Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Precious Ring

The Engagement Party -- Hartford Stage -- Through February 3

                When Samuel Baum was writing his play, The Engagement Party, I imagine he was fresh from reading Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” You know the one – it’s where Burns writes: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley,.” Or perhaps while he was tapping on his keyboard, Baum was playing Joe South in the background, South singing “The Games People Play” – “Oh the games people play now / Every night and every day now / Never meaning what they say now / Never saying what they mean.” Maybe not, but this tightly-written play about how things can fall apart and the games even best friends play certainly evokes thoughts of both the poem and the song.

                Astutely directed by Darko Tresnjak, with a major assist from scenic designer Alexander Dodge, who deftly utilizes the theater’s turntable stage to reveal various rooms in a Park Avenue apartment, this engaging one-act play perceptively plays with the audience’s emotions: a rise and fall, then another rise and fall, and yet another until we get to the denouement that, though expected, is still satisfying.

                So, what do we have here? Well, it’s an engagement party that Josh (Zach Appelman) and Katherine (Beth Riesgraf) are hosting for Kate’s family and some close friends. There’s some initial couple-nuzzling between the two and some pickle-arranging and then the guests start to arrive.

First are Kate’s parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins) and Gail (Mia Dillon – kudos for her subtle, hush-puppy Southern accent), both of whom are apparently delighted with the pending marriage of their daughter to Josh. The bell rings, the door opens, and Haley (Anne Troup) and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh) stroll in. At this point it becomes obvious what costume designer Joshua Pearson has brought to the party, for while Kate is dressed in a stylish, clinging gown, Haley, her college friend, is wearing drab clothes that seem to want to shun her body.

Another doorbell ding-dong and Alan (Teddy Bergman) appears, appropriately dressed as the professor he is. The group sits down for some social chit-chat, mostly dealing with how Josh and Kate met and whether Josh, jokingly, really deserves Kate. There’s a slight bit of tension when Conrad questions Alan, a sociology professor, about his antagonism to the consumer society, but the pot, right now, is only on a very low simmer.
Anne Troup, Brian Lee Huynh, Richard Bekins, Mia Dillon
Beth Riesgraf, Teddy Bergman and Zach Appelman

A final doorbell, and in bursts Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh’s childhood friend who is back from a recent tour in Iraq. He’s loud, profane (his shirt, compliments of Pearson, says it all) and his entrance jerks the audience out of its expositional lethargy. There’s a sense that things are about to happen, and they soon do.

Given the nature of the play, writing about it opens up many spoiler-pitfalls. I will try to skirt them, but it’s impossible not to mention the engagement ring ($300,000 of diamonds) that Josh has given Kate. This is what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin, the object that has really no true value to the plot but motivates the characters to act in certain ways and pursue certain goals…and in this case, reveal underlying discontents and several dark secrets. What triggers the rising action of the play is the loss of the ring – it disappeared when Kai spilled some wine while at dinner. Where has it gone? Has someone…horrors!...stolen it?

  What follows is the breakdown of friendships as Josh’s suspicions, with underlying motivations that will eventually be revealed, turn from one guest to another. This leads to some intensely emotional confrontations in the living room, the kitchen, and finally a bedroom (as the set turns), all deftly acted out by this superb cast. In the process, the loving, familial, fraternal relationships established in the early exposition are challenged and fractured.

Part of the play’s appeal is that there’s nary a cardboard character on the stage. Baum has peopled his play with flesh-and-blood folks complete with their own fears, desires and ghosts. Thus, as they interact, ostensibly motivated by the ring’s disappearance, the audience is involved. Whether it’s Kai confronting Josh about his suspicions, or Kai challenging Alan about what he has said (or revealed), or Kate confronting Josh about how they met and his true motivations, or a major reveal late in the play that involves Gwen, Conrad, Josh and Kate (the reveal a tad melodramatic; it’s a soap-opera moment but, whatever), it all engages the audience because there have been emotional connections made with these characters.

