MTC Gives Us a Memorable “Gypsy”

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Photo by Joe Landry

By Karen Isaacs

 Gypsy is a classic musical that is not easy to pull off. It requires a terrific actress for Mama Rose, strong supporting performers, and an ensemble. It has multiple sets and covers many years. It’s also one of the shows that recently has been done multiple times in Connecticut. Earlier this summer Tony winner Karen Ziemba played Mama Rose at Sharon Playhouse.

A director attempting to produce this show at a small theater with a limited budget is

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Kate Simone. Photo by Joe Landry

really creating some barriers to success. But just as director Kevin Connors did last fall with Evita, he overcomes the hurdles as though they weren’t there.  This is overall a terrific production.

Seeing it at the intimate MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) space in Norwalk where it runs through Sept. 25 lends an extra dimension to the show.

Connors has a small cast to work with but he has selected them carefully. He uses just four children in the show; six women play all the roles besides Mama Rose and Gypsy, and three men play everyone except Herbie. Yet you never feel like show needs more performers.

In case you don’t recall the story, it based very loosely on the early years of the famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee whose stage door mother was determined in the 1920s to get Gypsy and her younger sister (who became the actress/director/playwright June Havoc) onto the famed Orpheum vaudeville circuit. The act that Mama devises stars “Baby June” and is weak to say the least. They stumble along because Mama does not give up and is sure she can make Baby June a star. Along the way, Herbie, a former agent, becomes enamored of Mama and serves as their agent.

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Kristi Carnahan and Kate Simone. Photo by Joe Landry

The stage mother to end all stage mothers, Mama propels through sheer nerve, chutzpa and blindness the act to some limited success, but at a high price. As June hits the teenage years, she runs away to forge her own career. Mama then turns her effort to Louise (Gypsy) who has both less talent and less desire to perform. Plus, vaudeville is dying. Despite refurbishing the act – replacing young boys with young girls – Mama, Louise and Herbie struggle on until they are inadvertently booked into a burlesque house. When Mama encourages Louise to go on for the missing star stripper, Herbie leaves in disgust. Soon Gypsy (as she is now called) is a huge success and has cut the strings to Mama who wonders why she is always left alone at the end.

With a book  by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show is chocked full of terrific songs: from show biz anthems like “Everything’s Coming up Roses” to the tender “Little Lamb” and the terrific “All I Need Is the Girl,” “Some People,” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.” Of course, two highlights are “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” sung by three burlesque strippers and Mama’s ending soliloquy “Rose’s Turn.”

Kristi Carnahan is not a household name nor well known among Broadway aficionados. It was a wonderful surprise to see how she had both the acting and singing chops to bring this character life. While her Rose is totally oblivious to the wants and needs of her daughters, she is also blind to the true motivation behind her drive. She creates a Rose that emphasized the sadness and feelings of loss and disappointment within her.  Kate Simone also brings out the pathos in Louise who really would prefer a live surrounded by a

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Krisit Carnahan and Paul Binotti. Photo by Joe Landry

“normal” family and lots of animals.  More than in most productions, you see her disappointment when it is clear that Tulsa (the young dancer in the act) is in love with June. Yet she pulls off the transformation to star stripper with panache. Paul Binotto’s Herbie also emphasizes the longing of the character and also his awareness and anger at his own weakness.

Among the other cast members, Joe Grandy gives us a terrific Tulsa, and Jeri Kansas, Marca Leigh and Jodi Stevens are fine as the three strippers with gimmicks.

Becky Timms did a fine job with the choreography and Thomas Martin Conroy did the same with the musical direction. The four piece ensemble worked well and having

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Kate Simone. Photo by Joe Landry

the Conroy at the piano stage was appropriate for the settings.  The only disconcerting note was the very opening — the few bars from the seccond keyboard sounded like a full orchestra with violins which made me think that it was recorded. It wasn’t but the transition to the smaller and more real sounding combo was off-putting.

The set by Carl Tallent, costumes by Diane Vanderkroef and wigs by Peggi De La Cruz added to this production.

If you have never seen Gypsy or haven’t seen it in a while, please go see this production. It is fine.

Gypsy  is at MTC, 509 Westport Ave., Norwalk through Sept. 25th.  For tickets call 203-454-3883 or musictheatreofct.com.

 

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Photo by Joe Landry

 

 

Ivoryton Revisits a Classic ‘60s Musical

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Don Quixote battles The Enchanter. Photo by Anne Hudson.

By Karen Isaacs

 Settling into my seat at Ivoryton Playhouse to see Man of La Mancha, (which runs through Oct. 2), I realized that it had been a long while since I had seen this musical.

While some shows have had multiple recent revivals – La Cage aux Folles and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying to name a few, the last Broadway revival was 2002 and before that 1992 and 1977. Regional theaters have also been ignoring the show.

Why? Certainly it isn’t due to production costs. It is a one set show without elaborate costumes. The cast is modest in size. Perhaps it is the inspirational tone of the musical that is less appealing in our more cynical times. Or perhaps it is the stark realism of the division between the wealthy and the poor, or the critical look at the Catholic church that we wish to avoid.

While the musical – which has music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darien – combines both inspiration – and some would say sentimentality – it also raises an interesting questions:  when do the ends NOT justify the means? Are the dreamers of society simply madmen? Do dreams just discourage action?

The show is a show within a show; the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are imprisoned to await being called by the Inquisition for acts against the Catholic Church. The other prisoners are murderers, robbers, etc. and the Governor of the inmates declares that each new prisoner must stand trial in which he is invariably found guilty and must confiscate all possessions. While Cervantes – a poet and writer – admits his guilt, he still wants to put on a defense by acting out a story. The story is of an old gentleman, Alonso Quijana, who imagines he is Don Quixote, a knight errant out to protect the innocent and right the wrongs of society.

