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Long Wharf’s “Baskerville” Has Too Much Slapstick, Too Little Sherlock Holmes

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 The third and final play of what I think of as the “Ken Ludwig in Connecticut” season has opened at Long Wharf. Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery runs to March 25.

Unfortunately, this is the weakest of the three plays. Ludwig inserts humor into each of his works. But this time, it seems overdone: it could be described as Monty Python meets Sherlock Holmes.

Five actors play all of the roles: actually, three actors play all the roles other than Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes; this means so many quick costume changes that the dressers took bows at the curtain call.

Ludwig stays relatively faithful to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mystery novel The Hounds of the Baskervilles. Holmes is asked to help protect the newest heir (Sir Henry) to Baskerville Manor and the estate after the previous owner was found dead with a look of terror on his face. The back story includes an early evil ancestor who was killed by a large, ghostly hound dog. Sir Henry has just arrived from Canada and immediately receives a threatening letter.

As Watson and Holmes investigate there are mysterious people galore: Barrymore and his wife who both work at Baskerville Hall, the Stapletons – a brother and sister who once ran a school, an escaped murdered (Seldon), and Laura Lyons, a woman who had been involved with the deceased master of the hall.

Ludwig has maintained the skeleton of the plot, but has turned it on its ear. To what extent some of this is the contribution of director Brendon Fox, is on clear.  The script has turned Sir Henry from a Canadian to a Texan cowboy for no apparent reason except to get laughs from the accent and costumes including chaps and a 10-gallon hat. Mrs. Barrymore is given a middle-European accent, where certain letters are mispronounced (“vitch” for “which”) to supposed comic effect. And Mr. Stapleton, who is naturalist, is portrayed as a cross between a mad scientist and a bad Oscar Wilde imitator.

The result of these rather bizarre characters is that the suspense is totally lost. The plot is convoluted enough on its own, but with the burlesque type characters, the constant changing of costumes and more, not only do we really cease to care who is the murdered but even when there is danger, suspense is at a minimum.

Ludwig, in addition  to these exaggerated characters, has included some scenes that while in the original book are not necessarily necessary to the plot: two scenes attending opera whose only purpose is to allow a spoof of opera singers, and a char lady in the first scene whose only purpose seems to be to change into another character before our eyes.

The actors – particularly the three who are constantly changing costumes, wigs, and accents work very hard. They certainly don’t have to go to the gym during the run of the show. But it must asked if this hard work leads to an effective production? The three: Kelly Hutchinson, Christopher Livingston and Brian Owen, make the many switches easily if frenetically and never seem to forget which character they are playing at the moment.

For some of the audience, the answer, the night I saw it, was definitely yes; but there were empty seats following the intermission.

Daniel Pearce is Dr. Watson, who has a larger role in this story; he is not only the narrator, but Holmes sends him to Basketville Hall to oversee the safety of Sir Henry. Pearce does a good job with the part. Holmes is played by Alex Moggridge. He doesn’t quite have the superior air that Holmes is famous for, not does he look like most depictions. Even when he dons the famous coat and hat, it seems like it isn’t appropriate.

But it is not the acting that bother me.

Ludwig wrote this play in 2015 and one must one wonder how much the very successful 39 Steps influenced him. In case you don’t remember, that was a version of the Alfred Hitchcock suspense movie, played by just 4 actors – one the lead, one woman playing all the female characters and two men playing the male. It featured creative stage sets and effects. But in that play, although there was humor, it still was a very suspenseful thriller.

Ludwig has forgotten the suspense.

But, if you like burlesque or broad slap-stick humor, this may be your cup of tea. At times it reminded me of the skits Sid Caesar used to do on TV.

For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 800-782-8497.


You’ll Thoroughly Enjoy Hartford Stage’s Stylish Production of Classic Agatha Christie Murder Mystery

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Photo by t. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Hartford Stage is presenting the stylish production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express that originated last year at the McCarter Theater in Princeton. It won raves and it is now in Hartford – with a few cast changes – through Sunday, March 25.

