Friday, September 24, 2010

A Room of Her Own By Beverly Creasey

Sarah Ruhl’s strange, provocative play, IN THE NEXT ROOM (or the vibrator play) is getting a smart production at SpeakEasy Stage. Director Scott Edmiston has assembled a first rate cast to enliven Ruhl’s tale of mass hysteria in the Victorian age. Ruhl based her play on a scholarly study of Victorian medicine (years before Freud’s revolutionary theories of sexuality) at a time when “nervous prostration” was understood to have its origin in “congestion of the womb.” Even more outlandish was the accepted medical practice of massage to achieve a “release” of the toxins. When doctors needed more time for other patients, a mechanical vibrator took the place of manual stimulation. Clinical vibrators, believe it or not, were advertised for sale in the Sears Roebuck catalog!

Ruhl has crafted a comedy of sorts about a practitioner and his wife to highlight the gulf between pleasure and marriage, a rift echoed in the off kilter arrangement of the set (by Susan Zeeman Rogers), whereby the parlor and the doctor’s adjoining office slant away from each other, just like their occupants. The wife prefers candlelight to electricity. She likes long walks and the scientist can’t waste the time … and sex for them, evidently, is merely an obligation.

This being a comedy (at times) the women will discover a more practical use for the office equipment. Anne Gottlieb and Marianna Bassham are downright hilarious, experiencing orgasm for the first time thanks to this new invention. Ruhl joins the ranks of Eve Ensler (vocalizing varied orgasms within different cultures in The Vagina Monologues) and Meg Ryan (in the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in When Harry Met Sally) for getting us to laugh about a ticklish subject.

Unfortunately the play loses ground when Ruhl switches focus, as if she changed her mind about the issues she wanted to cover. Motherhood, surrogacy, feminism, homosexuality and the nature of the soul all make an appearance, but threads are dropped and characters abruptly change trajectory. Luckily, the SpeakEasy performances are what keep us in thrall. In addition to Gottlieb and Bassham’s star turns, Frances Idlebrook (as the doctor’s assistant) gives a heartbreaking portrayal of unfulfilled promise and Lindsey McWhorter gets a stunning speech about her love for a child (although it seems like it belongs in another play altogether). Many of Ruhl’s tangents seem peculiarly at odds with the love story at the heart of the play. (I’m only guessing at the “heart” of the matter because of the romantic revelation at play’s end.)

The men are peripheral (for the most part) to the joy and discovery of the female characters, although they initiate actions which set the women on their journeys: Derry Woodhouse is the doctor sorely out of touch with his emotions, Dennis Trainor, Jr. is the clueless husband of the depressed patient who flowers apart from him, and Craig Wesley Divino cuts a swath as the manic artist who awakens possibility in two of the women. Gail Astrid Buckley’s infinite layers of under- and outer clothing for the women speaks volumes about the strictures of the age.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

An Ostentation of MAMET By Beverly Creasey

You have your choice of Mamets this week at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. BOSTON MARRIAGE is playing upstairs at New Repertory Theatre and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS leases the Black Box Theater downstairs.

GLENGARRY is Mamet’s most celebrated play for its take-no-prisoners portrait of the gritty real estate game. (Mamet knows whereof he speaks, having worked in the business). He writes smart, nasty dialogue for his male characters but his female characters are another story. He’s been accused of being a misogynist, as most of the women he creates are predatory (Think OLEANNA). For my money, though, the women in the BOSTON MARRIAGE are not of that ilk. They’re supposed to be strong, turn of the century gals who don’t want or need men. Yet they come across as tropes, not as real women. They’re evidently what Mr. Mamet thinks women were like a hundred years ago: scheming, petulant, needy, hyperbolic and brutally class conscious.

When all the men in a Mamet play like GLENGARRY (or my favorite, AMERICAN BUFFALO) are despicable, we’re amused, delighted even, with their extraordinarily bad behavior, but make both women in the Boston alliance cruel, deceitful and callous and there’s little delight in it. I’ve seen two versions of BOSTON MARRIAGE: the initial outing directed by Mamet himself and this “Oscar Wilde” version directed by David Zoffoli (where the characters speak like Lady Bracknell). Even a stylized delivery doesn’t make the oddball dialogue funny. When the foulmouthed salesmen of GLENGARRY kid about “courtesy class” it’s cheeky and sardonic. When one of the women contends that “men live but to be deceived” or that “one must follow the buffalo herd,” it’s neither witty nor sardonic. It’s just strange for strangeness sake.