 

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David Pittsinger. Photo by Anne Hudson

 

As Cervantes tells the story, Don Quixote and his manservant, now Sancho Panza set out on a quest which leads them to a variety of adventures. Don Quixote sees what he want to see – a windmill is an enemy that he must vanquish, when he loses he says it was a disguise for his enemy, The Enchanter.. An inn is the castle where the lord will be able to properly dub a night; a stable girl/waitress (Aldonza)  is his ideal woman – Dulcinea. At the same time the family of the Quijana – his housekeeper, neice and her fiancé are frightened by his transformation and make plans to bring him back to his senses.

He enlists the other prisoners to play various roles. The Governor of the inmates becomes the Innkeeper, and other prisoners become Aldonza, the housekeeper, the niece, the gentleman’s priest, and the fiancé. The roles the prisoners play are often symmetrical with their roles in the prison – the fiancé is the most opposed to permitting Cervantes from telling his story.

During the course of the show, the prisoners not only become caught up in the story of both Quijana and Quixote and begin to aspire to different circumstances which unfortunately are unlikely occur.

When Cervantes is finally called to meet the Inquisition, the prisoners rise to send him off with hope.

Man of La Mancha has an interesting history; the initial idea became a TV live drama in 1959 written by Dale Wasserman and called I, Don Quiote.  Wasserman, at the suggestion of the director Walter Marre, turned it into a musical that had a production at Goodspeed in 1965. Joseph Papp of NY Public Theater staged the musical at the ANTA Washington Square Theater (where I first saw it.) It later moved uptown to Broadway.

 It is amazing if you don’t know “The Impossible Dream” which becomes an anthem at the end of the show. It is a song of hope and aspiration. But you will probably also recognize “To Each His Dulcinea.”  But there is also the brutally honest “Aldoza” and “It’s All the Same” as well as a rape dance plus the manipulative “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” and the comic “A Little Gossip.”

David Pittsinger, who did a fine job as Emile de Becque in Ivoryton’s production of South Pacific last summer, returns as Cervantes/Quixote. He certainly has the voice for the songs which he performs beautifully but his performance is earnest but not truly three dimensional. This is more the case in the first act when he is front and center in the story. Too often he just plants his feet and sings – well but not really acting. In the second act as the other characters become more important, he seems more relaxed and real. Thinking about this, I realized that in South Pacific he is never the only main character.

Talia Thiesfeild gives as really three dimensional portrayal of Adlonza/Dulcinea. Her

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Talia Thiesfield as Aldonza/Dulcinea. Photo by Anne Hudson

rendition of the songs and her acting gives us a woman who slowly begins to realize that more is possible and that she is worth more than she thought. Brian Michael Hoffman plays Cervantes’ servant and Sancho Panza with sly humor and subtlety. He does over play the humor; the role does not require and traditionally has been played as someone without a great voice.

While the entire ensemble is very good, standouts include James Van Treuren as The Governor/Innkeeper who was last seen at Ivoryton as Georges in La Cage aux Folles and David Edwards as fiancé.

Choreographer Todd Underwood effectively balance the rape ballet between the need for it to be obvious and somewhat graphic but also suggestive rather than obvious.

The scenic design by Daniel Nischan recreates the sense of dungeon like prison room and the lighting by Maecus Abbott is good.  Tate R. Burmeister has managed the sound design so that lyrics are understandable and the backstage six piece orchestra sounds as though it is right in front of you.

Director David Edwards while overall doing a good job has made a few questionable choices: why does the prisoner who plays priest lisp? Why does the fiancé seem to embody some stereotypical “gay” gestures? And could he have improved Pittsinger’s acting performance in the first act. Too often he simply moves to the front of the stage, plants his feet and sings.

Yet despite my quibbles, if you love Man of La Mancha or if you’ve never seen, you should absolutely see this production.

It is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through Oct. 2.  For tickets call 860-767-7318 or invorytonplayhouse.org.

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Talia Thiesfield as Aldonza/Dulcinea, David Pittsinger as Cervantes/Don Quixote, Brian Michael Hoffman as Sancho Panza. Photo by Anne Hudson.

 

“CATS” – Revival Will Delight Those Who Loved the Original

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Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

 Few theater goes have no opinion about Cats – some adore the show and others disliked it. The same will be true of the revival that recently opened on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre.

When Cats opened on Broadway in 1982, it was a huge popular hit, ushering in the era of the British sung through musicals that perhaps reached its peak with Phantom of the Opera is still running after 18 years. Cats ran for nearly 7500 performances.

Now Cats has returned to Broadway.  This time it probably won’t run anywhere near as long as its earlier incarnation.

Cats, in case you don’t know is by Andrew Lloyd Webber and is based on the Nobel Prize winning poet T. S. Eliot’s Old Possums Book of Cats. In fact, ironically, Eliot who died in 1965 won the 1983 Tony award for best book of a musical and shared the award for best score with Webber. The original production directed by Trevor Nunn was also known because the theater in which it ran was substantially renovated so that the cats (actors) could move freely about the auditorium.

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Leona Lewis as Grizabella. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Nunn also has directed this production which feels little changed from the original production. This is not a “reimagining” or a “revision” of the original. I haven’t compared it with photos from the 1982 production but costumes, set and approach seem very similar. The Neil Simon Theatre has suffered less destruction for this production. Except for using the aisles, the cats roam much less freely around the theater.

So, that leaves us with a straight revival. The question becomes “Does it recapture the magic that greeted the initial production?”

Let’s acknowledge that not everyone loved Cats despite its long run and popular acclaim. Many people found the idea interesting but the execution lacking. I have to admit that when I saw the original production by intermission I was looking at my watch.

This time, I hoped that I would find things in this production that I had overlooked or missed; perhaps with age (mine and the show’s), I would like it more.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The show has one terrific number – “Memories” which has been recorded by almost every female vocalist.  But as many have noted, the melody owes a lot to Puccini. The original had a stunning performance by Betty Buckley as Grizabella who sings the song.