If you are a Christie fan, this is sure to delight you, even if you saw the recent film remake of the famous mystery; I’ve heard that the remake was less than stellar.

Yet even if you find Christie’s plots too convoluted, you will enjoy this production. It features inventive sets, terrific costumes and wonderful acting.

Director Emily Mann, the McCarter’s artistic director, has done a masterful job of keeping the pace up. Ken Ludwig’s adaptation adds laughs to the other aspects of the mystery,

In case you don’t remember the plot, the mystery begins in Istanbul where in the mid-1920s, a number of passengers board the famed train, the Orient Express, for a trip to England. Surprisingly (it is winter) the first class carriage is full. One of the passengers is the famed Belgium detective Hercule Poirot returning to London from a brief vacation. The play begins with a brief scene of a little girl being abducted.

As soon as the train leaves the station, an American (Ratchett) asks Poirot to investigate the threatening letters he has been receiving; Poirot turns him down. By the next morning, Rachett has been murdered and the train is soon stranded in a snow drift.

Why was he killed? Who did it? At first look at the passengers, all seem unlikely suspects. There’s Princess Dragomiroff, a member of Russian nobility in exile, and her companion Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish missionary who works with babies in Africa. Countess Andrenyi is an American physician who married nobility; Colonel Arbuthnot is the married Scottish Army officer in love with Mary Debenham.  Then there’s the rich, multi-married widow from Minneapolis (Helen Hubbard), as well as the assistant (Hector McQueen) to the murdered man and Michel, the head steward on board the train.

Poirot quickly determines that the killer was someone on the train, but who? The clues point in all sorts of directions. And the question also remains, why was Ratchett killed?

If you have seen one of the film versions, it is the not the answer to those questions that will keep you entertained, but the way the cast and the production get you to the solution.

The production team has created memorable sets, costumes lighting and sound. Hartford Stage has reverted to a proscenium theater. Beowulf Boritt created a series of art-deco train cars that roll on and off the stage to show us the cabins, the lounge, the back caboose and other elements. If this what the Orient Expressed looked like, I wish I had traveled on it. It epitomizes the elements of the art-deco style.

William Ivey Long has designed costumes of the period for the characters; again many are in the art-deco style of the 1920s.

But even with these elements, it all depends on the cast. This cast is overall, terrific.

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David Pittu. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

David Pittu is new to the role of Hercule Poirot but he manages to bring his own originality to the role. The Belgium detective has been played through the years by so many outstanding actors, that it might difficult for Pittu to bring something new to the part. But he does. He adds a note of romantic longing to the character. Only two other cast members are new; each is fine. Ian Bedford has taken the roles of Ratchett and Colonel Arbuthnot and Leigh Ann Larking the role of Countess Andrenyi.

Julie Halston reprises her role as the many time married Helen Hubbard. She brings just the right mixture of stereotypical obnoxious American tourist and frightened woman to the part. Halston is a gifted comedienne and draws out all the humor in the script.

Veanne Cox creates Princess Dragomiroff as the dignified exile and Samantha Steinmetz creates the earnest (and perhaps a little simple) Greta Ohlsson.

You may not be surprised at the ending, but you will have had a delightful getting to the Orient Express’s final destination.

It is at Hartford Stage through Sunday, March 25. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and

Sophie Tucker’s Life on Stage at Seven Angels


By Karen Isaacs

 You may never have heard of Sophie Tucker, but the burlesque, vaudeville, stage, movie, radio and television performer was the prototype for the suggestive (and sometimes raunchy) humor of Mae West and more recently, Bette Midler in her early career.

Cabaret and Broadway performer Sharon McNight has created a show that features the songs and life of Sophie Tucker. Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story how has now made it to Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury where it plays through March 11. (Last year, the theater had a one man show about Anthony Newley that was terrific.)

