New Musicals: Nita Congress looks at What’s It All About: Bacharach Reimagined at the New York Theatre Workshop
Remember how Mary Martin in Peter Pan responds to Captain Hook’s query “Pan, who and what art thou?” She says “I am youth. I am joy. I am freedom!” Well, that’s the way I felt walking out of What’s It All About: Bacharach Reimagined. In fact, I can’t recall coming out of a show in recent years (save Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s Old Hats) so happy and uplifted, so carefree and delighted. And I was not alone: everyone around me was buzzing—not just to their companions, but to total strangers—about how much they’d enjoyed this show, and listing all the people they knew who have to come see it.
That is quite a remarkable feat! I’ll tell you here how I think it was achieved. But first, I should explain what What’s It All About is, well, all about.
It’s the music of Burt Bacharach—arguably, the mainstream soundtrack of the sixties and seventies. But this is most emphatically not in any wise a jukebox musical. This is a fresh, enthusiastic reinterpretation of those standards. So we get rock, hip-hop, blues, and jazz infused variations on Bacharach’s music. And it totally works because the music is familiar, beloved, and—most important—really good. This show does not let you wallow in easy nostalgia. Instead, it thrills and excites you with the strength and depth of the music—and the lyrics—by how well it lends itself to different tempos, rhythms, syncopations, orchestrations; how arrestingly different songs can be made to blend in and around each other, to inform and enhance one to the next melodically, thematically, narratively.
In the course of ninety intermissionless minutes, we are treated to, by my count, some thirty-three songs. You know them: “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “Message to Michael,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Arthur’s Theme.” But you don’t know them as they are sung and staged here. So there is a steel guitar version of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” a gospel-tinged “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me” that evoked Mick Jagger, a heartbreakingly torchy “Don’t Make Me Over,” and a smoky, beat-driven “The Look of Love.”
Every song is beautifully realized, both musically and dramatically. The infectiously winning, endlessly talented young cast—Daniel Bailen, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, James Williams, and Daniel Woods, led by co-creator/arranger/musical director/vocalist/guitarist Kyle Riabko—puts over every song gracefully, graciously, and engagingly. The audience is seamlessly led through cycles of songs winding around a recurring motif of “What’s It All About?” A question that is answered in the show’s eleven o’clock number—“Alfie,” of course—in a soul-stirringly simple and gentle rendition by the gifted Riabko.
The talent and ingenuity evinced onstage are more than matched by the supporting creative efforts offstage. First and foremost, this show has possibly the best sound design I have ever experienced. Designer Clive Goodwin presents no overamplified muddle here: every sound could be traced to its source, every syllable was perfectly enunciated, every nuance faithfully captured. Similarly, director Steven Hoggett focuses the movement and flow of the evening meticulously. There are charming moments of synchronized or successive action, as sound and movement together thrillingly ripple from one player to the next. The show doesn’t have much in the way of sets, but scenic designers Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis make sure that what is there is exceedingly well used, notably a highly versatile big chair and a beautiful revolving stage. And the lighting by Japhy Weideman gorgeously sets moods and underscores rhythms.
So what’s it all about? It’s about love. Love of craft, love of performance, love of music—and a longing, so well realized, to bring this love palpably home to an audience.
Playwrights on New Plays #22: Sergei Burbank looks at Everyday Inferno’s one-act anthology If on a Winter’s Night… playing at The Access Theater Gallery
Everyday Inferno’s one-act anthology, If on a Winter’s Night…, presents three disparate works by skilled playwrights and engaging casts. Producing groups tend to try and find common threads to bind together disparate works (who knows why: easier to entice write-ups and ticket sales, perhaps?) but whatever conceit they attempt rarely holds together. Everyday Inferno avoids trying to bind the pieces together at all, and hazards that three well-conceived, well-executed pieces will find their pace and their audience on their own merits. It’s a winning strategy, and clear evidence that this group of theater artists knows what they’re doing.
