Monday, March 25, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW BRAIN POWER at Moonbox By Beverly Creasey

Moonbox is one of those bright, new companies on the scene whose work is so satisfying that you look forward to their next production. And they set themselves apart with a mission to connect communities to the nonprofit organizations that serve them. Last time they introduced the audience to a teen empowerment program. This time out, they’re sponsoring an alliance between schools and local farms. Fresh veggies and fruits in the cafeterias and prosperity for local growers: What could be better!

Their last production, OF MICE AND MEN, was exceptional, as this one, A NEW BRAIN, will be once they correct a sound imbalance. What I heard, I loved but some of the lyrics were drowned out by the orchestra at full volume. As long as they played pianissimo, you could make out William Finn’s fabulous lyrics and you don’t want to miss one cheeky word of A NEW BRAIN (playing at the BCA through next week).

Director Allison Olivia Choat (an up-and-comer) has a stellar cast to inhabit Finn and James Lapine’s “wacky world of children’s television meets life and death surgery.” Poor Gordon Schwinn (a winning Tom Shoemaker). He toils day and night writing songs for a demanding frog (the funny Matthew Zahnzinger) until he swoons into his salad, at lunch with gal pal Rhoda (the luminous Shonna Cirone). Finn writes what he knows, having survived an arterio-venous malformation himself.

Gordon is off to surgery, sending his mother (the inimitable Shana Dirik) into a tizzy (and a couple of sensational songs), not to mention the worry his lover (the handsome Ross E. Brown) is in for. Comic turns abound: David Carney is a maniacal surgeon, followed closely by Peter Mill as a goofy man of the cloth, not to mention the formidable nurses. Allison Russell is a powerhouse of efficiency and Aaron Michael Ray is “the good nurse” who delivers on the hilarious “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat.” Lori L’Italien rounds out the cast as the homeless lady who wants “Change.” Rachel Bertone choreographs the ensemble (and some versatile chairs).

Once music director Dan Rodriguez and company figure out where the dead spots are, A NEW BRAIN will be grooving. It’s not brain surgery. Well, maybe it is brain surgery – but I’ll bet they can fix it.

Beyond the Pale By Beverly Creasey

Now that I’ve seen Bruce Norris’ CLYBOURNE PARK a second time (last year in Rhode Island and now at SpeakEasy), here are my thoughts.

I have to say the SpeakEasy Stage version (now extended through April 6th) is by far the better production, with wonderful performances from Marvelyn McFarlane and Paula Plum, especially in the first act ---which is set at the same time as, and parallels some of the action in A RAISIN IN THE SUN. (You can see the Huntington’s RAISIN right now and compare the two.)

Norris has imagined the white side of the RAISIN story in Act I of Clybourne Park so we get to meet the white people who have upset their lily white neighbors by selling their home to an African-American family. Unfortunately, as good as director M. Bevin O’Gara’s production is, the story pales in comparison. It’s just not compelling, in my opinion, and has major inconsistencies.

The playwright wants us to have sympathy for the white sellers who are mourning the death of their son and are besieged by a nasty representative of the Community Association. The wife insists her maid is her friend (Plum makes her as well intentioned as she can) but any goodwill we might have for the couple is undercut when the husband (a strong performance from Thomas Derrah) states his far from altruistic reasons for going through with the sale.

The people we really care about are the family’s more than patient domestic (McFarlane) and her exceedingly helpful husband (DeLance Minefee) but Norris gives them short shrift as if their back stories don’t count. It doesn’t make sense, since their point of view is ours. They are the only ones on stage who see how badly these white folk are behaving. With an arch of an eyebrow, McFarlane says it all.

Everyone plays someone else in Act II which is now fifty year later when whites are moving back into the cities, buying up black homes. Act II has attention fatigue problems, chugging along in fits and starts, when a white purchaser (Michael Kaye) and his wife (Philana Mia) run afoul of strict city ordinances protecting historic neighborhoods. Tempers flare and accusations of racism fill the air. Then Norris ends the play with a flashback to Act I which doesn’t make sense (to me). The play won the Tony for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize. Obviously, I’m missing something.

Friday, March 22, 2013


The Union of Concerned Scientists keep reassessing how many minutes away from nuclear annihilation we all are. The last I heard it was moved back to eight. This concern with Armageddon can be traced to the discovery of uranium. Alan Brody’s riveting exploration of the men who toiled to isolate and split those isotopes, is called OPERATION EPSILON. His intriguing play is getting a smashing world premiere at the Nora Theatre Company this month (through April 28th).
Most Americans are familiar with the Manhattan Project and the first atomic detonation at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Much has been written about the scientists and their trepidations, once they grasped the enormity of the destruction. Robert Oppenheimer read from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” as they readied the blast. Enrico Fermi, it is said, made side bets that the explosion would set off a cataclysmic chain reaction around the world.

