Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Offerman Takes Center Stage in Huntington’s ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ (3.5 Stars) Michael Hoban

‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Kennedy Toole; Directed by David Esbjornson; Musical Direction by Wayne Barker; Costumes by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Scott Zielinski; Sound Design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes. Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company at the BU Theater, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston, through December 20th.
If you’re a fan of either Nick Offerman, one of the stars of the television series “Parks and Recreation” or the 1960’s picaresque novel “A Confederacy of Dunces”, chances are you will find the world premiere of the stage production of that work now being presented by The Huntington Theatre Company enormously entertaining. But if you, like me, aren’t familiar with either, you may find this play to be a little too close to sitcom (albeit an ambitious one) to be considered a fully developed theater piece. Which is a little surprising given the source material, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1981 and has been described by some as a ‘comic masterpiece’.
‘Confederacy’ centers around the failed exploits of Ignatius J. Reilly (played convincingly by the very funny Offerman), a rotund 30-year old undiscovered genius at least in his own mind. The title of the book and play is derived from this quote by Jonathan Swift (which is apparently meant to be ironic for the book’s purposes): “When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” The witty but acid-tongued Ignatius certainly believes that of himself, and therefore does not suffer fools gladly whether it be police officers or strangers in the street. And he saves the worst of his invective for his mother, who despite feeding, clothing and providing him shelter (and enabling him to remain in his underachieving state) with no reciprocity, remains the target of his condescending sniping.
Asked what he does with all of his time lounging about his mother’s house (other than pleasuring himself off-stage in a crudely funny bit), he responds, “I dust a bit. In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century.” In some ways he is the 1960’s equivalent of an internet troll, spending all of his time critiquing everyone and everything around him instead of either doing something to change the world or heaven forbid looking at himself.
His doting mother finally tires of his joblessness, so he reluctantly secures a position as a file clerk with a company called Levy’s Pants, where he leads an ill-fated worker’s rights movement a few days into his career that results in his firing, which leads to an even more absurd job. There is also an involved subplot about an Eva Braun-esque strip joint owner illegally selling pornographic photographs under the noses of the vice squad while an apprentice stripper prepares her stage act (with a cockatoo). And while that is all undoubtedly funny stuff in the book, it just feels superfluous here. It is one of many story threads that doesn’t feel well developed for the stage version, and the somewhat convoluted plot sometimes feels as if the play’s adaptors are trying to stuff as many elements of the book into the two-and-a-half hours as they can to satisfy fans.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some very funny moments in this play. The audience laughed throughout, and I did in spots, mostly at Ignatius’ erudite putdowns or rationalizations of his bizarre behavior. Offerman is terrific in this role, and he has some very funny character support, including Arnie Burton as a 60’s caricature of a gay man named Dorian Greene, and Paul Melendy as Officer Mancuso, the undercover cop assigned to find “perverts” while dressing like a nun and other absurd costumes. Anita Jillette as Ignatius’ mother and Ed Peed as her suitor Claude also submit fine performances.
The costumes are a plus and they appear to be period appropriate, which makes the director’s choice to pantomime everything from newspapers to drink glasses such a curious choice, made even more peculiar when sound effects of car doors opening or someone typing are provided. If you’re going to spend money on costumes, why not spring for a couple of beer bottles and a copy of the Times-Picayune? The music between scenes is also a plus, anchoring the action firmly in New Orleans. This show is scheduled to head for Broadway in the spring, so there are bound to be massive changes to make it a little more cohesive before then. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2015-2016/confederacy-of-dunces/.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey On Their Mettle

Exiled Theatre may be new on the scene but their Pinter/Beckett effort this month proves they’re a force to be reckoned with. We’d be lucky to have these exiles call Boston their home. ASHES TO ASHES and FOOTFALLS run through Nov. 28th at the Green Street Studios in Central Square, one block behind the Middle East.

Pinter acknowledged his debt to the older playwright: Both broke with conventional theater and embraced the existential notion that life has no “meaning.” Where Beckett sets his plays in a wasteland, Pinter uses a naturalistic context but his characters, like Beckett’s, are trapped in repeated dialogue and unexplained terror. The women in both ASHES TO ASHES and FOOTFALLS agonize over their suffering, fearing/knowing “it will never end.”