The evening begins with Matusek’s People Will Talk About You Sometimes — less a narrative experience, and more a prose poem that explores the disparate lives of strangers introduced to each other through the attempted suicide of a mutual friend. The lyricism of the script is fully evident, as some lines are recited by the full company in the style of a chorale, and then suddenly naturalistic scenes appear; phrases are repeated and passed forward from character to character like musical themes. The facts of the plot, such as they are, are repeated and distorted like a grotesque round of telephone (what implement was used? a razor? a gun? a car? all make appearances in the telling and retelling). The entire cast is fully game for the endeavor, devoting their voices and body fully into the experience, even if it seems at times as difficult for the performers as the audience to follow the thread as the figures on stage alternate between a Greek Chorus and fully embodied naturalistic characters. It is a challenging piece — and worth the attempt.
In DeLashmutt’s The Policy, Jessie (Alexa Cappiello) is paid a visit by insurance agents Mr. Lange and Mr. Pickles (Artem Kreimer and Finn Kilgore) peddling a most unique hedge against future emotional destruction. Their insurance isn’t against fire or theft, but rather the destruction wrought by unfaithful lovers and selfish friends. The lighter possibilities of this premise are immediately offset by the demeanor of Messrs. Lange and Pickles, who invade Jessie’s living room with the alacrity and just-this-side-of-sinister comportment that wouldn’t be out of place in a production of Pinter. DeLashmutt’s snappy banter is well-served by Sommer’s whirling direction, but it is Finn Kilgore’s deadpan Mr. Pickles who steals the show (and, perhaps, the evening).
Jen Tries Vacation, by G.D. Kimble, begins as a situation comedy in which two white urban professionals find themselves lost in a fringe neighborhood looking for a new eatery; it quickly descends into an impressionistic farce as the male member of the pair, Finn (Mark Paul Schulz), metamorphoses into an intrepid 19th century colonial explorer (complete with pith helmet) while Jen (Grace Painter) attempts to connect with a neighborhood regular, Reefer (Rodrikus Springfield). The piece wickedly tackles issues of gentrification and racism and quite neatly avoids easy clichés (an inspired bit involves Reefer becoming invisible to Finn whenever he breaks out of slang and speaks proper English). The play’s absurd comedy (with characters venturing forth as if into the jungle to find luxury goods) collides with the untidy reality of gentrification: the play doesn’t seek a tidy resolution for the sake of plot — there is none to be had, as neither side in this collision fully understands the other. The script illuminates and refracts human experience, never diminishing it, in the tradition of the best theater has to offer.
Indie Artists on New Plays #29: Loren Noveck comments on Struck at HERE
Given its serious and sometimes ominous subject matter—stroke, brain damage, and neuroplasticity; the loss of self we fear with changes to our brain; fear of death and permanent damage—the fact that Struck is shot through with joyousness, with a sense of not just wonder but whimsy, feels like a constant and pleasant surprise. On the one hand, the piece is steeped in the precise medical details of the cerebrovascular event suffered by its central character, Catherine (played by one of the piece’s creators, Tannis Kowalchuk, who herself experienced such a stroke in 2011); on the other, it’s a wild fantasia taking in elements of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Norse fairy tales, a half-imagined Iceland, and cherished childhood memories.
Through its constantly shifting perspectives and styles—from the mundane and realistic minutiae to the most gossamer and elliptical of metaphors—the piece gives a strangely beautiful subjective experience of living inside an altered brain, in both its daily travails and its sheer incomprehensible weirdness. We see, on the literal side, Catherine’s inability to button her coat with only one fully functioning hand; her fixation on her neurologist’s expensive Italian shoes when she can’t quite process the medical details she’s being given; her insistence that nothing is really wrong mixed with sheer terror that something quite seriously is. But we also see her paired with a strange hybrid of angel and orderly (Brett Keyser, who also plays Catherine’s husband and her Icelandic grandfather), who persists in speaking to her in Icelandic or German—languages not completely unfamiliar to her (she spoke Icelandic with her grandparents) but not fully comprehensible, either: like the sudden inability to process one’s own language. We see her journeying to an Iceland of myth and memory; dancing ecstatically under the Northern Lights.