The show is basically plotless. A group of cats are having their annual Jellicle meeting in which one is selected to ascend to the Heaviside Layer: remember that Eliot liked symbolism. During the course of the show various cats sing (and dance) numbers that reflect their lives and personalities. There’s little interaction between the characters, less dialogue and a lot of dance. Now, of course, one could argue that Eliot (and Webber) are really reflecting on the stereotypes of human personalities and society, particularly British society.

This works if the individual songs are terrific and give us full bodied characters (or cats). But while a few of the numbers are achieve that – most don’t.

The pluses of this production include the scenic and costume design by John Napier and the lighting design by Natasha Katz. The entire production design was by Brad Peterson.

A big plus is the multi-talented cast of terrific dancers. Unfortunately there is so much dancing that the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler becomes repetitious as the show goes on.

With a show which consists of all supporting roles and characters tend to do one number

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Tyler Hanes as Rum Tum Tugger. Photo by Matthew  Murphy.

and then fade into the background, it is difficult to spotlight individual performers. Leona Lewis as Grizabella is good but just doesn’t bring the magic and emotion that Betty Buckley did to the role.  Certainly Tyler Hanes scores big as the rock-star-like Rum Tum Tugger and Jess LeProtto and Andy Huntington Jones score in “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteaser”. Outside of “Memories” my favorite number is “Gus the Theatre Cat” well performed by Sara Jean Ford and Christopher Gurr.

If you love Cats, you will thoroughly enjoy this production; if the show has always left you cold, this production will not change your mind.

Cats is at the Neil Simon Theater,252 W. 52nd St. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

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Kim Faure as  Demeter and Christine Cornish Smith as Bombalurina. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Casting, Controversy, Season Schedules

By Karen Isaacs

Bierko Comes to Long Wharf: Craig Bierko, who was nominated for a Tony for his performance as Harold Hill in the Broadway revival of The Music Man and is now on UnREAL on Lifetime, has joined the cast of Meteor Shower by Steve Martin which opens the Long Wharf season. The show runs Wednesday, Sept. 28 to Sunday, Oct. 23. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282

Auditions for Kids: Hartford Stage will be auditioning children 5-13 for its annual production of A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas from Tuesday, Sept. 20 to Thursday, Sept. 22. Auditions are by appointment only.  For information about preparation and requirements or appointments email Auditions.

This Year in Waterbury: The season at Seven Angels Theatre has been finalized. It opens with A Room of My Own, a semi-autobiographical comedy about a writer in a wacky family; it runs Thursday, Sept. 22 to Sunday, Oct. 16. Next is the return of Jon Peterson with a one man show about Anthony Newley: He Wrote Good Songs from Nov. 3 to 27. From Feb. 9 to March 3 is George and Gracie: The Early Years about the early life of George Burns and Gracie Allen. R. Bruce Connelly and Semina De Laurentis star. Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical runs from March 23 to April 23. The season concludes with Trav’lin –The 1930s Harlem Musical which recalls the period and features the music and lyrics of Harlem Renaissance composer J. C. Johnson. It runs May 11 to June 11. Tickets are available at 203-757-4676.

King Arthur:  Robert Sean Leonard will be King Arthur in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Camelot which runs Tuesday, Oct. 4 to Sunday, Oct. 30. It is billed as a “reimagined” production directed by Mark Lamos. While Leonard may be known for his work in the TV series House, he has numerous Broadway credits and received a Tony Award and another Tony nomination. For tickets – which are going fast – visit Westport or call 888-927-7529.

Chasing Rainbows:  Goodspeed’s new musical, Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz which is how Judy Garland became a young star, is in rehearsals preparing for its opening Friday, Sept. 16. Of course, the show features many of the songs she made famous and also includes the making of The Wizard of Oz film which was supposed to star Shirley Temple. Goodspeed has a number of special evenings scheduled including a Saturday wine tasting (Sept. 17), teen nights, meet the cast, and others. For information and tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

 Classic to Contemporary:  Westport Country Playhouse has announced its 2017 season, its 87th.  It opens (May 30 to June 17) with the British comedy Lettice and Lovage which was a 1990 Tony nominee. Following is the 2014-15 Obie (off—Broadway) Award winner for Best New American Play, Appropriate which runs July 11 to 29.  Grounded, a solo production that won the 2016 Lucille Lortel Award in that category and an award at the Edinburg Fringe Festival runs Aug. 15 to Sept. 2. Sex with Strangers, which runs Sept. 26 to Oct. 14 is about a modern relationship in the digital age. The season concludes with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19), directed by Mark Lamos, who is well known for his fine Shakespeare production. I still remember his production at Hartford Stage starring a young Calista Flockhart. For information and tickets contact Westport or call 888-927-7529.

Curtain Up: MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) in Norwalk opens its season with Gypsy from Friday, Sept. 9 to Sunday, Sept. 25. The iconic show features a cast of solid Broadway professionals. For tickets visit MTC or call 203-454-3883.

Investors Hard to Find: Even Barbra Streisand has problems finding investors. The most recent rumor is that the planned film version of Gypsy that has been talked about for years, is now in doubt again due to the withdrawal of an investor and distributor.

Controversy: Bay Street Theater on Long Island, had planned a concert reading of the new Stephen Schwartz and Phillip LaZenik musical Prince of Egypt, which is based on a film about an Egyptian prince who learns his true identity. Schwartz’ song for the film,“When You Believe” won an Oscar. That was the plan and the concert was cast with some high powered Broadway veterans. But the concert was cancelled after complaints that the cast was not diverse. Apparently there were not just complaints but comments on social media and online which the director termed “harassment” and “bullying.”  This is not the first time recently that a controversy has erupted over casting.