ASHES TO ASHES, deftly directed by James Wilkinson, places a proper British couple in a well appointed living room, having cocktails, perhaps before dinner, perhaps before lunch…perhaps….perhaps. She is telling him about a lover or is she? He seems to be patronizing her, not entirely believing her wild story about a lost baby in a bundle (which was borrowed by Edward Albee, by the way, as a “bumble”).

Being British and reserved, they cover their emotions with misdirection, as when the husband (we assume that’s who he is) chides the wife about using a “guilty” pen. “You don’t know where it’s been,” he says accusingly. She misdirects when she says her sister will never share a bed with her husband again. She isn’t talking about her brother-in law.

Perhaps she’s had an abortion or a miscarriage. Pinter doesn’t tell us. Instead he makes her a participant in the nazi atrocities of WWII, although she’s not old enough to have witnessed babies being snatched from their mother’s arms, not old enough to have been on the train to Auschwitz, not old enough for her baby to have been taken from her by a Nazi “tour guide.”

One thing is certain. Her guilt is relentless, her pain inconsolable. Pinter leaves it to us to piece together. Perhaps it’s she who will be spirited away by an ambulance. The husband coolly tells her there will be “a siren for you.” Stephen Cooper and Angela Gunn are both game actors, seamlessly trading off dominance and subservience as the play unfolds. Pinter hated the sentimentality of mainstream theater: Even though you don’t feel pity for either character, you do feel the dread.

Director Teri Incampo has made her production of FOOTFALLS visually stunning as well as hypnotizing, with Beckett’s repetitive language and reiterating movement. One woman on stage in a tattered robe, covered in what appears to be dust, (looking like Dickens’ Miss Havisham) paces up and back, endlessly up and back, wearing out the floorboards in one small section of the stage.

Her mother (a disembodied voice) explains that her daughter needs to hear the sound of her own footsteps. Incampo’s interpretation for the daughter’s ritual behavior has her clutching her crossed arms up to her neck as if she were cold or frightened or mentally unbalanced. Only once does she lower her arms. Then they’re quickly restored, like body armor, to protect her. From what? Beckett leaves that to the spectator.

The mother’s voice may well exist only in her mind. The circular dialogue (the speeches are actually monologues) may be the mechanism which keeps her steady in a world with no purpose, like hand washing to an obsessive compulsive. Kudos to Sarah Mass as the fragile daughter and Mary Niederkorn as the soothing “voice.” Even though Beckett goes to great lengths to eradicate sentimentalityeveryone speaks in a monotoneyou can’t help superimposing your own experience on the characters and being moved.

Friday, November 20, 2015


If you thought John Guare’s SIX DREGREES OF SEPARATION (@ BCA through Nov. 22nd) couldn’t have much to say after twenty-five years, you’d be mistaken. In fact, there’s a jolt in the dialogue which makes even more impact now than it did in 1990.

Guare’s play, inspired by real events, concerns several wealthy New Yorkers who were taken in by an imposter claiming to be friends with their children. They put him up for the night and when he tells them he is Sydney Poitier’s son, they fawn over him in hopes of rubbing elbows with his famous father.

The wife of an ambitious art dealer in whose home he stayed can’t bring herself to hate him. After all, he didn’t take anything from their lavish apartment. She urges him to turn himself in to the police just to explain. When he’s skeptical about the treatment he’ll receive, she says with a chuckle, “I don’t think they’ll kill you.” To which he replies “I’m black.”

Now, thanks to the internet and cell phone cameras, even rich people know what Fats Waller knew in 1935 (“I’m white on the inside but that don’t help my case” from Waller’s Black and Blue): If you’re black, you can be killed for far less.

Guare doesn’t just tell a story, he indicts the rich and their entitled, Ivy League children with blistering comedy. Their shallow lifestyle and lack of moral fiber is held up to ridiculeand to extensive examination in the more preachy (“You’re not what you think you are”) parts of the play.