Visually, too, it works through suffusing the space and the senses, with elaborate projections and videos (by Brian Caiazza and Tina Spangler), coming from all directions and projected on a variety of surfaces from panels to floor to scrim. I found the projections especially effective when on scrim between audience and performers, adding a layer of ambiguity and complexity—an obstacle—that made it just that little bit harder to see and hear: made the audience’s experience just that little bit more analogous to Catherine’s.
Created collaboratively (by Kowalchuk, director Ker Wells, and neuroscientist Allison Waters, with the additional participation of playwright/dramaturg Kristen Kosmas), this is a play where the collaborative seams show, and that makes structural sense, too. The piece’s stylistic and structural poles are embodied as well in the styles of the two performers. Even in her most ecstatic and hallucinatory mode, Kowalchuk has a steadiness about her, an emotional groundedness that makes everything she does feel measured and thoughtful. And even in his most realistic scenes—as Catherine’s husband, Gary, or her Icelandic grandfather, or a hospital orderly, albeit one with snowshoe angel’s wings—there’s an anarchic, magnetic strangeness to Keyser. He seems like a creature not entirely of this earth.
I can’t really put the narrative logic of Struck, or even really say I understood everything in it. It’s bristly and nonlinear and some of it works intuitively in context, but will sound absolutely insane if I try to describe it (like an ecstatic dance sequence punctuated by video and scored to a disco remix of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”—which really does make thematic sense if you listen to the lyrics, but the tonal shift of it is hard to explain in any literal way). But that’s how, and why, it works, at least most of the time (the balance between the literal and the fantastical sometimes seems a little skewed toward the fantastical). It’s giving you a glimpse into what it must feel like to experience that kind of jolt to the system, and its terrible ambiguity: It is a trap or a blessing to be suddenly awash in visceral memory? Are visions/hallucinations delightfully magical, or haunting and terrifying? Is the “normal” brain something that has been transcended, or something that one desperately wants to return to?
Indie Artists on New Plays #28: Di Jayawickrema checks out The Pigeoning at HERE
I heard a story on the radio recently about a man who couldn’t spontaneously control his limbs. Every time he wanted to move, he had to carefully imagine the movement he wanted in his mind, and then force his limbs to recreate it. I thought of this feat of concentration as I watched the enormous task of bunkaru-style puppetry in Robin Frohardt’s weird and wonderful The Pigeoning. This meticulously-realized multimedia production, featuring puppetry, video and live music, follows Frank, an obsessive-compulsive office worker in the early 80s, as he comes face-to-face with the chaos that can erupt from trying to build a too perfectly ordered world.
When the audience walks into the theater, each person finds a copy of an Office Safety Manual at their seat. The production opens with a hilarious camp video where an office worker illustrates the manual in the too-bright, slowed-down tones of a flight safety attendant. She guides you through the perils of office life, such as the how to safely walk around corners, and what to do when you come across a plugged cord in your path. The video promises to go through 20-plus chapters but before the joke can grow stale, the play really begins. We find ourselves looking at the puppet Frank sitting at his pristine work desk, engrossed by his own safety manual. You get the sense that the tome has met its perfect reader. Created by the Director/Creator Robin Frohardt and designer Jesse Wilson, Frank is a beautiful puppet, hunched and bespectacled, deep lines creasing his face. As a puppet, Frank is not very big, but you immediately believe that as a character, this is a man made small by incessant worry. Three puppeteers in head-to-toe black man Frank–one puppeteer responsible for making his toes tap nervously, another for drumming his fingers on the desk while the other obsessively straightens his name plate. The fact that the puppeteers don’t always move in perfect unison actually works for this character at war with the world around him. At times, it feels like the hands that swiftly straighten pens and grab tissues to wipe away non-existent spots are just doing it out of pity for the poor, beleaguered man.