 We know the Allied side of the story but little about the German scientists working toward the same goal. Thanks to Brody’s gripping new play (based on Allied documents) we witness the engineers and physicists who worked “for the regime” racing (and sabotaging each other) to be the first German scientist to produce a “uranium machine” or as the British Major (an officious but civil Barlow Adamson) interjects, “We call it a reactor.”

 Brody sets the play toward the end of the war, with ten German scientists under Allied house arrest in a lovely English country home with spacious grounds, gracious amenities and even a piano for music lover Werner Heisenberg. They’re all anxious about when they’ll be able to go home but one of the most contentious of the group complains that the house is a concentration camp. We are immediately shocked and horrified that he would have the arrogance to compare the hospitality he’s been afforded to Dachau. Brody never enumerates the unspeakable tortures in the death camps but with this insult from Mr. Bagge (Kendall Hodder as the nastiest of Nazis), he ingeniously sends our thoughts there.

The scientists berate each other for holding up funding or for holding on to antiquated ideas or for keeping research secret. Heisenberg (a calming Diego Arciniegas) suggests they need “an open exchange of ideas.” Instead he’s met with demands for an apology by Kurt Diebner (a hot headed Own Doyle) for refusing to recognize his contributions. Each scientist is a distinct personality brought to vibrant life by a remarkable ensemble of actors. Robert D. Murphy’s Gerlach quietly works in the garden, declaring himself “an expert at making do.” Ross MacDonald’s Korsching is a bundle of nerves, a cornered animal ready to bare his teeth.

Dan Whelton’s young, edgy von Weizsacher never misses the chance to bully Ken Baltin’s senior scientist and outsider, for not having worked on “the machine.” Director Andy Sandberg creates lots of small intrigues for us to decipher and one big one, whether Heisenberg simply erred on his calculations or did so on purpose: the latter would certainly get him a better reception from his captors. And Brody gives us the moral question of the century. Should they have left Germany when they knew what Hitler was doing? Should they have tried to stop him? Refused to work on the bomb? As Baltin’s von Laue sees it: “There is no high ground on this moral dung heap.”

One of the saddest and most moving scenes in the play takes place in the Major’s office, when he informs Otto Hahn, the eminent director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the man who first achieved nuclear fission, that the Americans have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Will Lyman gives a breathtaking performance, distraught that it actually happened and convinced that “he” alone is responsible. If he hadn’t split that atom’s nucleus, there would be no atomic energy and no fission bomb. Brody has written Hahn’s part so beautifully, that your heart goes out to him, sobbing for the 300,000 Japanese incinerated in one single moment – of course, none of the scientists are mourning the eight million Jews, gypsies and homosexuals murdered in the camps.

Brody’s endlessly fascinating play ends with a letter, like a sweet coda to a piece of tumultuous music, gently and softly read by Lyman. It comes from a Jewish colleague who, with Hahn’s help, got of out Germany in time. She asks something of him, of her fellow scientists, something to help their consciences. End of play.

Would they comply? I think Hahn might have done, but not the others. This is a play I can’t stop thinking about. That’s the highest of praise.

Monday, March 18, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Pinter Intensified By Beverly Creasey

I adore Pinter so I didn’t want to miss BRIDGE REP’s inaugural production of THE LOVER. Pinter’s famous pauses sometimes trip actors up, not to mention the havoc British accents sometimes wreak – but I’m happy to report that BRIDGE REP gets it precisely right. What’s more, they perform it without the British accents and to my surprise, it works…maybe it even intensifies the piece by making it American.

I’ve seen THE LOVER many times and it’s never seemed so visceral or so scary. Director Shana Gozansky slowly amps up the emotions, with superb performances from McCaela Donovan as the wife, from Joe Short as the husband and a hilarious cameo from Juan C. Rodriguez, as the milk and egg man.

Pinter sets clear boundaries in the very first scene, when husband and wife acknowledge that they each have a lover but that part of their day is compartmentalized, away and apart from their very civilized, very proper marriage. Things get out of hand when those boundaries begin to blur and status quo is compromised. The fear on Donovan’s face is palpable when the rules change and she’s at sea, not knowing how to react. I don’t want to give away Pinter’s conceit: I’ll only say that the performances are riveting.