Bad Habit’s production has one of Boston’s best directors at the helm: Liz Fenstermaker wisely highlights the humor she can mine from the nasty, privileged children who have no patience, or respect for that matter, for their affluent parentsand she plays those confrontations just short of farce. They’re hilarious, a nifty counterpoint to the Sturm und Drang of the expositional scenes.

Fenstermaker’s cast is tops, with Christine Power and Steven L. Emanuelson wonderfully obtuse as the prosperous couple at the center of the story who welcome Elyas Deen Harris as their counterfeit guest. Janelle Mills and Steve Auger (“I don’t want to know!”) are quite amusing as the second couple the mysterious Harris is able to fool.

Dani Berkowitz, Kevin Hanley, Ben Heath and Alex Portenko as the disagreeable young people (and other characters) are deliciously offensive. Best of all is C.D. Matthew Murphy in three distinct roles, as a South African wheeler dealer who can put his hands on two million dollars at the drop of a hat, then as a hard boiled city cop and as a lonely, gullible doctor.  It’s fine ensemble work. Don’t miss it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Powerful, Disturbing NIGHTINGALE

Hub Theatre Company’s THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE (playing through Nov. 21st) is their most ambitious project to date. The good news is that director Rebecca Bradshaw has pulled together a crackerjack ensemble and enlisted an impressive support system behind the scenes.

From Megan Kinneen’s simple but elegant set (a starry firmament overhanging crossed silk shears which serve as an entryway as well as a ship’s sails) to Bahar Royaee’s haunting sound design (three musicians on stage supply sweet music of the spheres or great cracks in the universe by banging on piano legs or eliciting eerie squeals from a cello) to Tyler Catanella’s otherworldly undulating, foreboding choreography to Christopher Bocchiaro’s evocative, shadowy lighting to Jess Rassp’s smart, neoclassical costumes, you can clearly observe the thought and care which went into Hub’s production.

The myths in Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES inspired playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker (as well as Shakespeare for his TITUS ANDRONICUS) but Wertenbaker makes the story resonate for contemporary audiences for its scathing indictment of warand the men who wage it so they can feel “alive.” (The play was written in 1989 but here we are again in the midst of two declared wars and an amorphous third with the Islamic State. Why? So the USA can regain its standing as the most powerful nation in the world?)

Even more resonance leaps off the stage when the villain of the piece justifies his criminal actions, assuming he, like the gods, is “above the law.” He can suppress “outsiders” at will and even deny them the right to speak. He can consume the spoils of war and perpetrate rape with impunity. Then he will suggest that the woman in question enticed him. Even more damaging is her self doubt, that she may have caused the rape in some way.

Hub has engaged several organizations (like the Boston Rape Crisis Center) to speak after the performance. An insert in the program lists info and phone numbers. Bravo to Hub for using this opportunity to link theater and community.

Kudos to the actors who make the story crystal clear, even as they perform a play within the play and even as they reference many an all but forgotten classical allusion. Lauren Elias and Bridgette Hayes are the two sisters who fall prey to Jeff Marcus’ conquering “hero”…and who exact horrific justice as payback. (This is not a play for the squeamish.) Elias gets to play the righteous victim where Hayes’ transformation takes longer to materialize but when it does, she’s in her element.

Liz Adams, too, gives a forceful performance as Elias’ world weary servant, having experienced first hand the destruction invaders wreak. The males of the chorus become soldiers who keep watch and sailors who handle the (cleverly devised) rigging and rowing when Elias sets sail for Thrace. Ryan McPherson is a standout as the kind captain of the ship (and of Elias’ heart). The females in the chorus, led by a fearsome Aina Adler, become the women of Thrace who, except for a sympathetic Blyss Cleveland, keep their distance from the King’s foreign wife.

Every member of the ensemble contributes seamlessly to Wertenbaker’s remarkable, bone chilling cautionary tale. What’s even more astounding is that all tickets for all shows are Pay-What-You-Can!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Jacqui Parker’s new play, A CRACK IN THE BLUE WALL (@ Hibernian Hall through Nov. 22nd) follows one family in their quest for justice when a white policeman shoots and kills their son. Sound familiar? Parker’s clever twist on a story “ripped from the headlines” is that the father of the slain man is himself a policeman. What’s more, his partner is related by marriage to the shooter.