It comes as no surprise that when Frank escapes to the park to eat his lunch in peace, his tranquility is immediately shattered by an overflowing trash can abuzz with flies, and a pigeon pecking dangerously close to him. (The flies and pigeons are also gleefully manned by the talented puppeteers.) When Frank flees to the safety of his office, he finds another (or is it the same?) pigeon insistently tapping against his window. With his inner monologue (voiced by the safety manual guide) spinning wildly out of control, Frank flips to Chapter 17 of the manual: “Are you wondering, ‘Is there an inter-species conspiracy against me?’ The answer is probably yes!” Soon, Frank is stalking pigeons through the street, taking the most un-Frank-like risks from letting his desk pile up with clutter to hanging upside down from live telephone wires to record the morse code messages he’s convinced the pigeons are tapping out. Meanwhile, the pigeons are dropping surreal clues, leaving a tiny oar in the park, wearing diving bells, and Frank begins to wonder: are the pigeons trying to torture him, or warn him? The answer to that question is revealed in a wildly artistic journey that is too gorgeous to spoil. As Frank loses his grip on reality, the production takes ever larger flights of fantasy, which push the possibilities of puppetry to its dizzying, dazzling edge. You’re going to want to go down this rabbit hole.
Indie Artists on New Plays #27: Case Aiken Visits Jimmy’s #43 for a Cino Night performance of I Can’t Explain It Better Than That produced by Rising Phoenix Rep
Theater is a different animal than more modern art forms like film or television in that it’s a different experience every time an audience sees it. Even long running shows that have had a performance every night for over a decade with people paid explicitly to keep it the same are different each time, because the actors get replaced, deliveries are adjusted, or the audience laughs or cries at different times. Context is everything because theater is a shared experience far more so than a recorded art form. The Cino Nights series, which is now going seven years strong at Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village, is an attempt at taking that “flash in the pan” brilliance of performance and doubling down on it. Rather than focusing on big budgets or meticulous planning, the program emphasizes energy and enthusiasm to carry the night. The tagline is “1 week of rehearsal, 1 night of performance”.
The piece that I saw in this series was I Can’t Explain It Better Than That, written by Sarah Shaefer, directed by Evan F. Caccioppoli, and produced by Rising Phoenix Repertory. I wish I could say that everyone should drop what they’re doing and check out I Can’t Explain It Better Than That, but sadly the one and done approach doesn’t allow for that. It’s a real shame because this was a great work with a strong cast that left me wanting more. The three leads, Stephanie (Briana Packen), Gio (Nic Grelli), and Jessica (Sevrin Anne Mason), make for a great love triangle that keeps spinning on its ends. The dynamic between them shifts in new, twisted, and depraved ways until finally it all breaks down into the final creepily executed scene. This is a dark comedy for sure, and I found myself laughing quite a bit. I’d love to find out if the piece was being remounted somewhere down the line.
My take away is if the Cino Nights series has consistently great work like I Can’t Explain It Better Than That, then this is something I want to be a part of. Even if just as an audience member, this is something that I think is too good to miss. The raw energy for the work is on full display here. Kind of like the panic for a 24 hour burn or 48 hour film festival, the Cino Nights series throws away precision for effort. This is theater of determination and grit and you can’t help but step back in awe of the accomplishment. The thought that this has been going on week after week for seven years makes it even more impressive.
Obviously, there are going to be kinds of works that will be tough to do well in this setting. Slow, dialogue heavy, nuanced works will require Herculean amounts of memorization and crafting to fit into the confines of such a structure. Not to say it couldn’t be done, just the feat would be daunting. As it stands, this is the kind of beast meant for fun, fast works that encourage a raucous audience. This is bringing art into the bar and making it work. For some, that is exactly as it should be.
Indie Artists on New Plays #26: Julie Congress looks at A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at The Walter Kerr Theatre
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a lighthearted romp in the style of a turn-of-the-century British comedy of manners. To be candid, I have struggled with the writing of this review. There’s really nothing wrong with A Gentleman’s Guide, but there’s also nothing great about it. It is completely adequate – the performances are good but not comedic star turns. The comedy is cute but not uproariously funny (on the night I attended, the audience hardly laughed audibly, particularly during Act II) and any sense of morality has been cast aside. And while the premise capitalizes on the popularity of Downton Abbey, there is otherwise no apparent timeliness or relevance to this show.