Luke Sutherland’s sleek, minimalist set, with its sumptuous velvet curtains and elegant dinnerware, dovetails perfectly with the stylized formality of the first scene (when husband and wife perform the synchronized ritual of dressing – and end up wearing almost the same outfit!) Ed Young’s choice of Motown is delightful and apt…and his eerie, sloshy soundscape nicely ratchets up the suspense. What a debut! I can’t wait to see what BRIDGE REP tackles next.

Friday, March 15, 2013

BRIAN DELORENZO sings UNFORGETTABLE: The Nat King Cole Songbook March 13, 2013 ALL ABOUT LOVE REVIEW by Beverly Creasey

Back in the 1950s, television (like the nation) was defined in black & white – with the faces on air almost exclusively white – until a new variety show debuted in 1956. Now the most elegant man on television was Nat King Cole. With his buttery baritone and sophisticated manner, his appeal crossed age and race. This preteen was smitten immediately and I remain a Cole fan to this day.

Brian DeLorenzo’s smart cabaret show at Sculler’s Jazz Club offered an evening of songs made famous by the inimitable Cole. DeLorenzo put his own spin on the music, of course. His voice, he pointed out to us, is nothing like Cole’s. For one thing he’s a tenor but what you soon discover is that they have meticulous phrasing and polished musicianship in common.

Some strange chemistry seemed to be at work at Sculler’s. When DeLorenzo sang, say “Mona Lisa,” you admired his take on the song and at the same time you could hear Cole’s version in your memory…and neither detracted from the other, a cerebral duet of sorts.

DeLorenzo managed to fit delightful historical detail between the songs, like Cole’s competition with his idol, Earl “Fatha” Hines when the two pianists joined a “Battle of the Bands” and Cole won, playing Hines’ signature song!

The hip Bill Duffy Quartet meshed seamlessly with DeLorenzo’s relaxed style and the singer generously gave them opportunity to show their stuff. With his consummate delivery he (and Duffy’s playful piano) found the humor in Rogers and Hart’s “This Can’t Be Love” and then made a novelty song like “I Found a Million Dollar Baby” (in a five and ten cents store) sound profoundly romantic. His warm, velvety low notes in “When I Fall in Love” morphed into a sweet midsection, then floated off into the skies in the upper range. DeLorenzo knows how to put across a song!

The quartet knows their way around jazz. Ed Harlow blew a fine sax solo in Johnny Mercer’s “Day In, Day Out.” Percussionist Steve Rose added a brassy rat-a-tat-tat to “It’s Only a Paper Moon” but the piece de resistance was DeLorenzo’s sorrowful, heartbreaking “Answer Me (My Love)” in which Keala Kaumeheiwa on bass supplied one solo verse, sounding like a cello weeping its lament.

You can’t have a Cole evening without “Unforgettable” – and since the DeLorenzo family has long performed together, Brian and his sister Elaine made the crowd swoon with pleasure. And it was unforgettable.

Monday, March 11, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Music To My Ears By Beverly Creasey

Years ago I saw James McLindon’s “bar” play, DISTANT MUSIC, performed in an actual bar---with noisy patrons, flowing Guinness and far more distractions than a play ought to have. Although the gimmick was clever, you couldn’t get the full measure of the script.

This time out the Stoneham Theatre does McLindon proud, with a purely theatrical outing, smartly directed by Weylin Symes on a stage (where it really belongs) with a gorgeous mahogany bar set, designed by Jenna McFarland Lord. McLindon’s characters bare their souls, philosophize about life and struggle to adjust to change. Michael Ryan Buckley has the plum role of the transplanted Irishman who runs the local Cambridge pub and overhears each and every conversation. Buckley regales us even before the show starts, with a nifty standup routine instructing us about the exits and other necessities. He’s a hoot.

McLindon has created charming characters, hilarious dialogue and thoughtful subjects for rumination, like the persistence (not to mention the illusion) of memory and the power of faith. The disillusioned middle aged lawyer (Thomas Rhett Kee) sees the landmark discrimination laws he fought for back in the day now being overturned. (How prescient of Stoneham to run DISTANT MUSIC just as the Voting Rights Act is being challenged in the Supreme Court!)

His long time friend sees women’s rights falling by the wayside. And should anyone stick with the Catholic Church these days? Now there’s a topic! (How could Stoneham have known the Church would be thrown into crisis this very week with the election of a new Pope?) Needless to say, DISTANT MUSIC resonates like gangbusters.

The irrepressible barkeep says there’s nothing better in life than a good argument. There is one thing better: A crackerjack play about it!