Will his white partner help this African-American family uncover the truth? Will the slain boy’s mother emerge from her grief and embrace the living again? Will her other son take up his brother’s mission to speak out against violence? Will all the young people in the play stay virgins? That last one seems a bit out of place but Parker, the master weaver, gets some much appreciated levity out of matching up and cooling down the teenagers.

The threads Parker works into her tapestry are so plentiful that any one of them could have its own play: Parker offers an embarrassment of riches with themes like the empowerment of women, the persistence of existence even after death, forced busing, prescription drug abuse, family loyalty, the excruciatingly slow judicial system, burgeoning sexuality, dating out of one’s race, the thin blue line, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement (although Parker doesn’t specifically name it).

The play opens with a news report on the shooting and ends with another news report announcing the District Attorney’s plans for the case. Since the play is chronological and happens between the two news stories, I felt as if we were watching an episodic drama, the way Charles Dickens wrote his novels (with each chapter running in another day’s newspaper)… or the way television has tapped into well written serial dramas. If HBO is listening, Parker’s your playwright.

Parker has a crackerjack cast to people her story: Abria Smith and Wyatt Jackson portray the grieving parents who each find a different path for coping. Jackson’s character is a tower of strength where Smith’s turns inward. Their elegant performances are contrasted with the energy and urgency of the teenaged characters.

Derek Jackson as the surviving son can’t sit still and wait. It’s a powerful portrayal of youthful passion and exuberance...and he’s quite adept at comedy, too, being pursued by two attractive females, one (Johanna Perez) who is dogged in her pursuit and one (Amelia Janine Lumpkin) who insists she isn’t at all interested! John Porell has the plum role of a man torn in his allegiances, to a friend and partner or to his wife’s family. Seyquan Mack and Smith have some lovely moments together, with Mack serenading his mother to sleep.

Monday, November 2, 2015


Harvey Fierstein’s CASA VALENTINA (@ SpeakEasy Stage through Nov. 28th) shines a big bright light on a group of men who, Fierstein himself points out, are not included under the LGBT umbrella. The “T” in LGBT stands for transsexual not for transvestite. Why the oversight? Perhaps it’s because transvestites are not generally in “the public eye” and certainly it’s because most people don’t understand what the term means.

An old suitcase full of photos of heterosexual, cross dressing men at a resort in the Catskills first inspired a book in 2005 and Fierstein’s play in 2014. These were men with wives and families who yearned to express “the girl within.” One resort offered transvestites a safe haven for cross dressing while most of the hotels like Grossinger’s and the Nevele spawned a slew of entertainers who cross dressed for laughs, not for life.

Anyone over 50 can remember Milton Berle in drag. A little later Jonathan Winters and Johnnie Carson carried the mantle. Society readily accepted cross dressing in heterosexual males for entertainment purposes but not many, even today, think beyond the humor. Many people assume that “drag” is the bailiwick of homosexuals or that it’s “punishment” for children who misbehave. One of Fierstein’s characters recalls the practice of “petticoating” in the military as public humiliation.

It certainly was in my grammar school. Our sadistic third grade teacher, whose name thankfully I have repressed, used to dress boys in women’s clothes and making them walk around the class if they weren’t paying attention. But Fierstein’s play, I think, is intended mostly to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about heterosexual cross dressing and to celebrate its pioneers (in much the same way that gay plays celebrate the pioneers of the gay rights movement).

Here’s my difficulty with the script. I think the play is supposed to be a sympathetic picture of these men who did risk substantial loss if their wives or bosses discovered their secretbut Fierstein places such revulsion for homosexuals in their dialogue, that I couldn’t see beyond the hatred (except for the one character who stood up to the bigots). And I’m very sorry to say I couldn’t “willingly suspend my disbelief” when too many holes in the script sank that willingness.