London, 1909. Monty Navarro is young, handsome and…penniless. His mother has just died and the poor lad is distraught. Quite fortunately, as the action begins, he is visited by the matronly Miss Shingle who chirpily informs him that he is, in fact, not only not destitute, but descended from the noble D’Ysquith family – his mother having been disowned for marrying a Castillian – and young Monty is in line to become the next Earl of Highhurst, although eight D’Ysquith family members precede him in the secession. Emboldened by his new-found family name, Monty visits his beloved, the beauty Sibella, only to discover she’s off on a date with a man with money and prospects and a good name. If only Monty were already the Earl of Highhurst, perhaps then he would have a chance! So our charming chap goes about killing off one by one all those D’Ysquithes who stand in his way. But poor dear Monty Navarro, though apparently quite the protégée at killing off distant relatives, has many difficulties in love – Sibella becomes engaged (though they continue to illicitly carry on) while Monty also falls for his cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith. The entire plot consists within the framing device of Monty writing in his diary from prison, so we know that something must go wrong, but for the most part everything lightly romps along in his plan, with Monty’s major problem being having too many love interests.
Clearly, there is a lot of potential fun to be had in this comedy of manners. However, while the bones are there, there’s very little meat put on to the characters or plot. Most significantly, there’s no real resistance provided against Monty. He has minimal-to-no qualms with all of the murdering he’s up to, it’s not particularly difficult or elaborate to execute the murders (they typically last the length of a song), there’s no one after him, and the ladies in his life want him to0 much to let anything get in the way of being with him.
Yet for comedy to work (and all theatre, really, and society!) there has to be an investment and a commitment, and the lack of obstacles in A Gentleman’s Guide prohibit us from ever investing in the characters and story in any meaningful way. Though it’s a light comedy, there must still be stakes for the characters – this is a comedic necessity. We always know that Lucy desperately cares about and wants to be in Ricky’s act and will do anything to sneak into it. But if she didn’t appear to really care that much and didn’t have to work very hard to make it happen and if Ricky never really tried to stop her, well, then the vast majority of the humor would be gone. These are the rules of any cartoon (think Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote) – characters have to work harder in a comedy because the situations and stakes are so utterly ridiculous. Because, as A Gentleman’s Guide, exhibits, if the characters/actors don’t find some way, within the heightened rules of their world, to truly care, then, honestly, we as an audience will not either and will just chuckle lightly now-and-again from the house, removed from the action and uninvested.
Bryce Pinkham is energetic and handsome as Monty. Jefferson Mays, portraying all of the soon-to-be-dead D’Ysquithes, is clearly having fun donning so many hats (and wigs and coats and, yes, in one instance, a dress) and takes clear linguistic pleasure playing with the stiff upper class British accent. But while his performance is quite the aerobic feat, he lacks comedic star quality and we are always aware of how hard he is working. Lauren Worsham brings surprising and much-welcome nuance and groundedness in her portrayal of Phoebe while Lisa O’Hare sufficiently realizes the beautiful but self-interested Sibella.
The book (by Robert L. Freedman and based on a novel by Roy Horniman) provides us with caricatures rather than characters. The lyrics, by Freeman and music writer Steven Lutvak, are occasionally clever, but overall rarely achieve the witticism of the Gilbert and Sullivan style it’s written in. Lutvak’s music is lively and accessible, but the songs sound very similar and are, for the most part, interchangeable. Darko Tresnjak’s direction is quick-paced and has a number of cute sight gags (including a dancing suit of armor).
Yet it’s difficult to tell what the message of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is. Life is terminated with the utmost of ease (and a cardinal rule, in my mind, is broken when the mistress of one of the D’Ysquithes, an innocent bystander, is also terminated in a skating “accident”) and the biggest laughs of the evening derive from jokes about veiled homosexuality (in the rather catchy song “Better with a Man”) and generalizations about different races (Africans, Egyptians, etc.). It’s clear that the creative team is poking fun at the dated views of people from the early 20th century, but it is difficult to find a positive or constructive theme in the show. Don’t get me wrong, the show is quaint and fun; but for $147 a ticket, one would hope for something that can transcend to a greater level of humor, humanity and artistry.