New York Notes:  The Berkshire Theatre Group is transferring its well-received production of Fiorello! to Off-Broadway this fall. It begins previews Sun., Sept. 4 at the East 13th Street Theater. For tickets visit Fiorello or call 800-833-3006. The Pearl Theatre is reviving A Taste of Honey, last seen 35 years ago. Austin Pendleton directs. It runs Tues., Sept 6 to Sun., Oct. 16q. For tickets visit pearltheatre.org or call 212-563-9261. Another off-Broadway Theater – Primary Stages is opening its season with Horton Foote’s The Roads to Home directed by Michael Wilson, former artistic director of Hartford Stage. The production stars Harriet Harris, Devon Abner and Haille Foot. It begins performances Tues., Sept. 13. For tickets visit Primary Stages or call 212-352-3101

New York Notes: Tickets are now on sale for Heisenberg which stars Mary Louis Parker at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. It begins previews on Tuesday, Sept. 20. Tickets are available through Telecharge.  Jenn Gambatese who starred at Goodspeed in Annie Get Your Gun and has numerous Broadway credits is replacing Sierra Boggess in School of Rock on Broadway. Tickets are also on sale for the revival of Falsettos starring Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells and Stephanie J. Block. The William Finn/James Lapine musical begins previews Thursday, Sept. 29 for a limited run. Ticketmaster is handling tickets.

CRT Season:  The Connecticut Repertory Theater which performs on the UConn campus in Storrs is the last of the Connecticut theaters to announce its 2016-17 schedule. It begins with an ambitious play: Shakespeare’s King Lear from Thurs., Oct. 6 to Sun., Oct. 16. This coincides with the exhibition of a rare Shakespeare first folio to the campus (Thur., Sept 1 to Sun., Sept. 25) via the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tour.  Changing gears, the second show if a translation of the Feydeau farce Le Dindon, called An Absolute Turkey, from Dec. 1 to 10. In 2017, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty will play Feb. 23 to March 5 followed by Shrek: The Musical from April 20 to 30. Please call 860-486-2113 for information and subscriptions. Tickets for individual performances go on sale Sept. 1. Information is available at CRT.

Broadway People: He’s hot! Lin-Manuel Miranda has left his show Hamilton but he won’t be resting anytime soon. He’s working on the film version of his first hit, In the Heights, which is now a “go” because of the Hamilton success. He’s also signed to co-star in the 2018 Disney film that will be a sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. Emily Blunt will play Poppins. It’s a new story (set in London in the 1930s) and a new score. Angela Lansbury is not retiring; she’s returning to Broadway in 2017-18 in a revival of The Chalk Garden. She’ll be over 90 when it opens. Joe Mantello has been directing more than acting recently; he had two well received shows on Broadway last season. But he’s pulling out his acting talents to co-star with Sally Fields in a revival of The Glass Menagerie that begins previews next February. Sam Gold will direct.

On the Road to Broadway: Lots of shows have Broadway aspirations, but few make it and even fewer succeed. Among the shows that are supposedly enroute is Josephine, about the legendary American performer Josephine Baker who was a major star in Paris. It just played in Florida and producers say the next stop in Broadway.  Grammy nominee Deborah Cox starred. The musical version of From Here to Eternity with lyrics by Tim Rice has played London, but made its US debut at the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival this summer. Who knows if it makes it to Broadway; if you’re interested, there is a London cast album. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty will have Anastasia on Broadway next spring and their other new musical, The Little Dancer is also continuing development. After a production at the Kennedy Center in 2014, extensive revisions were done on the book. It’s inspired by a sculpture by Edgar Degas.

From East Haddam to Broadway:  A musical that began life at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals in 2013 will make it to Broadway. Come From Away tells the inspiring story of the residents in the Gander, Newfoundland area who hosted thousands of stranded air travelers when their flights were diverted to Gander on Sept. 11, 2001. From Goodspeed’s Festival, the show has more recently had successful runs at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Seattle Repertory Theater and will soon open at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC before going on to Toronto and then Broadway. It’s scheduled to open in February.

 

Orton Farce Starts Slowly at Westport – Then WOW!

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Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton and Robert Stanton. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 Joe Orton died too young. The iconoclastic British playwright was killed by his lover in 1964 when he was just 34 and had written only a handful of plays.  As Mark Lamos, artistic director of Westport Country Playhouse wrote in his program notes – he might have given theater goers a “legacy of ground-breaking comedic works that would have entertained generations of theatergoers.”

Yet we are still blessed with several masterpieces – Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot and the play currently at Westport through Sept. 10 – What the Butler Saw.

 It is a farce – but a farce probably unlike any you have ever seen before, unless you saw the terrific Westport production of Loot a few years ago.

Orton came out of the “angry young man” school of British playwrights and authors in the 1950s and ’60. While many of the playwrights wrote “kitchen sink” dramas that featured working class characters and were critical of the British class system, its post-Empire society, and its values and hypocrisy Orton turned to comedy.

He incorporated his criticisms of British values, traditions and society into plays that used the farce format – improbabilities, multiple doors, confused identities and double entendres.

What the Butler Saw is just such a play. The title draws on the titles of more traditional British farces because there is NO butler to see anything in this play.

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Chris Ghaffari and Julian Gamble. Photo by Carol Rosegg

It is set in the dispensary of a psychiatrist, Dr. Prentice who is interviewing a young woman, Geraldine Barclay, for a secretarial position. Yet the questions he asks seem inappropriate for the position; the young woman has an interesting history – her father abandoned her mother after a night of sex in a hotel linen closet. The woman who raised her has recently died due to a very unconventional accident.

Soon the mayhem commences. He convinces Geraldine to remove her clothes and lie down, but just as he is about to “examine” her, his wife makes an unanticipated entry.  He barely gets rid of her when Dr. Rance barges in; he is a psychiatrist from a government authority there to inspect the clinic.

But Dr. Rance seems more than a little unconventional. He quickly decides that Geraldine is insane and must be hospitalized. When the stage is empty we again meet Mrs. Prentice and the hotel bellboy, Nicholas Beckett. It seems that they have had a recent rambunctious encounter in the hotel’s line closet and he has the photos to prove it. He wants money.