The danger inherent in plays like The Engagement Party, with its multiple reveals and rising emotions, is that, as things heat up, actors might have a tendency to go over the top. Tresnjak doesn’t allow this to happen. Yes, there’s disillusion and disappointment expressed and voices are raised, but the heightened scenes never become an excuse for the characters to lose their inherent civility. In other words, they tremble on the “eve of destruction” of relationships but pull back from the ultimate abyss – they opt to leave rather than drive a stake into the heart of their relationhips. This makes what has been fractured in the relationships over the course of the evening all the more poignant. Although there are flashes of anger, the operative emotion at the end of the play is sadness and a sense that it all didn’t have to happen, punctuated by a very simple sound, almost inaudible, at the end of the play that is a wonderful theatrical moment.

The pleasure in watching The Engagement Party unfold is that every member of the audience can relate, in one way or another, to what occurs. We have all told “social lies,” we have all become heated and perhaps irritated to the point of mania over something that, in the end, is revealed to be trivial. We have all said things that, with the dawn, we wish we could erase from the tape of life. We have all done things that, over the years, weigh us down, that we form mental scabs over and yet, still, there is pain. The play compresses all of this into one evening’s social gathering that is meant to be joyous and yet becomes a slashing of the fabric that holds us all together.

As I exited the theater, a man in front of me turned to his companion and said. “Wasn’t that a wonderful play?” She nodded and said: “I want to cry for all of them.” Well, yes, you do want to cry for all of the characters because, well, to edit the immortal words of Pogo, “They are us.”
The Engagement Party runs through February 3. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Murder Most Melodic

Murder for Two -- Playhouse on Park -- Through February 3

                What if Agatha Christie had written one of her mystery novels under the influence of peyote while Irving Berlin was staying with her as a house guest? The result might very well have been Murder for Two, a zany musical whodunit that recently opened at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. Under the sure-handed direction of Kyle Metzger, with a book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, music by Kinosian and lyrics by Blair, this exercise in controlled silliness takes a tried-and-true Christie premise – a murder in a manorial home with all present as possible suspects – and infuses it with Marx-brother’s manic zaniness, all created by just two piano-playing actors.

                The evening opens, appropriately, with a murder. A surprise birthday party has been planned for Arthur Whitney, author of numerous mystery novels. However, as soon as he enters he is shot in the head. Who could have committed such an evil act? Soon on the scene is a police officer, Marcus (John Grieco), who hopes to be promoted to the rank of Detective. While the actual Detective is on his way, Marcus decides to solve the case and thus garner the attention of his boss, something he knows he can do if he just follows protocol, which means interviewing all of those present.
Tevor Dornor and John Grieco

                Quite a few have been invited to the party, and part of the silliness is that they are all played by one actor – the rather deft, agile and talented Trevor Dorner. Over the course of the evening he’s called upon to play the murder victim’s wife plus a femme fatale ballerina, a bilious businessman and his wife (whom he claims has murdered before), a psychiatrist, a young college student writing her thesis on murder and members of a boys’ choir.

                So, it sounds a bit like Irma Vepp or the 39 Steps parody, but there’s a difference, for both actors play the piano, and much of the plot development and interrogations are done via song. There’s an early paean to the value of “protocol,” and, perhaps the high point of the evening, three of the members of the boys’ choir bursting out into song. Then there’s the murder victim’s wife just dying to sing her show-stopping song (she finally gets the chance).

                Along the way there’s quite a bit of audience interaction, starting even before the lights go down. At one point, an audience member is invited on stage to portray a man dying of poison. All of it requires a huge suspension of disbelief, but if you buy the premise early on you won’t have any trouble embracing this one-act exercise in pun-riddled goofiness.

                Is the murder solved? Well, yes, although to accept the resolution you can’t be a slave to logic. Oh, yes, you will also learn who stole the party’s ice cream. Of course, the murder investigation is merely the frame to allow two very talented actors to show their stuff and their piano-playing prowess. It’s a tongue-in-cheek production from start to finish and a must-see for those who don’t demand that every theatrical production deliver a message and deal with relevant, soul-searching issues. Sometimes you just go to the theater to have fun.
                Murder for Two runs through February 3. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Much Ado About a Lot of Things

Miller, Mississippi -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Through February 3

                I think I’ll write a play. Hmm, let me see, what can it be about? Well, how about racism and the Civil Rights movement – that’s always a hot topic. But maybe it could be about generational incest, or perhaps homosexuality and AIDs, or maybe I’ll create a portrait of the South in the middle of the 20th century, with so many issues still left unresolved (and just a smidgen of Southern Gothic thrown in for good measure – the Flannery O’Connor thing), or just bring my audience into the lives of the members of a dysfunctional family. So many possibilities. What’s a playwright to do? Well, why choose? Why not deal with all of these topics. That, apparently, is what Boo Killebrew decided to do in writing Miller, Mississippi, which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Lee Sunday Evans. As might be imagined, the results are, at best, mixed.