Try as they might, Jennie Israel and Debra Wise, both fine actresses, cannot make us understand why they’re speaking like Victorian poseurs. Melissa Baroni has an easier time of it as the longsuffering maid, the only character who’s authentic. She doesn’t engage in banter about the ruination of purses or the longing of loins. One syllable says it all for her. (I wish I could supply the “mute appreciation” the central character craves from her sister but I cannot.) The contentious BOSTON MARRIAGE plays through Oct. 3rd.

I can, however, rave about a shoestring production of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS from Zero Point Theater. They may not have fancy sets (or Spellcheck) but they have crackerjack acting to create Mamet’s dog-eat-dog banquet of bad behavior. Before the housing bubble and the ’08 crash and the banks to blame, there was GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, a celebration (or vilification depending on your point of view) of the tract salesman, the guy who sells units before there are any. Mamet called them “a dying breed” and he was right…soon thereafter replaced by rapacious mortgage lenders.

Director Emil S. Kreymer gets supple performances from David DiLillo as the desperate old fashioned salesman who isn’t cutting it any more, from Brian Zifcak as the parasitic office manager, from Kenneth Siddons as the larcenous “mastermind” behind the scenes, from Jack Agnew as the benighted client conned by sales leader Ricky Roma (Sean Stanco in a charismatic turn as the brash know-it-all) and from Walter Driscoll as the funniest Aaronow I’ve encountered in many a GLENGARRY performance. Watching Driscoll suffer the closer he gets to his interview with the police is simply delicious. Director Kreymer filled in nicely for an ailing actor (as the policeman) the night I attended. See it before the closing this weekend!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cautionary CABARET By Beverly Creasey

The A.R.T.’s CABARET at Club Oberon, not their theater space, encompasses a world where Kit Kat Klub pranksters intrude on almost every scene — infiltrating the audience, checking our bags, crawling up the balcony railings, standing on audience chairs, balancing on our tables, knocking over our drinks. Director Steven Bogart does not let you forget that Berlin was a dangerous place in the ‘30s and anonymity was impossible. A ruffian, or rather a prankster, can ruffle your hair at any moment. The Dresden Dolls’ phenom, Amanda Palmer (who plays the emcee) wanted an interactive setting for her production of the Kander & Ebb musical (running through the end of October) and she gets it.

A consequence of this frenetic atmosphere is that the absence of the whirlwind heightens the dramatic punch: The Nazi threat (personified in the elegant presence of David Costa as everyone’s seductive “friend”) and the impossible marriage of the rueful landlady (Thomas Derrah) to her beloved greengrocer (Remo Airaldi) stand out in relief like a fresco. We’re of course charmed by Sally Bowles (Aly Trasher) and the Isherwood stand-in (Matt Wood) but the stage is electrified when the threat is undeniably immediate. Director Bogart gives us another, stunning “immediate” horror at the end of the musical (reminiscent of Stacey Klein’s ashen rain in Double Edge’s SONG OF ABSENCE) which triggers a flashback to his clever foreshadows like the train which transports the “Money” number to its climax.

Palmer gets a plaintive, sardonic duet with Tom Duprey on trumpet (I Don’t Care Much) and cheeky gender bending with the naughty Two Ladies but curiously, Tom Derrah as Fraulein Schneider makes no waves, not a ripple in our suspension of disbelief. He plays it absolutely straight, as it were, and we’re completely convinced. Fraulein Schneider’s affection for her Jewish suitor and his mistaken belief that the Nazi menace will “pass” is the story that stays with you long after you’ve “Come to the Cabaret.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Casting A Sweet Spell By Beverly Creasey

The 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is an affable little musical ostensibly about the precocious children who compete in spelling competitions. Underneath its cute façade, the musical embraces the joy—and pain of growing up. Bees used to be niche events, not unlike chess, until they both became media darlings. Hollywood was quick to cash in on the craze with films like Akeelah and the Bee (with Lawrence Fishburne) and Bee Season (with Richard Gere). The national bee even attracts picketers from organizations who advocate spelling the way words sound not the way our ancestors dictated. No less an advocate than Teddy Roosevelt championed the cause for spelling reform. (Congress overruled him.)

The Lyric Stage Company’s whimsical version (playing through Oct. 2nd) features Kerri Jill Garbis as the terminally cheerful hostess (a former winner herself), assisted by the hilarious Will McGarrahan as the sour vice principal (evidently born without a sense of humor). In a show crowded with smart children (actually actors portraying children) a spoilsport like the vice principal is welcome relief, especially when he’s torturing the volunteers from the audience with very difficult words. (The audience amateurs on my night were savvy competitors.)