That is the set up for the mayhem that follows. It is almost indescribably but let’s say that soon Dr. Prentice is accused of being insane, Geraldine keeps trying to get away, various people switch clothes and personas and Sergeant Match arrives to investigate the disappearance of Geraldine.

The conclusion draws references to both Oscar Wilde and Gilbert & Sullivan.

A show like this requires a cast with spectacular timing as well as an ability to make the characters seem like real people. It also requires a director who keeps the whole thing moving and can develop both the laughs and the feelings in it.

Luckily Westport has both.  Director John Tillinger has years of experience directing British works that require exquisite timing – at Westport and elsewhere he is considered the go-to director throughout the country for works by Orton and Alan Ayckbourn His credits go on and on as do his list of awards and award nominations.

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Patricia Kalember and Robert Stanton. Photo by Carol Rosegg

The cast is more than up to the demands of the play and the director. Again, many are veterans of this style of theater. Even those who don’t have the experience, Chris Ghaffai as Nicholas (he most recently was Romeo at Hartford Stage), perform like veterans.

Through her posture and voice, Sarah Manton immediately gives us a complete character as Geraldine and she continues to build on that first impression.  Robert Stanton as Dr. Prentice does a good job as a man who is not only losing control of the situation – and doesn’t really understand why – and someone trying to figure out a solution.

Chris Ghaffari is excellent as the blackmailing bellboy but Tillinger has incorporated a brief nude scene that seems unnecessary.

The other cast members – Patricia Kalember as Mrs. Prentice and Julian Gamble as Sergeant Match are equal to the others.

But if there is a standout, it has to be Paxton Whitehead, who has almost made a career out of playing somewhat dotty, bewildered Englishman. Here as Dr. Rance he is always confident no matter how misguided he is, always convinced of his infallibility and unflappable as everything goes crazy about him.

Praises must be given to the scenic design by James Noon – that gives an elegant touch to the clinic and provides the necessary multiple doors, the costume design by Laurie Churba, and the dialect coach Elizabeth Smith. Singling these three members of the production team, does not imply that the others – lighting design by John McKernon, sound design by Scott Killian or the movement/firearms choreographer Robert Westley did not also do great work.

What the Butler Saw provides a lot of laughs and a ridiculous situation; it is good fun.

It is at Westport Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport through Sept. 10. For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org.

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Chris Ghaffari and Robert Stanton. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Looking at the 2016-17 Connecticut Theater Season – My Top 10 Plus More

By Karen Isaacs

 Each year as I start to think about the upcoming theater season in Connecticut, certain productions jump out at me. Some revivals, new plays or cast/production teams seem to guarantee an exciting evening in the theater.

So, let me tell you about the productions that most excite me, listed by dates.

This summer has already given us some productions that I was anticipating with pleasure – most of them delivered including Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed, The Invisible Hand at Westport, and Rent at Ivoryton though that might have been better.

Joe Orton’s comedies may be not for everyone, but they definitely are for me and Westport Country Playhouse has proved it knows how to do them – particularly when John Tillinger is directing. Add in Paxton Whitehead and What the Butler Saw (Aug. 23-Sept. 10) should be a laugh fest.

 Man of La Mancha has had only an occasional production in the last few years. While it is not one of my top ten favorite musicals, I am looking forward to the Ivoryton production (Sept. 7 – Oct. 2) in part because David Pittsinger has a magnificent voice for the part.

Goodspeed is presenting another new musical in its third slot this year. Chasing Rainbows (Sept. 16-Nov. 27) has potential, so I’m interested. It combines the making of The Wizard of Oz and the early life of Judy Garland.

Steve Martin writes quirky, humorous plays: I’m looking forward to the world premiere of his latest, Meteor Shower at Long Wharf, Sept. 28-Oct. 23.

I’m also anticipating Yale’s opening production; a new play by Sarah Ruhl’s Scenes from Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince (Sept. 30 –Oct. 22) about Charles I and II of England AND Jeb and George W. Bush.

Mark Lamos directing a musical is a formula for success. Plus, I have fond memories of Camelot since I saw the original production. So I’m looking forward to Lamos’ reimagined production at Westport (Oct. 4 -30).

I see potential in Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Story also at Ivoryton (Oct. 26 – Nov. 13). It’s billed as not just a juke-box musical; its success will depend on the quality of the book based on Clooney’s life.

I’ve seen Hartford Stage’s production of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas multiple times; but I will see it again this year, Nov. 26 – Dec. 31.

Brien Dennehy and John Douglas Thompson – two fine actors are bringing Samuel Beckett’s existential classic Endgame to Long Wharf, Jan. 4 – Feb. 5. This will be a must see.

Combine Shakespeare, in this case the raucous A Comedy of Errors and director Darko Tresnjak and I will definitely want to attend. It’s at Hartford Stage, Jan. 12 –Feb. 12.

Another world premiere that sounds interesting is at Long Wharf, Feb. 15-March 12.  Napoli Brooklyn is a co-production with NYC’s Roundabout Theater.

Yale always has an interesting season. This year I’ve circled the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman Assassins, March 17-April 8; it is a fascinating musical that I’ve seen several times and want to see again.

End of the Rainbow. Judy Garland is a beloved performer whose life was marred by drugs, alcohol and tragedy. This play looks at her later years; it won acclaim in London and Broadway; if a terrific actress plays Judy, this should be compelling. (MTC – April 7-23).

Broadway saw Shufflin’ Along the story of a 1920’s African American musical last season; now Seven Angels is bringing Trav’lin – the 1930s Harlem Musical to Connecticut, May 11-June 11. It features music and lyrics by Harlem Renaissance composer J. C. Johnson; I know little about him but he wrote “The Joint Is Jumpin’” among his works recorded by Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, the Boswell Sisters and others.