Unfortunately this show doesn’t quite live up to that standard. Tucker grew up in Hartford and is buried there.  She started singing there but moved on to New York and then toured in vaudeville (originally in blackface) before inventing her persona. She was part comedian and part singer.

Her choice of material – often comic and/or risqué – led to the “Last of the Red Hot Momma’s” name.

In the show, McNight adapts her voice to the raspy Tucker voice which, unfortunately, can become grating during the 90+ minute show. An intermission might have helped.

The play moves between Tucker in the 1950s and her younger self, as she tells us incidents from her life including her three marriages. This occurs between renditions of many songs associated with Tucker. These range from “Darktown Sturtter’s Ball,” to “Hula Lou,” to “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” and others. Of course, her signature song, “Some of These Days” is well represented.

Despite the talent of McNight – and her superficial resemblance to Tucker – the show is only partially successful. It suffers from the problems that afflict many one-person shows: how do you get additional information or people into it. McNight does it by both using the telephone and speaking to someone outside her dressing room door. It doesn’t really work. You’d like her to play another character.

The other issue for me is that Tucker’s music did not vary much – mostly she sang somewhat risqué songs – “He’s a Good Man to Have Around,” “Last of the Red Hot Mommas,” or humorous ones – “I Don’t Want to Get Thin.” Plus her voice can begin to sound monotonous.

Despite these qualms about the show, it does remind us of any earlier period in theater/vaudeville and one of the iconic performers.

McNight is backed up by a three piece group led by conductor/pianist and music director Brent C. Mauldin. In keeping with Tucker’s success and reputation, there are terrific, uncredited costumes that capture the various decades.

In addition to performing, McNight has also directed and written the piece. While she is talented enough to do that, sometimes another person can point out areas that might be improved.

Yet Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story can be good fun, particularly for those who may have some memories of her appearing on Ed Sullivan and other shows. It is at Seven Angels Theater, 1 Plank Rd., Waterbury. For tickets call 203-757-4676 or visit Seven Angels Theatre.



“Intimate Apparel” Gets Fine Production at Playhouse on Park

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Darlene Hope and Ben MacLaughlin. Photo by Kurt Henderson

By Karen Isaacs

 Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel is making another appearance in Connecticut thanks to the lovely production at Playhouse on Park through March 4.

Nottage, whose most recent play Sweat won the Pulitzer Prize, is a keen observer of how women navigate life and the challenges they face.

In Intimate Apparel we see four women, three of whom have learned to abandon their fantasies and make choices based on the reality of the world. Each has made a “bargain” and each longs for what she has sacrificed.

The central character, Esther, touchingly played by Darlene Hope is a seamstress who has been in New York City for 17 years, having come from South Carolina. It’s 1905 and Esther, like many of the characters is an African-American. At 35 she is afraid love has passed her by, but she will not settle for practical over romantic; when her landlady in the boarding house encourages her to consider the rotund hotel bellman (at a fancy hotel), she rejects considering the idea. She wants romance.

The other three women have settled. Mrs. Dickson the landlady, had at 37 married an older man who has since died and left her the boarding house. Mayme has become a prostitute giving up dreams of playing the piano, for the money and independence her life affords her.

Even Mrs. VanBuren the white society woman for whom Esther creates lacy undergarments, has settled. She married for status and money and now, unable to bear children, watches as her husband berates her and philanders.

It looks as though Esther may get her wish of romance. In fact, there are two possibilities but one is not likely: that is Mr. Marx the orthodox Jewish man who sells her fabric. His intended whom he has never met is still in Europe; they develop feelings for each other but though both are outsiders, it cannot be.

Her second possibility arrives in a letter from the Panama Canal Zone. It’s written by George, a Barbadian working on digging the canal. A church member has suggest he write.  Esther is flustered and wonders if a “proper woman” would respond, but she does. The letters continue and grow increasingly intimate. George writes poetically and soon Esther is in love. In true Cyrano De Bergerac style, both are illiterate and their letters are written by others – in Esther case, Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren.