All the contestants have their moments to shine but it’s Krista Buccellato as the unaccompanied speller without the entry fee who transcends the material and breaks your heart (in a production which doesn’t go for the jugular). Director Stephen Terrell stresses the cheeky, good natured disposition of the piece over the pathos—so. if you want to be in touch with your rambunctious inner child—and maybe even strut that inner child as one of the audience spellers, then PUTNAM COUNTY is your oyster.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Irish Traditions You Never Imagined By Beverly Creasey

If you missed Tir Na’s outrageously funny TRAD last season, you’ve been granted a reprieve. Gloucester Stage is reprising the show, lock, stock and barrel through the end of September. You’ll be seeing director Carmel O’Reilly’s hilarious father and son odyssey, trekking from pillar to post in search of an heir. It matters not that father is a hundred or so and son is twenty years his junior. They’re determined not to be the last of the line. Billy Meleady and Colin Hamel are the irascible geezers and Nancy E. Carroll is everyone they meet along the way. Think Beckett on hallucinogens. You’ll laugh yourself silly. Then just when you think it can’t get any nuttier, a nifty ending will touch your heart.

Real Wit in the Face By Beverly Creasey

Taking the rest of Stoppard’s plays into account, THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND (playing through Sept. 25th ) is a trifle but a darn clever one. Stoppard manages to send up whodunits while mocking the theatrical form itself. And he takes a swipe at critics to boot. (Stoppard was a theater critic himself for the Bristol Evening World.)

It’s no secret. Stoppard is my favorite playwright and the Publick Theatre has mounted several of his plays while other theaters keep their distance. Let’s hope they don’t stop because Diego Arciniegas and company know how to nail that arch British style of high “wit in the face of adversity.”

Barlow Adamson portrays a second string drama critic looking for “God” in all the wrong places (including in the murder mystery play-within-the-play before him). Instead he finds a leading role for himself – and his destiny. Adamson plays wrong headed certainty with daffy gusto. William Gardiner is likewise hilarious as the other critic who would be more than delighted to take any of the gorgeous actresses in the play under his “influential” wing.

Now to the murder plot: Stoppard gives us an Agatha Christie load of suspects but who done it is not Stoppard’s game. The who’s who are what’s important in HOUND. Sheriden Thomas gives a star turn as the housekeeper who upstages everyone merely by serving tea. (Director Arciniegas gets wonderful laughs by milking the cream and sugar.)

Georgia Lyman plays a cool sophisto in love with her missing husband – but not so much that she won’t dally with a handsome stranger. Danny Bryck masters that fabulous aristocratic nasal drawl as he masters both the lady of the manor and Anna Waldron as the pretty tennis player. Gabriel Kuttner adds intrigue as a maniacal Canadian speed demon in a motor chair and Wayne Fritsche tries with minimal success to corral them all together as the droll inspector.

All the elements converge in the Publick production: ingenious sound (John Doerschuk), ultra-dramatic lighting (Jeff Adelberg), elegant costumes (Molly Trainer) and a luxurious Victorian drawing room (Dahlia Al-Habieli). As the critic pontificates, “élan while avoiding éclat!”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

NOT FADING AWAY at Turtle Lane By Beverly Creasey

What do I say about the Buddy Holly musical? Act II plays like gangbusters. (I think I saw the roof levitate at Turtle Lane!) Act I, not so much. Thank heaven for the Apollo Theatre scenes with Nella Mupier and Chauncey Moore or there’d be nothing to write home about until after intermission.

The Patsy Cline musical suffers from the same limitations (radio station static, recording studio doldrums) but once you bypass the set-up, you get to the music – which is the whole point of these tribute shows anyway. BUDDY’s director James Tallach wrings what laughter he can from the script but it’s the recreation of the last concert for Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens that lifts you right out of your seat.

The TLP production (running through Sept.25th) has a dynamo to portray Buddy Holly: Patrick Maloney is a teenager who plays in local bands, looking like a cross between Bob Dylan and Holly and sounding remarkably like the rock ‘n roll pioneer. Craig McKerley, too, channels The Big Bopper, right down to his signature elevator voice drop. Music directors Sarah Hirsch and Kaley Sullivan deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the sensational concert replication. As soon as the orchestra begins to wail (with a first rate female brass section!), the audience can’t wait to start dancing in the aisles. “Rave On” simply brings down the house.