Category Archives: Reviews

Dion’s Musical Biography at Seven Angels Theatre Shows All the Warts

rock n roll redemption. 2JPG

Photo by Paul Roth.

By Karen Isaacs

 If you grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s you undoubtedly listened and danced to songs by Dion and the Belmonts. Later it was just Dion alone.

Dion DiMucci, who grew up in the Bronx, has written a musical with Charles Messina focusing on his early career. Seven Angels Theatre is presenting Rock ‘n Roll Redemption – The Story and The Music of Dion DiMucci through June 17.

If you expect this to be just another Jersey Boys, you may be disappointed. For Dion has not glossed over his warts. It may surprise some of you to know that he was almost on the plane that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens. He was touring with the group and would have been on the small chartered plane instead of Valens except he would not spend the $36, his share of the cost.

The play opens with this and from there goes back to his teenage years in the Belmont section of the Bronx. His father was a failed entertainer – he used marionettes – and tried to rule the unruly Dion with an iron hand that did not work. Early in his teenage years, we see that Dion is shooting up with heroin – an addiction that he doesn’t sugarcoat in the story.

This is also a story of the artist fighting “the establishment” to fulfill his own vision. Here, Dion battles his father and his producers, Gene and Bob Schwartz to include his guitar in his recordings. Their philosophy is give the people what they expect and want; if it isn’t broke don’t fix it.

But of course, eventually it does get broke – his records don’t sell – and he does move into a different phase in his music.

Interwoven is the story of his romance with Susan Butterfield whom he married and is still married to today. She is the typical understanding and supportive wife though she is sorely tested by his heroin addiction.

The latter may distress some audience members who want their teen memories to be as clean as they remember them.

The show doesn’t cover Dion’s later career as a Christian singer, then his return to rock ‘n’ roll which continues to this day.

Director Semina De Laurentis, Janine Molinari (musical staging) and Brent C. Mauldin (music director/arranger) have done a good job with this rather episodic piece.

They have assembled a cast that can play a variety of roles and convincingly sing the ‘50s doo-wop music.

As Dion, Matthew Dailey (who has appeared in Jersey Boys) brings out the anger and resistance to authority in the character. He also handles the music expertly. Anna Laura Strider is perky and supportive as Susan and JP Sarro is arrogant and a know-it-all as Dion’s father.

The biggest part of the show is the music – the songs that Dion wrote (“Donna The Prima Donna,” “Runaround Sue,” “Sweet Surrender” and more) – plus the songs that he recorded as well as those recorded by others. Thus we get songs from Holly, the Big Bopper and Valens as well as “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Teenager in Love,” “I Wonder Why” and “The Wanderer.” The show ends with his 1967 recording of “Abraham, Martin & John.”

The humor is supplied by John Little and Joel Robertson as the Schwartz brothers, his producers. They have a recurring shtick of one interrupting and going on and on and on to the other’s annoyance.

If this is the music that you grew up with or love, you will enjoy Rock ‘n’ Roll Redemption: the Story and The Music of Dion DiMucci.

 For tickets, contact Seven Angels Theatre. or call 203-757-4676.

Josh Henry Shines in “Carousel”

Carousel

Josh Henry. Photo by Juleta Cervantes

By Karen Isaacs

 Josh Henry is well known among Broadway aficionados, but after his stunning portrayal of Billy Bigelow in the revival of Carrousel his name should become known to a much wider audience.

Henry is so dominating in the role that multiple Tony winner Jessie Mueller seems to slide into the background as Julie Jordan. It doesn’t help Mueller that Renée Fleming as Nettie and Lindsay Mendez as Carrie Pipperidge shine so brightly.

Jack O’Brien has directed this revival with choreography by Justin Peck.

Carousel the second of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, has a problem for today’s audiences: namely that not only does Billy seem to verbally abuse Julie, but there is physical abuse. Late in the second act, she seems to defend it. O’Brien has handled that problem very well; you cannot eliminate some indication of physical abuse, but it is minimized and the lines which Julie speaks that seems to condone it are removed.