I love George Bernard Shaw and his plays have recently not been done enough in Connecticut. So I’m delighted that Darko Tresnjak is directing Shaw’s Saint Joan, May 11 – June 11, at Hartford..

Connecticut theater goers will be blessed with productions of two of August Wilson’s plays. The Piano Lesson which premiered at Yale will be at Hartford Stage, Oct. 13-Nov. 13.  Yale Rep will present Seven Guitars, Nov. 25 –Dec. 17.

But just about every play on Yale’s and Hartford Stage’s schedule sounds interesting.

Touring productions are in a different category. A number of award winning productions will play Connecticut this year, including:

Tony winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is at the Bushnell, Oct. 25-30. If you didn’t see its birth at Hartford Stage, and I did as well as on Broadway, see it again.

In fact the entire Bushnell season looks great – I loved An American in Paris, Nov. 15-20; The King and I, May 30-June 4, won the Tony for best revival and the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Dec. 27-Jan. 1 is magnificent.

I’m also looking forward to Elf the Musical at the Shubert, Dec. 20 -24. This stage version of the classic movie has a delightful score.

I’m sure that other productions will pleasantly surprise me. I’m constantly amazed at how excellent theater in Connecticut is. And unfortunately some of the things I am most looking forward to will disappoint me.

“Quartet” – Pleasant Production of Gentle Comedy at Sharon Playhouse

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Photo by Randy O’Rourke

By Karen Isaacs

 Sharon Playhouse is closing its season with a gentle comedy, Quartet, about four elderly British opera singers spending their last years at a retirement home for musicians.

Some of you may remember the film of the same name in 2013, directed by Dustin Hoffman and starring a pantheon of British actors – Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon among others.

Though I had seen the play before the film including in the Berkshires with Robert Vaughn in the cast, I had not seen it since the film came out.  What struck me is the added pleasures of the film, and not just because of the stellar cast. The film which was written by the playwright Robert Harwood included other characters and information.

The play has just four characters – each an opera singer (one a star) who at one time sang the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto to great acclaim. The recording has been reissued on CD. Three of them are living at this retirement home. It is clear that many of the retired musicians are at the home “on charity” and one of the big events is the Gala on Oct. 10, the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi. In the film this is a fund-raising gala for the home but in the play that is not so clear.

The three current residents – none of have been there very long – are Reginald (Joseph Hindy) a tenor who is actually paying his own way; Cecily (Patrician McAneny) a mezzo and Wilfred Bond (Greg Mullavey) a baritone who played Rigoletto. As the play begins, Cecily discovers that a new arrival is expected and from the staff excitement, it must be someone very well known.

They soon discover it is Jean (Elizabeth Franz) who was the biggest star of them all but who suddenly stopped singing at a young age. She also was once married to Reginald who is not happy about her arrival.

The remainder of the two act play focuses on the interactions among the four of them, the revealing of some regrets and secrets and the efforts of the three to convince Jean to participate in the gala and recreate the famous quartet.

The movie fleshed out both the characters and the others residing the home.

None of them planned on spending their “golden years” like this and all are afraid that one of them will develop dementia and be forced to leave the home. They are particularly worried about Cecily.

Each of the four characters is a “type” – Cecily is flighty, forgetful, full of life and obviously was somewhat sexually promiscuous.  Wilfred plays the clown with lots of sexual innuendo though he was happily (and faithfully) married.  Reginald never got over Jean and has spent his life reading and quietly contemplating the world. Jean is still the diva though she hasn’t sung for years. Despite a number of marriages, she has no funds left.

This production directed by John Simpkins has both strengths and weaknesses. First, I had not recalled the play as being either so long or so talky. I’m not sure if the movie has spoiled the play for me, or if this production needed a spark. I also noticed how quiet this production is.  It is set in a retirement/assisted living home with musicians around; even though the four congregate in a salon you would expect to hear ambient noise and music. Yet it is very, very quiet. Some classical music is played before the curtain goes up for each act, but you would think the four were totally isolated from everyone. Perhaps this was a conscious decision by Simpkins to reinforce the solitariness of old age.

I do applaud the scenic design by Michael Schweikart and the costumes by Michelle Eden Humphrey.

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Elizabeth Franz. Photo by Randy O’Rourke

The cast is good but sometimes it sounded as if all were talking much too loudly. While Elizabeth Franz is the best known of the performers, I actually preferred the work of the two men – Joseph Hindy as Reginald and Greg Mullavey as Wilfred. Each seemed to fully embody their characters and gave each a depth that the script did not provide. Patricia McAneny as Cecily is hindered by the role’s single note. Franz gives us a good Jean but neither a regal nor imperious Jean.

So while I cannot rave about this production, if you want a pleasant afternoon evening including a drive into the lovely Litchfield hills of Connecticut, you will find Quartet, a nice addition to the day.

Quartet is at Sharon Playhouse, Sharon, CT. through Aug. 28. For tickets or information, call 860-364-7469 or visit sharonplayhouse.org.

 

“Quietly” at the Irish Rep Explores the Aftermath of Violence

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Declan Conlon, Robert Zawadzki, Patrick O’Kane. Photo by James Higgins

 Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre is making an appearance in New York under the auspices of The Irish Repertory Theatre and the Public Theater with their production of Quietly is running through Sept. 25. This contemporary play by Owen McCafferty, a fine playwright who deserves more productions in the U.S.

It is Belfast, Ireland – a city where “the troubles” exploded in the ‘70s and ’80 as Catholics and Protestants faced constant fights, bombings and mayhem. Young people, particularly young men, were caught up in the religious hatred; many innocent people died. In 1984 Sinn Fein and the British government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher forged a “sort of” solution and truce.  While it did not totally end the problems, it greatly reduced them. But it left a residue of ill will and regrets. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement brought even more peace, though not necessarily reconciliation.