Indie Artists on New Plays #25: Lynn Marie Macy looks at Family Furniture at The Flea
A. R. Gurney who has been writing plays for more than 50 years receives a charming and heart-felt world premiere at The Flea for his latest script Family Furniture. The beauty of the play lies in the script’s simplicity and in the performances of Family Furniture’s stellar cast.
This gentle drama feels like a wisp of memory and a glimpse into a by gone world. It is 1952 and young Nick (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) is home from college at his family’s summer home on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie near Buffalo. At the onset his greatest concern is making enough cash on his summer job to buy a car so he can be alone with his girlfriend Betsy (Molly Nordin). The story takes a turn when his sister Peggy (Ismenia Mendes) and father Russell (Peter Scolari) offer information that brings him to the conclusion that his mother Claire (Carolyn McCormick) is having an affair with a family friend. Nick must come to terms with discovering his parents’ flaws and with the world around him that is anything but clear-cut. In addition, each member of the family has a journey, which leads them to higher levels of intimacy and understanding with one another. Peggy is involved with an Italian American boy much against her father’s traditional WASP worldview. He sends his daughter to Europe in hopes of breaking upthe relationship but instead must contend the unexpected results. Mother and son experience an equally genuine connection that is the centerpiece of the evening. Asking if his father knows about her “indiscretion” Claire responds, “People can know and not know, Nicky. And still get along famously” and Nick slips silently into adulthood understanding that in order to maintain the status quo some things should just not be openly spoken of.
Director Thomas Kail has guided the project with humor, insight and sensitivity. Delivering honest and detailed scene work. He is also to be commended for successfully staging the play in such a challenging space (only one location for all exits and entrances). The pace was leisurely but helped to sustain that lazy summer feel. (This did not always work for the scene changes, which sometimes felt slower than they needed to be).
Kail also assembled an amazing cast. Peter Scolari as Russell the father was an absolute delight. His character might have stepped out from any 1950’s TV family comedy and yet he also delivers a performance with impeccable timing underpinned by genuine depth. Carolyn McCormick as the mother Claire is beautifully understated and true to life. Andrew Keenan-Bolger candidly embodies the sardonically struggling Nick. Ismenia Mendes as Peggy is enchanting in her “intelligent” naïveté and Molly Nordin as the feisty Betsy provides an interesting counterpoint to the others polite acceptance.
Rachel Hauck has designed a set that is suggestive of a grand lake house porch with soaring windows and an expansive wooden floor. The family furniture of the tile is represented by multi sized wooden benches that can creatively break apart and reform into various locations, including a boat for a scene out on the water. “There is always something resonant, maybe even something important about using old family things.” says Claire. Given the importance assigned to these passed down objects, the simple benches may have benefitted from a bit more significance in their aesthetic design. Particularly if an actress says she is measuring a sofa and realistically measures a small wooden bench the script and the action are sometimes at cross-purposes. The costumes by Claudia brown are evocative of the 1950’s and her efforts for Claire are especially beautiful. Lighting by Betsy Adams and Sound by Bart Fasbender also stylistically underscore the period and emotional ethos of the play.
The Flea’s Family Furniture is humorous, engaging and thought provoking and would be a great destination between the holidays. I can easily imagine the play will get even better as the company settles in to a successful run.
Playwrights on New Plays #21: Sergei Burbank looks at Distilled Theatre’s production of Long Distance Drunk playing at The Secret Theatre
Corey Pajka’s melodrama Long Distance Drunk is an episodic series of vignettes depicting the alternating peaks and valleys in the college/post-college relationship of Meg (Marlowe Holden) and Cameron (Paul Eddy). From the play’s opening moments, it is clear that their pairing is in reality a triangle, with the third pride of place held by a rotating cast of mind-altering substances enlisted to help each of these damaged characters cope with their demons. The chapters in their tale unfold out of strict chronological order, flipping between their college years and the present day. Initially it is Cameron, the upperclassman, who helps Meg adjust to the slippery ethos (and soporific beer suds) of college life; but while Meg’s ambition (and drug of choice) evolves, Cameron’s does not. As Meg leaves her college career behind, she must leave Cameron with it. Cameron refuses to disappear quietly into memory alone, and the question hanging over the remainder of the play is whether their relationship will land on the upswing or descent.