All this takes place in act one which ends with the wedding of Esther and George.

In act two, Esther’s dreams of a “happily ever after” life which includes using her savings to purchase a beauty salon, are not coming true. George is not the man she thought he was. Though she gives him everything he wants, he wants more and different things. He can’t or won’t find a job or accept the jobs available, instead wanting to purchase a stable with 12 horses. He wears the finest clothes, which Esther has made for him, gambles and philanders.

Esther is too proud to truly reveal what is going on to the others, but the cold reality is hitting her.

Playhouse on Park has a large stage area, surrounded by the audience on three sides; it can be difficult for a smaller play to be effective in the space. Marcus Abbott who is responsible for both the scenic and lighting design has solved the problem. He designed four distinct areas: one is Esther’s rooming house (and later her apartment), another the bedroom of Mrs. VanBuren, a third the bawdy house where Mayme works, and lastly, the tenement house where Mr. Marx sells fabric. As Esther moves between the locations, the lighting highlights the area.

Director Dawn Loveland Navarro keeps the pace of the show moving, but she can’t overcome some of its flaws: both acts are too long and repetitious. We see what is coming in each act and keep waiting and waiting for it to occur. In act one, even though I’ve seen the play before, there were at least three places where I was sure the “curtain” would go down.

Costume designer Kate Bunce does a good job with the turn of the century costumes and sound designer Joel Abbott makes effective use of ragtime.

Darlene Hope’s Esther fully realizes the determination, dreams and disillusionment of the character while also showing us her strength. It is a strong performance.

Overall the acting is very good. Ben MacLaughlin starts slowly as Mr. Marx but by the end of act one you know so much about his hopes and dreams, not through dialogue but his performance. Xenia Gray has a more one dimensional role as the landlady – the voice of practicality and reason.

Beethovan Oden has the challenging role of George; challenging because while Esther believes in him, the audience is suspicious almost from the start of the correspondence. Certainly, he is the villain in the play and he does convey a menacing nature and a calculating personality.

The other two women, Anna Laura Strider as Mrs. Van Buren and Zuri Eshun as Mayme are good as the counterpoints to Esther. With each, we do understand not only their hopes, but their compromises.

Intimate Apparel is a good, though not a great, play. You will find it engaging. For tickets, call 860-523-5900 or visit

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Darlene Hope and Zuri Eshun. Photo by Kurt Henderson.

“Field Guide” at Yale Rep Challenges the Concept of Theater

By Karen Isaacs

Field Guide which is now at Yale Rep through Saturday, Feb. 17 is an example of exactly what a university based theater should be doing: presenting works that push the boundaries and challenge audiences.

You may find the work, a world premiere commissioned by Yale Rep and developed by the Austin, Texas based Rude Mechs company not to your liking, perhaps even puzzling, but it is different.

Rude Mechs is a collaborative company whose members work together to develop productions; at times it shows that “too many cooks” can definitely make the soup less tasty.

Field Guide is based roughly on Dostoevsky’s massive novel The Brothers Karamozov which is about three brothers, their illegitimate half-brother and the father. But don’t worry if you haven’t read the novel or remembered it. The program provides a listing of “Notable Species” in the novel with all the male characters portrayed as bears and the females as birds, either predators or preys.

The company raises the question if Dostovesky did more than just create the novel? Did he create “a story that might guide us through our lives, a field guide for living?”

It’s a fascinating idea but one that does not really come through in the work.

So let’s focus on some of the work. First of all the lighting by Brian H. Scott is excellent and the music by Graham Reynolds and sound design by Robert S. Fisher are also excellent. Each of these three highlight aspects of the play.

One concern with Field Guide is expectations. It’s billed as inspired by the novel and, in fact, about half the 90 minutes are devoted to aspects of the central plot: the mystery of who killed the father and the romantic entanglements among the three brothers and the father.