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Patrick O’Kane. Photo by James Higgins

Quietly is set in a pub in Belfast in the present time. The owner and bar keep is Robert, a Polish émigré who had been a bartender back in his native land. The pub is empty with a soccer match on the telly, but soon a regular, Jimmy, arrives. He’s in his early 50s and is the type of man you instinctively feel you do not want to anger or meet in a dark alley.  Bald, somewhat beefy, there is a smoldering rage in him that seems ready to explode at any moment.  He tells Robert that he is waiting for someone and he warns him that it might get angry, possibly violent and to stay out of the way.

So we are set up to expect an explosion. But when Ian enters quietly, casually but well dressed, we may feel that violence will be avoided.

Ian is the same age as Jimmy and on a fateful day in 1974, in this very area, their lives intertwined; both were 16 and on different sides of “the troubles.” Each had been brought up to hate the other’s religion and therefore the people who practice it. In this very pub something happened (I won’t reveal the details) that turned both of them into victims.  Each bears scars from that day; it is safe to say neither life was every the same again.

Ian wants to get the past behind him and feels the need to meet Jimmy and possibly explain and ask forgiveness. In today’s psychobabble, we would say he wants “closure.”

But is closure possible? Can forgiveness be granted? Can such ingrained hatreds ever be extinguished?

Even as the two meet, shout, talk and listen, there are roving bands of teenagers – like they were long ago – doing violence.

The tension in this play comes from their stories as well as Jimmy’s temper which you feel may snap at any second. Each has pent up emotions.

Ian has perhaps processed the experiences better than Jimmy.  He has come to realize that it was the adults who recruited and indoctrinated the boys at a young age, and who often gave them the nastiest jobs. They were like the child soldiers we hear about in foreign countries. How could they really understand the issues, the hatreds or the consequences of what they were asked to do?

This is a taut, 75 minute play that leaves you drained. Certainly in our present environment, it causes you to think about how young people are recruited and used by adults for a variety of political and even terrorist purposes; how hatred continues for generations; and that the victims are often the very young men who were left with deep wounds.

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Declan Conlon. Photo by James Higgins

The ending is realistic – no a “feel good” everyone will love each other and be best buds, but at least a little more understanding of the other’s point of view. Conversation has begun, and just as in another play I recently saw, Oslo, conversation and personal relationships are a key to resolving these long standing hostilities.

The acting is superb. Robert Zawadzki plays Robert. While he mostly listens and watches the two his story enhances the play. Since coming to Belfast his life hasn’t gone as he would have wished: he is still bartender though now apparently an owner and his wife seems to want to return to Poland. Plus, with the occasional violence occurring he and his pub are convenient targets.

Patrick O’Kane gives us a menacing Jimmy. I instinctively wanted to back away from him. Yet in the concluding minutes, you also see the pain that the event in 1974 caused him; he has not been able to move beyond that event which is clear as he graphically describes it.

Declan Conlon is the quieter Ian. He too is scared but his anger has receded and he has gained insight into himself and the situations.

This is a forceful and moving play that thoroughly engaged me. Certainly director Jimmy Fay must be congratulated for the taut and fine direction.

As too often happens nowadays in the theater, during the last climatic ten minutes, the cell phone of the woman in front of me rang and she fumbled for it before turning it off, but added insult to injury by then whispering to neighbor. I lost a minute or two of Jimmy’s final speech much to my annoyance.

Go see Quietly at the Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd St., New York City. For tickets call 212-727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.

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Photo by James Higgins

 

Ivoryton’s “Rent” Can Appeal to All Ages

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Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

Rent has become an iconic musical for a number of reasons. After all it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1996. Second it is roughly based on Puccini’s La Bohème and opened 100 years after the original. Also, it deals with current issues and features rock music and a young cast. But what is always mentioned is a “no one would believe it if it were in a novel” moment – the night before the opening, the composer/lyricist/book writer Jonathan Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm. He never lived to see the acclaim the musical received.

Admittedly, the music of Rent may not be a favorite genre for many of Ivoryton’s older audience, a fact that Artistic Director Jaqueline Hubbard (and director) acknowledged in her opening comments to the audience. She urged them to “give it a chance.” But the show also appeals to younger audiences, and many young people were in the theater the night I saw it.  Ivoryton, following the tradition of the Broadway production, has set aside a block of front row tickets that go on sale at 6 p.m. for just $20.

Larson (and his earlier collaborator Billy Aronson) kept the basic outline of the La Bohème story line – struggling artists in an urban environment and their struggles with poverty, illness and artistic success.  Puccini’s opera was set in the 1880s and tuberculous was the disease endemic to the poor and the struggling artist.

Rent is set in New York City’s east village (what is sometimes called Alphabet City), where many artists settled in illegal lofts. The medical endemic of that period was AIDS – not only due to homosexual transmission but also due to transmission via drug addiction and shared hypodermic needles.

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Maritza Bostic as Joanne and Tim Russell as Mark. Photo by Anne Hudson

If you’ve never seen Rent – and I may be one of the few Americans who hasn’t – you may find the first act confusing. We are introduced to so many characters that it is hard to keep them all straight. There’s Mark, a documentary filmmaker, who is sometimes our narrator; his roommate Roger who is a songwriter and HIV positive. Tom Collins (referred to as Collins) is their friend who is an MIT grad and occasionally teaches computer part-time; why he is there is not really clear. Finally there is Benjamin Coffin III, another friend who has, in the minds of his friends, “sold out” – marrying up and now owning the building they all live in.

Within the group are some women; Mimi Marquez is an exotic dancer and also HIV positive. Maureen is Mark’s ex-girlfriend with whom he is still somewhat involved and her new girlfriend Joanne. In addition there is Angel, a transvestite who falls for Collins.

The musical begins on Christmas Eve and concludes the following Christmas. During that time the artists continue to struggle to live and work. AIDS takes its inevitable, at that time, toll on the friends, but there are successes as well.

The first act was confusing, not only because of all the characters but the sound system, the sound design and/or the articulation of the performers made it difficult to understand the lyrics.  The lyrics, in a basically sung-through musical, are vitally important to convey plot.