If you are one of the few who have never seen the show or the movie, it is based on a play, Lilliom by Ferenc Molnár. Rodgers and Hammerstein moved the show to the late 19th century Maine coast. Billy Bigelow is a handsome carnival barker whom the girls flock around. In this factory town, where many girls work at the mill under the strict rules of the owners, Julie and her friend Carrie have visited the carousel several times and Julie has noticed Billy.

One evening they actually talk and she willing stays with him which will mean losing her job since she will be locked out of the company owned boarding house. They quickly fall in love. Carrie is also in love but with a more reliable and steady, though perhaps boring Mr. Snow who plans on becoming the owner of a fleet of fishing boats and sardine cannery.

Marriage does not suit Billy; he’s fired from his job because his boss, Mrs. Mullin, wants him for herself and also doesn’t think the girls will be attracted to a married barker. He can’t find work, Julie’s devotion, understanding and love grates on his nerves. When Jigger, a sailor friend with a criminal past suggests holding up the ship owner when he delivers salaries to the captain, Billy decides to go along: Julie has just announced that a baby is on the way.

Overall, this is a straightforward revival of the play with two exceptions. One I’ve already mentioned; the lines where Louise (Billly and Julie’s daughter)  says that she was hit but it didn’t hurt; it felt like a kiss and Julie’s lines “It is possible, dear – fer someone to hit you – hit you hard – and not hurt at all” have been eliminated. Even Billy’s slap seems almost like a tap though the audience gasped.

But the second change is more problematic. The Starkeeper is a character that Billy meets in heaven. In this production, the Starkeeper, played by the fine actor John Douglas Thompson, shows up through the play. He is seen in the very beginning, later when Billy and Jigger are planning the robbery, he sits between them on the park bench. Unless you know how he is, you may very puzzled by what he is doing in these scenes; in fact even if you know the character, you may wonder why O’Brien has him appear so often.

Josh Henry is the standout performer in this show. His Billy is physically imposing and his voice is also. You can see why the young girls at the mill would be so interested in him. This makes it harder to understand his attraction to Julie as played by Mueller. She must have spunk to defy the conventions of the time and to risk her job to stay with him, but it doesn’t come across. She seems an unequal partner in this relationship.

As Carrie Pipperidge Lindsay Mendez scores with the numbers, particularly “Mister Snow.” You can overlook that at times she looks too old for the young Carrie and that the humor is sometimes too broad, at least she grabs your interest. Alexander Gemignani makes a fine Mister Snow; sure of himself and later on both pompous and uncharitable. The duets with Carrie are lovely.

Renée Fleming is a younger Nettie Fowler than we usual see in productions of Carousel. But that brings a vitality to the role and, of course, her voice is well suited for her big numbers, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,”

Amar Ramasar is menacing as Jigger, but the role has also been given more dancing by choreographer Justin Peck, so Jigger becomes more of a presence.

Peck’s choreography has wonderful moments – the ballet is excellent – but at other times the moves seem to have no relationship to the location of the show or the characters.

Outstanding elemente of the production are the scenic design including projections by Santa Loquasto and the lighting by Brian MacDevitt.

Carousel is always a musical that many will find emotional, almost a tear-jerker. In this production it is hard not to succumb to these feelings. Not only is the plot designed to do that but the last two songs, reprises of “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” emphasizes the romance and the tragedy of the story.

Carousel is at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

Carousel

Photo by Juleta Cervantes

 

 

Goodspeed’s Will Rogers Follies Entertaining though Flawed

Will Rogers Follies

David M. Lutken. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Will Rogers is a name that may be unknown to many, but he was one of the first political satirist in American media. A genuine cowboy from Oklahoma, he rose from doing roping tricks in vaudeville to starring in the Ziegfeld Follies and moving to Hollywood for films and a radio show. His folksy demeanor let him get away with skewering all political elements.

The Will Rogers Follies – A Life in Review­­ – now at Goodspeed through Sunday, June 21 gives us his life as if Ziegfeld himself was presenting it.