It’s the other half that will puzzle you and perhaps infuriate you as you try to put it into the context of the other works. The play begins with Hannah, one of the company members who also wrote the text and plays three characters, performing a stand-up comedy routine. Her delivery may remind those older people in the audience of Cher’s monotone in the opening of the Sonny & Cher show. Not only isn’t the humor particularly funny (only some audience members laughed), but you sit there trying to figure out what the point of it is.

These stand-up comic elements are repeated at times during the show by Hannah and others. Each time the same questions occur.

Once they get into telling a destructed version of the novel, things do move along better. The main characters are sketched in such a way that you have a sense of each individual but too often, you are told what they are or what they feel rather than seeing it. That’s a problem when you condense even the main story of a massive novel to 60 minutes or so.

You will be left wondering about some of the staging. It is definitely clever, as when a series of various sized and shaped cardboard boxes move about the stage (the actors are inside them). Yet, why? How does this relate to the plot or the supposed message?

The ending is funny and unexpected – you probably have never seen anything like it on stage, but connecting to the rest of the show is difficult.

The performers are devoted to their craft. All except Hannah Kenah play just one role. Each does what he or she can with the limited material the script provides. Instead of fully developed characters, we get one dimensional descriptions. We are told the father is both a drinker and a seducer of young women, but we really don’t see it.  Ivan (Thomas Graves) is supposed to go mad, and Dmiti (Lana Lesley) is supposed to be in desperate financial straits. But you just have to take their word for it.

I’m not sure whether the purpose of Rude Mech is to deconstruct theater, move into avant-garde or absurdist theater or spoof the entire idea of theater. In some ways, they do all three.

For a 90 minute show, it seemed to be much longer at times. Yes, there were some startling moments that were moving or funny. But overall, Field Guide did not do what its creators indicated they wanted to do.

Field Guide is at Yale Rep through Saturday, February 17. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and


“Constellations” at TheaterWorks Can Confound and Frustrate You

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Constellations, the brief play at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Thursday, February 22 is a frustrating work. It wants to be deal with the time/space continuum, the infinite possibilities of human interactions and quantum physics. To a limited extent, it succeeds with moments that are fascinating.

But too often, it seems repetitious, pretentious and like an exercise for an advanced acting class.

Yet the production is excellent. Rob Ruggiero who has directed this piece has gotten – with cast and production team – every nuance, every laugh and every thoughtful idea in front of us.

The two actors – Allison Pistorius as Marianne and M. Scott McLean as Roland – create as full characters as possible.

We meet Roland and Marianne — in fact we meet them multiple times as they meet each other in multiple scenes.  The gimmick of this play is that it is a series of very brief scenes that are played over and over again, sometimes with different outcomes.

So the two meet at a soggy barbeque multiple times — sometimes the exchange goes well and sometimes it doesn’t or the potential relationship is aborted because Roland is married or attached. The other scenes in this play about their relationship are also repeated.

But this is about relationships, so the two date. Again we see some possibilities of what might occur at the end of a first date: does she invite in to her flat, does she ask him then to leave, does he want to leave, or do they spend night?  And so it goes through stages of the relationship.

Which of these possibilities is reality? Or are all of them real in different universes? That is left up to each of us to decide.

TheaterWorks has been reconfigures to move the stage more into the center of the space, with audience on all four sides. This gives each of us a slightly different perspective on the actions and characters. Above the playing area, lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg has hung starlike lights. Billy Bivona composed and plays music throughout the piece; sometimes it sounds futuristic and other times almost atonal.

The play by Nick Payne attempts to talk about individuals and options. Marianne is a quantum cosmologist while Roland is a beekeeper. It certainly gives her the opportunity to talk a great deal about chance, the importance of what we do and what we don’t do and more.  And Roland is given the opportunity — at least twice — to explain the life cycle of the members of the hive.

It’s possible to draw significance from these two professions: Marie’s dealing with the abstract and the future and Roland’s grounded in nature and reality.