SPOILER ALERT. Are we really to believe that the FBI works out of rural post offices? (I’m inclined to think the FBI is just there to set up a joke about J. Edgar Hoover.) Are we to believe an informant listens in on everyone’s phone taps? Doesn’t that take up all of his time? What about a character, who will fiercely protect his right to privacy, going to an emergency room still dressed in women’s clothes… when his friend who doesn’t mind people knowing, makes a big deal about changing his? What about a wife who overhears something of vital importance and doesn’t ask her husband why he didn’t tell her? Etc. etc.

Director Scott Edmiston has a stellar cast to inhabit Fierstein’s characters and the actors all seem comfortable (or uncomfortable on purpose) in their roles, so I shall laud their collective effort in service of what I consider a deeply flawed and disturbing script.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey The LADIES who Lunch

Heart & Dagger Productions takes us back to 1956 with 5 LESBIANS EATING A QUICHE (by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood, playing @ BCA through Nov. 30th). Sadly it’s a year I remember well. Air raid sirens blared every day at noon so we’d know what to do if someone (Everyone knew it would be those Russians: Everyone was wrong) dropped a hydrogen bomb on our placid neighborhood. Preparedness, by the way, meant “duck and cover” as if hiding under a school desk could prevent radiation from scorching our skin.

No one is more pleased than I to witness a silly spoof of those chilling days of yesteryear. 5 LESBIANS is deliriously daft, purposely lame (think PSYCHO BEACH PARTY) and mercifully short. Director Joey C. Pelletier (who also directed that BEACH PARTY a couple of years ago) knows his way around send-up. His secret formula is speed and light and lots of energy. (That sounds suspiciously like Einstein’s theory of relativity… but no matter!)

The ladies of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein call each other “widow” because the L-word wasn’t regularly invoked in the ‘50s (nor was the H-word: gay men were called “artistic”) but I digress. The Linder/Hobgood play isn’t much concerned with historical accuracy. It’s hysterical accuracy they’re going for.

Many homes back then had “cold closets” stocked with canned goods and provisions they believed would last through a nuclear winter…(Just one, mind you, in a tiny tar papered closet with the whole family until the air was safe in spring). Hence the quiche. The Sisters of Gertrude Stein are gathered for their annual bake-off so there are 56 pies vying for Best Quiche when Kaboom! Luckily the butch building committee chairwoman had the foresight to install a safety door which automatically seals in case of a nuclear event.

The bad news: They are the last people on earth. The good news: They have enough quiche to last at least until the radiation drifts out to sea. But wait. “Someone left the cake out in the rain… and it took so long to bake it and [they’ll] never have the recipe again.” Just kidding. That song won’t be written for at least ten more years. But those quiches are outside the hermetically sealed room. What will they do? Furthermore, how will they populate this brave new world?

The clever, Saturday Night Live-like jokes fly by like missiles. Well, some land with a thud. The modus operandi is to just keep ‘em coming. There’s even a heady reference to Pope Joan (who “passed” for male and became the only female Pope in Vatican history… which led thereafter to the practice of genital checking via a special chair the Cardinals could crawl beneath. I’m told one can find that chair in the Vatican Museum.) Oops. More digression inspired by Linder and Hobgood’s “Pope Jones”/“Pope Joans” reference.

What makes 5 LESBIANS work is Pelletier’s remarkable, madcap cast. Erin Rae Zalaski is a hoot as the perky but rigid event organizer. Melissa Barker as the building and grounds engineer has just the right swagger to declare she’s a “big, ol’ lesbian” when the time comes to fess up. (The audience gets to, too!) Elizabeth Battey does daffy like it’s mother’s milkand she gets the best moment in the play, hands down. She has a blast and so do we. That’s all I’m saying.

Best of all are Laurie Singletary as the Society’s president and mother hen (She lays down laughs like a chicken lays eggs, by the dozens) and Lauren Foster as the newest member of Singletary’s brood. All she wants is for her pie to win first place. When the quiches become scarce as… well… hen’s teeth (I can’t help myself), she runs at the banquet table, jumps onto the remaining quiche and has her way with it in a wild, erotic frenzy.

And there’s a nifty vegetarian endorsement in the play which sealed the deal for me. The only problem is that I’ve been craving quiche ever since.