Since it’s opening, it ran on Broadway for 12 years, closing in 2008. A successful movie version was made in 2005. A “high school friendly” version of the show has encountered controversy, but has had hundreds if not thousands of productions.

Several actors give standout performances. Jonny Cortes is terrific as Angel; I will quibble that the name is a little too obviously symbolic. He moves from comedy to sensitivity effortlessly. Tim Russell as Mark gives us a quieter member of the group; he seems more “normal” than many of his friends.  Alyssa V. Gomez gives us a flamboyant and vital Mimi – but she is less successful in some of the transitions as Mimi moves from determined to capture Roger to “victim” in her relationship with Collins. Unfortunately she and Johnny Newcomb (Roger) develop little chemistry – you don’t believe their love. Since that is the dramatic climax of the musical (and opera), it leaves less than fulfilled. They are the Mimi and Rodolpho of the original; you should be crying at her death of these star-crossed lovers.

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Johnny Newcomb as Roger and Alyssa V . Gomez as Mimi. Photo by Anne Hudson.

I also thought that Maritz Bostic as Joanne and Patrick Clanton as Collins were excellent.; and Clanton created authentic chemistry with Cortes; you did believe the relationship between Collins and Angel. The ensemble play a variety of roles and are very good.

Director Hubbard has done a very nice job with the show with strong assistance from music director Michael Morris and choreography Todd Underwood. The set by Martin Scott Marchitto gives us a typical artist’s loft and Lisa Bebey gives us a variety of ‘90s bohemian costumes.

Hubbard was right when she asked the older members of the audience to “give the show a chance.” It appeared that very few left at intermission and from the standing ovation at the end, they seemed to have enjoyed it. Perhaps the fact that music is more in the soft rock genre helps. But the cast and story also obviously helped keep them in their seats.

Rent is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through Sunday, August 28. For tickets visit ivortyonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

“Oslo” Gives Us a Compelling Look at the Arab-Israeli Peace Accords

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 In September 1993, an event occurred in the White House Rose Garden that gave the world hope for a Middle East peace: it was the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat were photographed shaking hands and later the two shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

The back story that led to that historic occasion is the subject of the new play Oslo at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

Playwright J. R. Rogers makes it very clear in his notes that this is not intended to be an absolutely accurate portrayal of the “back channel” negotiations that occurred in Oslo. He admits that locations and chronology has been changed and compressed. He has removed some characters and as he says “some of those who remain have been assigned different roles than their actual counterparts…the words they say are mine.”

But accepting that this is not a documentary, it is still a compelling though long (about three hours) drama. At times it reminded me of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, another play about unconventional diplomatic negotiations.

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Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

For while the signing of the accords was at the White House, the US had very little to do with the entire process. That was the doing of Norwegian diplomats and Terje Rod-Larsen, director of the Fafo Institute and the husband of an official in the foreign ministry. It was his theory that for negotiations to be successful, rather than put everything on the table at once, the two parties should start with one issue and when that is resolved, go on to the next. He also believed that personal relationships are a necessity for success. Yet neither Larsen not the Norwegians got very much public acknowledgement of their efforts.

Some research assured me that Larsen, was indeed head of the Institute which focused on Labour and Social Research as well as Applied International Studies. He had a PhD in sociology.

At the end of 1992, two unofficial representatives of the Israeli government met with Ahmed Quiri, finance minister of the PLO and Hassan Asfour at a manor house outside of Oslo. Larsen insisted that the four men meet and talk alone; in the evenings he expected them to join him and his wife, Mona, over food, drink and non-business talk of families and backgrounds mixed with humor.

It was an auspicious start. The two Israelis, economists, had no authority but were reporting to the deputy foreign minister who had sent them on his own imitative. The PLO delegates had more authority and standing, but were angry and skeptical.

Over the course of months and months of meetings, the four men began not only to establish personal relationships but to hammer out an initial draft of an understanding that dealt with such issues as Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

As Mona states early in the play, it took nine months. The movement was in fits and starts. The issues were enormous. The PLO representatives wanted the Israeli negotiators to be government officials; finally that happened when Uri Savir, director-general of the foreign ministry joined the talks.

In the play, senior Norwegian officials were also in the dark about this effort for months; when the foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst learns of the act ivies of Larsen and Mona, he is not necessarily thrilled. It is dangerous effort and could alienate the US.

So much of the play is compelling that it seems peevish to complain about the length. With two intermissions, is runs nearly three hours and by the end you are glad it is over. It needs some judicious cutting.

Praises to director Bartlett Sher and the entire cast. Sher and his cast not only keep the pace moving and the tension building – even though you know from the outset that the agreement was reached – but they mine the humor that is necessary to keep this from being dull. His entire production team has worked in concert to fulfill his vision.

Particular praise must be given to dialect coach Ben Furey – he and the cast maintain a variety of accents – primarily Norwegian, Arab and Israeli – while remaining understandable at all times. The accents never become stereotypical but always sound authentic.

Let us heap praises on the cast. Jefferson Mays is one of my favorite actors and again as Larsen he turns in marvelous performance. Not only with the accent but the depths of the character from his certainties to his ego to his doubt.  Jennifer Ehle matches his as his wife, Mona. She is steady, calming and truly diplomatic.  Dariush Kashani as Hassam and Anthony Asisi as Quiri are aslo outstanding.  In fact, there is no one in the cast that can be faulted. Each actor whether playing one role or more, creates fully rounded characters that you know and relate to.

Oslo is a play that is well worth seeing. It runs through Aug. 28 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. BUT plans have already been announced to move it to the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater in March for an extended “Broadway” run. The delay is caused by commitments that the cast members – including Mays – have. At the Beaumont it will be eligible for Tony award nominations.

For tickets visit lct.org.

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The handshake between the Israeli and Arab negotiators. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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The negotiations. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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