It’s given to Marianne to underline some of the points Payne is trying to make: that several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously and that there is a parallel universe. She also gets into the question of free will and does it exist.

Allison Pistorius and M. Scott McLean show us how tentative each of the characters is as they approach this romance. You hope that it goes well because you like them as characters; perhaps they remind us of our own tentative efforts at connections with others and how both transitory and accidental they be. But at times you don’t understand their motivations, sometimes they seem more like puppets. Even at 75 minutes or so, I checked my watch several times.

While I still wonder if Constellations isn’t more gimmick than play, I have found myself thinking about it ever since I saw it.  So that means it has interested and stirred me.

Constellations is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Thursday, February 22. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit TheaterWorks.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and

Cho’s “Office Hour” at Long Wharf Forces Us to Confront Our Stereotypes

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Jackie Chung and Daniel Chung. Photo by T. Charles Erickson


By Karen Isaacs

 How do our perceptions shape reality? How do we connect with people who seemingly avoid human interaction?

Julia Cho is attempting to explore these ideas in Office Hour at Long Wharf Theater through Feb. 11. This co-production will head to the Berkley Repertory Theatre after its run here.

The opening is somewhat clunky – it is obviously trying to set up the plot. We see three people standing around a bar top drinking coffee. They are, we learn, all English professors who teach writing courses. Two of them are discussing a male student that each has had and who is in the third teacher’s class this semester. They and the other students find him disturbing; they are both warning his instructor this semester and asking her to do something about him.

What is so disturbing? First of all his writing; it is always about violence, torture, rape, sexual assault and more. Second his actions. He always wears a jacket with the collar turned up, a cap, and sunglasses so that his face is barely visible.  Plus, he almost never speaks.

In the next scene we see the instructor, Gina, hastily moving a table in a quite empty space. She sets up her laptop, sits down and wait, facing a glass door. The clock moves and at 4:45, she gets up to prepare to leave. At that moment, the student enters, looking just as described by the other teachers and carrying a large back pack.

It seems that she has told him that all of her students must meet with her for twenty minutes. Is this just ruse? We’re not sure and Gina gives conflicting information during the course of the meeting.

Cho intertwines the mundane meeting between instructor and student, with outbursts that at first horrify us until we realize they are fantasies. These are projections of what the instructors fear the student is will do. Let’s just say that many of them involve guns and shooting, like so many episodes we’ve seen in high schools and on college campuses.

With this play that seems to switch between the mundane and the horrific, some of Cho’s points are clear: the perception of the student (Dennis) as dangerous and a potential shooter, not only distances others from him, but leads directly to their “worst case scenario” fantasies.

But Cho is also trying to explore ethnicity and the feelings of being “the other.” Not only Dennis but Gina are Asian-Americans, who do not necessarily feel comfortable in our society. And Gina, like the other two instructors are all viewed as “temporary employees” or adjuncts; their contracts could be ended any semester for almost any reason.

Cho’s play is often successful, yet the fantasies become less effective as the play goes on even though they are ratcheted up. One can question if Gina would really share that much personal information with a student, even in an attempt to make a connection with him. It is also questionable that the male instructor, David, would display such outright hostility bordering on both racism and aggression, to this student.

Yet despite reservations about the play, the production is excellent. Director Lisa Peterson has kept the play moving, and stages the fantasy scenes for maximum impact. In that she is aided by the excellent lighting by Scott Zielinksi and the sound design by Robert Kaplowitz.

Daniel Chung has the difficult task of being mysterious – barely seen nor heard for much of the play. When he does speak it is softly and in monotone. He depends on body language to convey Dennis’ alienation. But he does manage to create some spark of sympathy for him.

Gina, played very well by Jackie Chung, imbues this teacher with the desperate need to “reach” a student. She captures the sincerity of Gina which perhaps borders on naiveté as well as her own issues.

Jeremy Kahn has a one dimensional role as David and Kerry Warren has only the one scene as the third teacher.

