben Stanton provides a profusion of moods and subtly directs the audience’s attention to where it belongs. Finally, the set, designed by John Lee Beatty, might be considered a hybrid, part representational and part presentational. There are elements that seem to evoke the Crystal Palace, the focus of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, while others seem to suggest one of the great train stations built in the nineteenth century. What is also suggested is the rigidity of the class system the play deals with and the societal cage in which Newland finds himself constrained.

            Response to the adaptation might very well be dictated by familiarity with the material from which it is drawn. Perforce, McGrath has, at times, had to rely on implication, condensation and suggestion -- those familiar with Wharton’s novel can fill in the blanks. Those who come fresh to the story may, at times, scratch their heads just a bit, especially during scenes that Wharton fully developed that are treated only in passing (this is especially true of the “If she turns” scene, which is pivotal in the novel but given only a fleeting moment in the play).

            Wharton purists may cavil a bit, but this production of “The Age of Innocence” nicely captures the essence of the Wharton novel and, once the scene has been set, provides an engaging study of love constrained and thwarted. It successfully captures the era Wharton wrote about and engages the audience in the love triangle and portrays, through blocking and body language, the idea that May, the quintessential “innocent,” may have been the wisest of them all.

            “The Age of Innocence” runs through May 6. For tickets or more information call 860-520-7125 or go to

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Stunning Performance

The Revisionist -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru April 29

Carl Howell and Cecelia Riddett. Photo by Curt Henderson

            Can the production of a somewhat flawed play deliver a marvelous theatrical experience? Well, the answer to that question is on the stage right now at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. “The Revisionist,” a one-act play by Jesse Eisenberg that could use some strong, well, revision, offers one of the finest creations of a character on-stage that I’ve seen in my decade-plus stint as a reviewer. The holes in the plot didn’t matter – the questions of motivation were set aside – as I watched, often enthralled, Cecelia Riddett create the character of Maria. It is a stunning, multi-layered performance I will remember for many years to come.

            So, first, to the play itself. Set in Poland in 2007, it has an American writer, David (Carl Howell) visiting his aunt Maria in Szczecin. Why? Well, he wants to revise a novel he’s written (why a visit to an aunt in Poland will facilitate this process is never fully explained). The aunt welcomes him with open arms – she is seldom visited by relatives. David has some quirks – he’s a vegetarian and often resorts to puffing on a pipe (Marijuana? Opium? Oatmeal? Who knows) to ease his anxieties. Throughout the play, directed by Sasha Bratt, the phone rings – Maria dutifully answers – it’s apparently a persistent telemarketer – there may be some hidden symbolism here but, quite frankly, it escaped me. Maria, of a certain age, relies on a taxi driver, Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk) to shuttle her around town and often do her shopping for her. Their relationship? Well, maybe if you speak Polish that might be made clear (as would the meaning of the phone calls), but for those of us not familiar with the Polish language it remains vague.

            Maria is a Holocaust survivor, and there will be a reveal near the end of the play that deals with relatives and actually who is the real revisionist. It all ends on an ambiguous note that is less than satisfying – there’s a feeling that there should be a final scene yet to be written – you simply want a bit more from the relationship that has grown between Maria and David. Unfortunately, Eisenberg doesn’t give it to us.

            So, with such uneven material, why bother attending a performance of “The Revisionist”? Well, it’s quite simple: Cecelia Riddett’s Maria, for all of the play’s faults, is a fully realized, mesmerizing character. Her performance is absolutely stunning, especially since much of it is delivered in Polish (which the actress doesn’t speak) and fractured English. To watch her create Maria on stage is to take a two-year grad course in acting, complete with a full semester on the use of body language to frame a character and convey emotions. Such is the power of Riddett’s performance that you can often disregard what is being said on stage and simply enjoy how it is being said, how the lines are being delivered as Riddett’s body tenses, relaxes, leans and stiffens, and to understand how important and compelling hand gestures can be. In “A Natural History of the Senses,” Diane Ackerman writes: “A hand moves with a complex precision that’s irreplaceable, feels with a delicate intuition that’s indefinable…” Proof positive of this can be seen in Riddett’s performance.

            So, I would urge you to make your way up to Playhouse on Park to make the acquaintance of Maria as realized by Cecelia Riddett. In an otherwise uneven play, she creates a Chekhovian character that carries the play from start to finish. You may not remember some of the play’s specifics, but you will remember Maria.

            “The Revisionist” runs through April 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to