Friday, January 28, 2011

SpeakEasy Stage’s Boffo NINE By Beverly Creasey

As difficult as it must be to live with a genius (You might ask Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, for instance.) it must be even more difficult to be the genius. That’s the case made by Arthur Kopit, and Maury Yeston in NINE. Their ethereal, dream catching musical is firmly based on Fellini’s strangely brilliant 8 ½ (adapted from the Italian by Mario Fratti).

NINE was never one of my favorite musicals – until I saw SpeakEasy’s high voltage take on the ordinal number. Director Paul Daigneault’s juggernaut (playing through Feb. 20th) speeds from one production number to the next, ratcheting up the electricity. Timothy John Smith is perfection as the arrogant, irresistible filmmaker who surrounds himself with a legion of adoring women. He’s only happy when he can control their every move and he does just that in the overture, waving his baton, conducting them as if they were instruments in his orchestra.

What gorgeous instruments they are: From an elegant Aimee Doherty as his long suffering wife, to the sexy Kerry A. Dowling as the slightly dangerous whore with the best song in the show, to the sensational McCaela Donovan as his spitfire mistress. (David Connolly’s erotic choreography ramps up the sexual energy, especially between the director and his mistress).

There’s no shortage of comic performances, either: From Shana Dirik’s overeager proprietess, to Maureen Keiller’s insistent producer, to Amy Jackson’s persistent critic. Kudos, too, to Eric Levenson for his silhouetted arches which frame Seaghan McKay’s stylish projections, and to music director Nicholas James Connell for the luscious harmonies. I’d see it again in a trice!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hope for the Future By Beverly Creasey

How do you attract younger audiences? Theater won’t thrive without them. Turtle Lane Playhouse is one theater doing something about the “aging audience” problem. Their production of RENT brought in twenty- and thirty-somethings and this weekend and next (through Jan. 29th) TLP is hosting a YOUNG ACTORS’ WINTER FESTIVAL to showcase talented high school (and younger) performers.

Most of the plays are the ten minute variety by local (adult) playwrights, with live music nestled in between. The comedies fare best with Sean Clarke’s Double Date, George Sauer’s League of the Unexpected and Maggie Bandur’s Tea & Sorcery leading the pack. (The serious plays seem to rely on lurid headlines for their subject matter, I’m afraid.)

Clarke’s hip send-up of multiple personality phenomenon stars a dynamo named Gillian Gordon as the fractured femme who’s dating Paul Kmiec and Patrick Maloney at the very same time…on the same date! Kmiec and Maloney also play the non-conformists in Sauer’s cheeky League, giving shock and awe new meaning. (James Tallach directed both plays and a few more…in addition to co-founding the event with Regina Ramsey and acting the villain in Ramsey’s In the Woods.)

Lisa Burdick gets astonishing performances from her very young actors in Bandur’s clever Tea & Sorcery. Madeline Rocklin, Rosa Stern Pait and Elizabeth Wu are middle school students whose tea party held us in thrall, spellbound! (My fears about the future of theater were quelled by these three pros.)

Maggie Whitlock sang and accompanied herself on guitar between the plays in Program I, introducing her winsome original song, “I Found You.” Then she and Paul Kmiec collaborated on the “Moonbeam” song from the movie ONCE. Whitlock has an easy style and a lovely, plaintive quality to her voice, especially evident in sad laments like “Cover It Up.”

In Program II, Chris Bailly manned the keyboard for a medley of smart original songs by Janine deSouza, sung by Jackie Theoharis (who also plays Cinderella in Teresa Fisher’s Sweet Dreams). Theoharis delivers deSouza’s post-feminist “No More,” her catchy “Just a Kid (in the big city)” and ends the program with her rousing anthem, “The Truth Will Prevail.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Giving Up the Ghost By Beverly Creasey

AFTERLIFE: A GHOST STORY is Steve Yockey’s provocative and puzzling new play about loss and love and what awaits us in the great beyond. New Repertory Theatre is giving the world premiere a stylish outing (through Feb. 6th) with Marianna Bassham and Thomas Piper in the lead roles. As the play begins, the couple is trying to deal with the loss of their child. Yockey skillfully captures the overwhelming guilt and repressed anger which often tear apart a relationship after a tragedy. Bassham and Piper break your heart.

Act I ends with a spectacular special effect (orchestrated by David Remedios and Karen Parsons). I haven’t been so thrilled and amazed since Ming Cho Lee’s avalanche in the Broadway production of K2.

Act II is connected to Act I by the thinnest of threads (paper thin, in fact). Tone, style and rhythm all change as the dead now face three realities (or maybe ‘fantasies’). It’s the doors of Lets Make A Deal: Door numbers one and two are blind alleys but door number three offers the needy a hot cup of tea – granted, the tea lady is awfully testy but at least there are no birds of prey hanging about.

It’s certainly courageous to change horses in midstream but I’m not so sure the territory in Act II packs the punch of the suffering in Act I. For me, momentum and focus were lost but replaced by a fascination with Yockey’s metaphysical ideas. What’s more, Dale Place is a majestic bird and I wouldn’t want to lose the chance of meeting him or Adrienne Krstansky’s wonderfully cranky hostess. Director Kate Warner gets fine performances all around, from the aforementioned and from Georgia Lyman and Karl Baker Olson, as well.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

LAND SHARKS By Beverly Creasey

You’ll never want to buy real estate again once you see David Mamet’s sardonic, bad-to-the-bone, nasty little comedy about na├»ve buyers and ruthless sellers. The salesmen in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (playing at the BCA through Jan. 22nd) would sell the family home right out from under their grandmother for a fat commission.