The production’s strongest asset is the pairing of its leads; the radiant Holden and effortlessly winning Eddy build a convincing romance before us. The distinctive element of their relationship, as outlined by Pajka’s text, is its ease; this is not a whirlwind, incandescent romance, but a comforting one. It is absolutely plausible that despite her decision to leave him, Meg continues to fall into the habit to reaching out to Cameron in her moments of tribulation as the years pass. Meg reaches for Cameron as she would reach for a fluffy comforter — the same comforter that threatened to smother her before.
Eddy’s charm provides necessary lightness to the evening; his animation allows an audience to ease its tension with laughter. But the cast’s effort to create a plausible love worth fighting for is undermined by leaden pacing: the play runs about a third longer than it should without cutting a single word. This melancholy is aided and abetted by beautifully haunting melodies by Brittany Parker; together, these elements, while lovely in their own right, leave no doubt that everyone is doomed. Eddy and Holden are most convincing when occupying their college years — yet even in flashback, every scene is imbued with the dread and heaviness of their dissolute present. The final scene is either a jarring twist or unjustified wrinkle — depending on one’s personal taste — but it nevertheless justifies the absence of any sense of hope throughout the production.
To its credit, Pajka’s text distinguishes itself by unpacking and examining the very notion of addiction in a way that many plays with similar themes do not. The second act opens with dueling testimonies at separate AA/NA meetings, a lyrical set piece that holds pride of place: it is masterfully done. Yet despite being a play whose central relationship is about addiction, the intermixing of the substances in question and our characters remains frustratingly in the wings. The ingredients are all placed in view — a relative’s terminal illness, an unhappy childhood, a strict upbringing that makes moderation tough to learn — and yet, we are told about rather than shown an out-of-control cocaine addiction (one panic attack does not a downward spiral make). Pajka is a reluctant cook, placing the ingredients on the counter, but unwilling to combine them.
Both performers are exceedingly brave and emotionally naked — both to each other and the audience; Eddy gamely takes on the dual challenge of depicting believable intoxication and the intoxication of a functional alcoholic, with mixed results, while Holden convincingly ages before us from a timid near-adolescent to a woman with conflicting emotions — and a painful sense of their consequences.
The enduring question that lingers long after the curtain call attests to this play’s promise and power: it’s sometimes hard to determine what’s more harmful — our drugs of choice, or each other.
Last night, Rochelle and I had the pleasure of being among the presenters at the 4th annual United Solo Festival awards ceremony. (Indie Theater Now playwrights Suzanne Bachner, Bob Brader, Rory Lance, and Donald Molosi were also presenters, along with festival artistic director Omar Sangare.) The complete list of recipients is at the United Solo website. Among the many deserving artists were seven Indie Theater Now playwrights:
- Jim Shankman was named Best Actor for his solo play Kiss Your Brutal Hands
- Eric(a), by Teresa Sanderson, won the award for Best Drama — this play is already published on Indie Theater Now
- Diva by Sean Patrick Monahan received 2 awards: Best Musical and Audience Favorite — this play is also already published on Indie Theater Now
- poetry about how difficult it is to be in your twenties by Julian Goldhagen was named Best Experimental Piece
- The Script by Tim Collins was the winner of the Best Educational Piece award
- Erin Layton‘s Magdalen was named Best Documentary Script — this play is already published on Indie Theater Now
- Blake Walton received the award for Best Premiere for Leading Men — this will be coming to Indie Theater Now soon!
Indie Theater Now has collaborated with Omar and United Solo to produce the 2010-11 United Solo collection and the 2012 United Solo collection, which together contain 31 outstanding scripts that have been featured in the festival. Next month we will be announcing the plays to be included in the 2013 collection!