                Spanning some 30 or so years in the life of the Miller family, this somewhat unfocused play attempts to be many things to many people and, as a result, as the person who accompanied me suggested, it is often “tediously entertaining.” That may seem a bit oxymoronic, but it’s apt. The play opens with a bang (literally – Daddy-dearest has shot himself)) followed by the Miller’s housekeeper, Doris (Benja Kay Thomas), telling a story to the three Miller children: Thomas (Roderick Hill), Becky (Leah Karpel), and John (Jacob Perkins). The three actors playing the children do their best to portray adolescents, but their physical appearances belie their purported ages. In any event, it’s a haunted house tale, and it soon becomes apparent that the house in the story is a symbol for the Miller abode, although Killebrew doesn’t make as much of this as she might have.

                Essentially aloof from the intimate goings-on in the family is the children’s mother, Mildred (Charlotte Booker), whose parental guidance, fueled by a couple of stiff drinks, consists of bromides and nods to the social mores of mid-century Mississippi; thus it falls to Doris to provide guidance and a certain amount of stability to the children’s lives (think Scout and Jem’s relationship with Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird, although Atticus certainly wasn’t aloof).
              The nature of the various familial dysfunctions is slowly revealed over a rather long first act – a lot is implied that will be confirmed in the second act. Given the nature of the play, the actors are required to age, and once their characters reach their maturity the actors seem a lot more comfortable in their roles. It’s Karpel who handles this process the best, for with just a change of hairstyle and a growing slump of the shoulders she is quite believable both as a teenage girl and finally a totally repressed woman who has essentially become a slave to the house.

                Whether you resonate with any of the multiple plot lines is probably determined by what you bring to the play. Are you sensitive to racial issues and the continuing struggle for racial equality? Then the play, at moments, will speak to you. Have you ever had to deal with incest, either personally or within a broader family construct? Well, then, there will be moments for you, although John’s explanation for the incest (essentially: “Daddy did it, so I thought it was okay. I was just walking in his footsteps.”) seems a bit lame, and why Becky succumbs and allows the relationships to continue is never really dealt with (that would take an entire play in and of itself). Have you had a parent who was in denial? Well, you’ll respond to Mildred and why she doesn’t do more to protect her children. Are you of Southern heritage? Well, then, the depiction of the Mississippi mind-set will possibly evoke memories.

          It’s often difficult to figure out how to end a play, especially with so many narrative strings being interwoven. In the case of Miller, Mississippi, it’s not clear what we are to think about the final extended scene: Thomas prostrate in a bed, dying of AIDs, while on the television John, a newly elected state senator, proclaims the glories of Mississippi. What’s being said? What’s the point? Evil and mendacity triumph? One might wish that Killibrew had reflected a bit more on how she began the play – that story about the haunted house oozing its evil – and used that to at least bring everything full-circle.

                Quite simply, Killibrew puts too much on her play’s plate, so it’s difficult to savor any single offering, and thus, at the end, you might feel over-stuffed and under-satisfied. The basic problem is that causation for this family’s problems is unclear: is it Mississippi and the Southern mind-set (and the fact that many white children were essentially raised by black women)? Or could it be within the family itself, which means the play could just have easily been set in Vermont. Is the evil of racism at the core of the family’s dissolution? The theater’s lobby display is heavy on the history of the Civil Rights movement and the atrocities that occurred during that period, but is that supposed to explain the incest or Thomas’s alienation because of his homosexuality or Mildred’s detachment from her children’s problems? Or can it all be placed at the doorstep of the turbulence and violence the country went through in the three-plus decades the play covers? ‘Tis a puzzlement.
                Miller, Mississippi runs through February 3. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to