The IndepenDent Drama Society production is solidly acted and (happily, since I’ve seen three GGRs in the past year) imaginatively directed by Brett Marks. He finds amusing, new “stage business” for his actors without altering the tone or the trajectory of the script.

The ensemble masters the rhythm of the rapid give and take dialogue, making the high stakes two character scenes pop. Marks and company create suspense and believe it or not, sympathy for the old timers who can’t keep up. Phil Thompson as Shelly “The Machine” Levene lets us see the desperation beneath the swagger. Michael Fischer, as the flashy top closer, even has his softer moment, acknowledging Levene’s old school finesse.

Craig Houk brings a frenetic intensity to the scheming Moss. His “hypothetical” scene with the hapless Aaronow (Michael Pevzner) gets lots of laughs. Jeremy Browne oozes contempt as the calculating office manager and Adam Lauver gets to huff and puff as the frustrated policeman but Bob Mussett makes your heart break as the mark out of his depth and about to drown in shark-infested waters.

Friday, January 14, 2011

BELLES and BALLYHOO By Beverly Creasey

Alfred Uhry is having a banner year. The Broadway revival of DRIVING MISS DAISY with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones has just been extended, yet most people aren’t familiar with his other play about Southern injustice. THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO (at the Wellesley Summer Theatre through January 30th) explores anti-Semitism in the “genteel” South right before the outbreak of WWII.

Well to do Southern Jewish families tried their best to assimilate, embracing all the trappings of the Christian “good life,” from exclusive country club and Junior League memberships to a beautifully adorned Christmas tree in the front window. Uhry shows us what was lost in the translation.

For the Freitag family of Atlanta, Ballyhoo is the social event of the season, an all out, exclusive, formal cotillion to which Russian Jews are not invited. The Freitags see this form of prejudice as acceptable, as if it enhances their standing with their Christian neighbors. Uhry reveals their self-hatred by introducing a handsome New Yorker into the mix, a young man comfortable in his own skin. Lewis Wheeler plays the principled Yank with a charming swagger. His scenes courting Ashley Gramolini (as the daughter home from college) are delightful. The young lovers (to be) are awkward, sweetly funny and of course destined for one another.

Back at home, the Wellesley (!) student’s cousin (Margaret Dunn) laments her prospects for a date to Ballyhoo, not to mention her long range prospects, something forever on her scheming mother’s brain. Lisa Foley wages a one-woman war on the subject, adding to her fragile daughter’s insecurities. (THE GLASS MENAGERIE comes to mind.) In one of Uhry’s best scenes, Foley leaps out of the stereotype and fights for her cub like a lioness, redeeming the character of the mother.

Charlotte Peed provides comedic flair as the college girl’s ditsy mother and Danny Bolton gets to whip up a whirlwind as the eligible, loudmouthed Louisiana bachelor. The play belongs to John Davin as the longsuffering uncle. With his quip that “Men don’t stand a good chance around here,” he speaks volumes about his role as family provider, his chances for a life apart from his sisters and their girls and his wry sense of humor. As the play progresses we learn about his lost love, his unexpected role as stand-in father and his iron strong backbone. Director Nora Hussey’s company breathes gentle life into Uhry’s bittersweet comedy.

Friday, January 7, 2011

MANAGING THE LAUGHTER By Beverly Creasey

There’s nothing performers love more than recounting their disasters (at the time painful, but later, absolutely hilarious. What’s the formula? Tragedy plus time equals comedy?) I can remember a lovely piece of choreography which was supposed to land me elegantly on a piano. I kept going off the other side! Or the crucial time the messenger in Ionesco’s THE CHAIRS locked himself out of the theater when he popped out for a smoke. The adlibbing was legendary. See what I mean? These delightful memories were triggered by Theresa Rebeck’s THE UNDERSTUDY (at the Lyric Stage Co. through Jan. 29th).

Rebeck memorializes missed cues and mangled communications by conjuring a fraught rehearsal for a new understudy (Christopher James Webb) with little respect for the movie star (Kelby T. Akin) he’s covering. The frazzled stage manager (Laura Latreille) can barely keep the session together. Rebeck knows the business inside and out having started in theater, migrated to motion pictures and maintained her stage credentials in wild, lacerating comedies. She gets back at nasty producers, spineless directors and obtuse movie people with a slash of her pen. In THE UNDERSTUDY she melds Hollywood and Broadway to Kafka (yes, Kafka), creating a random (well, ‘Kafkaesque’) world with little or no concern for ‘art.’ As Dorothy Parker famously said, “fresh hell” awaits the actors attempting to animate Kafka.

Director Larry Coen sees ‘farce’ written all over the script so from the get-go we’re treated to high strings and taut emotions – leaving almost no room for the more serious side of the proceedings. Who can say…maybe there isn’t a serious message lurking in THE UNDERSTUDY. (Although Webb and Akin manage to let down their comedic guard when the artistic going gets tough and we feel their crushing disappointment.)

Both Mamet and Durang have crafted ‘on stage’ disaster comedies but Rebeck gets closer to the bone with topical references to recent Broadway dust-ups like Jeremy Piven’s sudden exit via mercury poisoning (prompting Mamet to suggest his next role could be a thermometer). I’ll bet there’s even more payback in THE UNDERSTUDY than we’re aware of.