Office Hour may terrify you, upset you or you may view it as a only partially successful attempt to explore this issue.

For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282.



MTC Features Three Acting Couples in “Love Letters”


Chris Sarandon and Joanne Gleason

By Karen Isaacs

A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters often makes an appearance at this time of the year. It’s now at MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) in Norwalk through February 11.

The play, which premiered at Long Wharf in 1988 is an ideal Valentine’s Day show. It is only partially a love story but more about friendship and missed opportunities. It’s also easy to produce. Two actors, sit at a table and read the letters that each character wrote to the other. No blocking to learn, no props to handle, and no lines to memorize. It’s no wonder that acting couples are prone to do this show.

In fact, MTC has assembled three acting couples, one for each weekend the show runs. Each will undoubtedly bring a different perspective to the characters.

As so many Gurney plays, the characters are those well-to-do (but perhaps not wealthy), WASPs of the northeastern part of the country. We have Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner and we meet them while they are still in elementary school. Andrew has been made to write an apology to Melissa and her mother for some behavior offense. The written letters continue throughout their lifetimes, despite Melissa often proclaiming her hatred for writing letters.

We see them go from elementary school to high school (Andrew sent to a private boys school and Melissa got expelled from several girls schools) to college (Andrew goes to Yale) and then onto careers and marriage. The letters take us well into middle age.

Despite their similar backgrounds, their lives take very different paths. Melissa’s family goes through a divorce, remarriage and another divorce. There is a hint of sexual abuse. Her family may have more money than Andrew’s but it is much less stable.

While Andrew goes to law school (Harvard, of course), becomes a partner in a firm and starts a career in politics, Melissa’s life is more erratic. She is an artist, who divorces and experiments too much with alcohol, possibly drugs, and men.

Time may elapse between letters, but they continue to connect.

Was it possible for them to have a romance? Were they really true loves? Gurney leaves this open. It’s possible while loving they really weren’t suited for each other.

I saw Joanna Gleason and Chris Sarandon (Mr. & Mrs.) in the roles. Gleason’s Melissa seemed more restrained than some I’ve seen; she was quieter and sadder despite various escapades. Sarandon on the other hand let Andrew be more expressive. His ending to the play packed a big emotional punch.

This weekend (Feb. 2-4) features Beverly Ward and Kirby Ward; Feb. 9-11 stars Scott Bryce and Jodi Stevens.

Love Letters is a literate, touching play. For tickets visit MTC or call 203-454-3883.

“Feeding the Dragon” at Hartford Stage Misses Opportunities

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Sharon Washington. Photo by T.  Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 One person shows may seem easy, but are notoriously difficult. Not just in the performing but also in the creating.  And when the performer is also the creator of the piece and it is biographical, the difficulties seem to multiply. The selection of the material, the editing and the drama is complicated by the fact that it is true and the author/performer is emotionally connected to the people and events.

Both the plusses and minus of this are on display at Hartford Stage’s production of Feeding the Dragon, written and performed by Sharon Washington.

Washington’s childhood was unusual due to where her home was located: in a custodial apartment in the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on the upper west side of Manhattan. Her father was the custodian one of whose duties was to keep the old, coal operated furnace going: thus the expression “feeding the dragon.”

It was only for four years but these were obviously formative years. Unfortunately she never actually mentions how old she was during these years (1969-73) but from some of the episodes she recounts she probably was pre-teen or early teens.

In interviews, she has said that people encouraged to write her story because of the unusual location of the apartment. But certainly there is more that she wants to tell: the story of her working class African-American parents and their struggles; her sense of self as an African-American woman, and how she became an actress.

In this 90 minute play which will be heading to Off-Broadway’s Primary Stages, she is only partially successful. Leaving the theater, I was still puzzling over half told memories than left us hanging and things she never addressed at all.

