Irving Berlin's America & Reading Between the Lies

by David Lally · June 22, 2014

Indie Artists on New Plays #123 David Lally comments on Irving Berlin's America and Reading Between the Lies There is something happening on New York stages recently that is increasingly alarming. Plays that are small and intimate end up on large stages and plays that are big and complicated end up on small stages. I realize that companies are scrambling for space and most companies who don’t have a permanent space have to take what they can get (or afford) but it’s hurting their shows. As a NYC playwright, I admit I’m spoiled, knowing where most of my shows will be going up in advance so I can tailor the piece to the venue it will be performed in. There is something to be said for directors of these shows who are aware of their space limitations and retool shows appropriately to fit the show to the performance space. Two shows I saw this past weekend became the victims of this affliction.

Irving Berlin's America, now playing at 13th Street Repertory, is the first victim. In the middle of the night, Irving Berlin (Michael Townsend Wright) is visited by a young man (Giuseppe Bausilio) who is a great admirer and apparently quite knowledgeable about Mr. Berlin’s career. Serving as his cheering section and fan base more than a character, Irving Berlin’s Young Visitor helps guide us through Mr. Berlin’s long life by asking questions or commenting on stories that he gets him to tell. Whether the young man really exists or is in the mind of Mr. Berlin is left unanswered, but the program specifically states that the night in question is September 22, 1989, the night of Irving Berlin’s death at the age of 101.

Michael Townsend Wright, channeling more George Burns than anyone else, was an affable performer and a competent singer. His laid-back, vaudevillian approach felt right for the role and since we will assume this is a life chronicle in Irving Berlin’s mind, it was okay that he was that spry.

Giuseppe Bausilio put in what seemed a restrained performance, most likely to balance Michael Townsend Wright’s quieter Irving Berlin. I didn’t know until after the show that he is already an accomplished singer, dancer, actor (having appeared in Billy Elliott and currently Newsies on Broadway) at his tender age as he came off on stage older than his years. It was at the talkback after the performance that the playwright mentioned Giuseppe would turn 17 in a few hours. He is attractive, fit, can sing, dance and act and oozes charisma and likeability. He also harkens back to an age when performers could do it all and didn’t come off with the smarminess that you would see from an actor on the Fox-TV show Glee. I would love to see him in a larger venue as his performance was reined in by the cramped stage at 13th Street Rep.

The show could have legs, especially with Bausilio attached, in a larger venue. But unfortunately, the cramped 13 Street Repertory space worked against it. Because of these space limitations, movement needed to be precise and choreography is difficult to pull off. And why would you make Irving Berlin’s Young Visitor enter from the house and do his entire first song and conversation in complete darkness if you can’t hang a light to illuminate him?

Now, if you’re a fan of Irving Berlin, you will get a chance to see some numbers performed that probably haven’t been performed in years, including such toe-tappers as “I Want To Go Back To Michigan (Down On The Farm)” and the beautiful ballad “When I Leave The World Behind”. Kudos to the playwright for avoiding obvious choices like “White Christmas” and “God Bless, America” (although both are mentioned during the course of the show). In a revue about Berlin, that is a risky move and though some wouldn’t mind hearing those songs, they are readily available elsewhere. There are even a few lines sung from some Berlin misfires, a nice touch, showing that even the great ones can have some clunkers.

Reading Between The Lies, a show from Endangered Artists Sanctuary, is the second victim (pun intended in this case as it is a murder mystery).

With a cast of 10 onstage at any one point, people are tripping over each other, blocking each other, and in several instances during the performance I saw, knocking the set pieces over. Another important point to remember is actions in a small space that are very clearly visible to the audience should not be faked. So fake drinking and fake smoking when someone is sitting two feet away take the audience out of the onstage world.

As Baby Betty Blue, the former child star out of touch with reality, Wende O’Reilly stole the show. Played with a complete lack of guile, every line out of her mouth an instant classic, a performance so spot on that it was alternately funny and creepy, she easily ran away with the show.

I hope this small show, big space/big show, small space conundrum is solved in the future or there will be more shows done in by their venues.





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