Indie Artists on New Plays #24: Ron Cohen looks at And Away We Go by Terrence McNally continuing at The Pearl Theatre Company until December 15
It’s hardly the height of originality to say so, but Terrence McNally’s And Away We Go is a veritable love letter to the theater. There are, however, no better words to describe this engaging new work by one of the more celebrated and prolific contemporary American playwrights. McNally has, of course, written such letters before to both the theatre and its musicalized persona, opera, sometimes ironically, sometimes with overwhelming affection. In his It’s Only a Play, from 1986, he took a satirical look at the backstage hysteria accompanying an opening night on Broadway. In And Away We Go, McNally celebrates the behind-the-scenes dramas at various forms of repertory companies, striving through the ages to create and keep alive the classics of dramatic literature. And it’s fitting that the play is being presented by one such New York company, The Pearl, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary
While McNally has his fun poking holes through theatrical foibles and traditions, his deep feelings for the milieu of his chosen profession are never to be doubted. At the start of the show, each of its six actors, as directed in the script, come forward, bend down or kneel to kiss the stage, and, as if to start the connection with the audience, give their real names, a brief history of their acting careers, and some interesting factoid about their lives. The play then moves to ancient Athens, backstage at the Theatre of Dionysus, where The Orestia is being performed. There’s a mask maker, some actors and relatives on hand, to debate the difficulties of emoting behind masks and the rules limiting performers to males. The scene eventually shifts to the Globe Theatre in 1610 London, where various members of the legendary Burbage stage family have gathered, as Shakespeare’s The Tempest is being rehearsed, and then to the Royal Theatre, Versailles, France, where a playwright and his actors are incensed when the King’s censor comes backstage to ask that certain possibly seditious lines be cut. The next stop is the Moscow Art Theatre in 1896, where actors have come together for the first rehearsal read-through of a new revision of The Seagull, while a cleaning lady and a food delivery boy threaten the cataclysmic revolution to come. The penultimate episode takes place at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida in 1956, the final night of the disastrous American premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, starring the comic headliner Bert Lahr. The play left audiences either befuddled or furious, or both. Finally, McNally takes us to present-day America, with a resident theatre company on the brink of financial disaster. And there are instances when characters from different eras get together as well, as if signifying the bond that exists from one generation of theatre people to the next. This concept is particularly telling when people from across the centuries gather round to comfort a young actor dying of a disease that’s presumably AIDS.
But for the most part, McNally squeezes great humor out of the tribulations and pretensions of theater folk. There are, to be sure, some familiar jokes (aren’t there always, when actors get together?), but there are also some killer ones directed at such folks as Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett. Other targets are the efforts of producers and performers to please audiences and the naiveté of young theater hopefuls. One of the biggest laughs at the performance I attended came when an aspiring actress declares: “I’m hoping to join Actors Equity. Once I’ve joined Equity, everything’s going to be so much easier.“
Director Jack Cummings III brings McNally’s script to life with a sure hand, infused with theatrical verve, and his actors acquit themselves beautifully as they depict the changing times, costumed simply in contemporary street clothes. The French and Russian accents are at times a bit too broad, but it matters little when measured against the depth and breadth the actors bring to their multiple roles. And each has an array of shining moments. Carol Schultz is especially touching as a theater company’s executive director breaking bad news of the theatre’s potential demise to her board members, while Dominic Cuskern quietly captures the poignancy of the company‘s eldest actor realizing he will never have the opportunity to play Lear. Sean McNall wonderfully reveals every rattled nerve behind the excessive bonhomie of an artistic director explaining to the audience in a pre-show address why the season is being downsized.
Micah Stock rails with explosive fury against the frustrations of performing in a Greek chorus, and Rachel Botchan depicts with infectious energy the yearnings of a young woman, both in ancient Greece and 17th Century London, to break tradition and get a chance to act. Donna Lynne Champlin scores mightily in such varied turns as a giddy and generous theatre board member and the take-no-prisoners, ex-chorus girl wife of Bert Lahr.
Sandra Goldmark’s set is an eye-grabbing visualization of the play’s theme. It‘s a hodge-podge of stage furniture and costumes, with a collection of colorful chandeliers glittering in the center, while R. Lee Kennedy‘s lighting adroitly helps to shift its moods.
All in all, this brave and well-realized taking on of a new play by a noted playwright of our times adds immeasurably to this Pearl’s luster.