She talks little about reading in the empty rooms of the Library after it had closed. But what books did she consume? How did they affect her? They obviously spurred her imagination but little is said. Did she have other adventures in the multiple rooms of the library?

The same thing happens when she tells a story about discovering some wrapped boxes in the bottom of her mother’s closet. The contents are unusual and puzzling. Later in the piece she briefly refers to it, but there is never a conclusion to the story. Why did her mother have those things? How had she gotten them? What was the significance?  I thought of multiple possibilities but would have liked to know which was true. It’s hard to believe that Washington never spoke her mother about it.

Focus is one of the problems with this piece; what is the story she’s trying to tell? It goes in several directions, but each seems unsatisfying. It’s not told from the point of view of her as a child, but it doesn’t really bring the insight of her adult self.

The ending seems like a trite summing up of platitudes.

Washington is a fine actress, but as she plays the multiple people in her story, including her mother, aunts, grandmother and others, her portrayals are good, but not great. These are people she knows well, so you expect her characters would be fuller.

The set by Tony Ferrieri is simple, but suggests a library with the high stained glass windows and the card catalogue drawers creating the steps. Ann Wrightson has done a fine job with the lighting and Maria Mileaf’s direction injects both movement and variety to it.

But at the end, I looked at the tag line on the poster “her story speaks volumes” and realized that these were very incomplete volumes. So much more should have been possible.

Feeding the Dragon is at Hartford Stage through Feb. 4. For tickets visit Hartford Stage.

John Lithgow’s “Stories By Heart” Is Acting at Its Best

John Lithgow Stories By Heart, photo by Joan Marcus_61.jpg

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 John Lithgow is one of America’s outstanding actors. He’s created numerous roles and won multiple awards, most recently an Emmy for playing Winston Churchill on “The Crown.”

His wide ranging talent is on display at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater where his one-man play, Stories by Heart is until March 4.

Go see it.

As an audience member said, “I could listen to him read his laundry list.”

A small part of the show is about his father, Arthur Lithgow who was an actor, director, artistic director and founder of various theater groups mainly in the Midwest. He founded the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (which continues to this day), worked with a group of actors who became well known, but always managed to have it end in disaster – feuds with boards of directors, financial difficulties, and more. But the family would pull up stakes, move on and start over.

Yet Stories by Heart is really Lithgow presenting two short stories to us.  The first is by Ring Lardner, “Haircut.” It is essential the thoughts and words of a small town barber, circa 1925 talking to his customer who sits silently in the chair. With no props, Lithgow recreates the old-time barbershop experience from the hot towels, to the stropping of the blade, the lather and more. He even creates wonderful sound effects. But the story which begins as a pleasant tale of small town America and one of the men of the town, slowly turns into something more. Before our eyes, we begin to realize that while the barber tells the story of this man who liked to play practical and cruel jokes on women and weaker men, rather than feeling disgust at his antics, sees nothing wrong in them. It becoming chilling to realize that he is complicit in the casual cruelty.

Lithgow gets it all right – the body language, the accent and more. He seems transformed; I began to picture him as this round-faced, medium sized, bald man with the white jacket. That is talent.

In the second half, he talks about his father’s last years and how, when his father was recovering from surgery and seemed to have given up, Lithgow stayed with his parents for several months, caring for them. He tells of finding the thick book of short stories from which his father had read to him and siblings, and his decision to reverse it: he would read to his parents.

It was with delight that he found parents chose the same light story that he and his siblings had loved: P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”. This silly comic story about a man whose uncle (Fred) always gets them into various pickles is a laugh fest. Here Lithgow gives us multiple characters from Uncle Fred, to the nephew, to the nephew’s friend and others.

Again he is marvelous. He does so much with his voice, his eyes, his gestures his posture. We see the characters and we laugh at the ridiculous situations they find themselves in, all due to Uncle Fred.

This two hour production is delight for anyone who enjoys seeing talented actors demonstrate their skills.

For tickets, visit Roundabout Theatre.Lithgow poster.jpg

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