Though the show won multiple Tony awards including Best Musical in 1991, no one would say this is a perfect or great show. It is blessed with a delightful score by Cy Coleman (music) and Betty Comden & Adolph Green (lyrics).

The book by Peter Stone has some problems and it is incumbent on the director, in this case Don Stephenson, to draw attention away from the weak parts. Unfortunately Stephenson does not really succeed in the first act.

The opening is dynamite; we are at the Ziegfeld Follies and see two big production number, “Let’s Go Flying” and “Will-a-Mania.” These reflect Rogers’ championing of air travel and his enormous popularity. But when Rogers enters, things slow down. We get too much exposition even though there are two more numbers, “Never Met a Man” which is based on Roger’s statement that he never met a man he didn’t like and “Give a Man Enough Rope.”

From there we get more exposition about his birth – which delights his father who already has six girls, his desire to go to Argentina as a cowboy, his return and his meeting of Betty. From there it is on to vaudeville working his way up the ladder until he gets an offer from Ziegfeld. His act is doing some rope tricks and chatting with the audience. He developed the habit – done in this production – of reading the daily newspaper and making satiric comments on many of the political doings.

Betty and he marry, but Ziegfeld, who is a disembodied authoritarian voice (James Naughton) at times during the show postpones the actual wedding because in his Follies, the wedding always ends the act.

Act two continues the arc of Rogers’ increasing popularity. He goes to Hollywood to make films, has a popular radio show, writes a daily newspaper column and appears seemingly everywhere. Betty is not happy about his constant working and absences; but this is hardly a major problem. The show ends with the death of Rogers in 1935 while flying with well-known aviator Wiley Post in Alaska.

What makes this show enjoyable are not always the elements that relate most directly to Rogers’ life: the multiple numbers staged as Ziegfeld Follies numbers, and the constant presence of an attractive female character named “Ziegfeld’s Favorite” who introduces scenes and numbers. What doesn’t work is the running gag about Wiley Post – he pops frequently saying “Let’s go flying” with Rogers responding “Not yet.”

These disparate elements – Will Rogers’ rather normal life despite his fame (no divorces, no substance abuse, apparently no diva personality) with the extravagance of the Follies – are not always a match made in heaven.

Yet, The Will Rogers Follies has so many positive elements that at least in the second act, you can overlook its flaws.

David M. Lutken as Rogers will slowly get into your heart. He gives us the down home style (perhaps you can think of Andy Griffith or Jim Nabors), while singing very well and doing rope tricks. He even plays the guitar. Anyone who doesn’t like him has a stone heart.

Another standout is Brooke Lacy as Ziegfeld’s favorite. She isn’t just a showgirl parading around. Lacy gives her a personality using a smile and a wink. Plus she also sings, dances and does a few rope tricks of her own.

David Garrison also stands out as Clem Rogers and a variety of other characters. Each time, he not only gets our attention but gets a laugh. Although Garrison is an established musical performer, he only gets two numbers – “It’s a Boy” when Rogers in born and a reprise of “Will-a-mania” toward the end. Each scores.

Catherine Walker, another established musical performer, does as much as she can with the role of Roger’s wife, Betty. The character is very stereotypical – loyal wife and mother with little growth or dimension. But with her lovely soprano voice, she is effective in “My Unknown Someone” and “No Man Left for Me.”

Ilona Somogyi must have had a blast creating the many costumes reminiscent of the Follies. They were terrific. Walt Spangler has created a set that can change from the Follies stage to a farmhouse. Jay Hilton’s sound design works very well; in this show the orchestra is hidden under the stage.

Kelli Barclay’s choreography manages to combine the show dancing with more folksy elements, and vaudevillian dancing.

No one would claim that The Will Rogers Follies – a Life in Revue—is one of the great musicals of all times. The Goodspeed production gives us moments of pure delight but at other times fails at masking the show’s essential flaws.

Yet, it is still an enjoyable and tuneful evening with splendid production values and some excellent performances.

For tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06

 

Is it farce? Melodrama? Reality TV? Kiss at Yale Rep Tries to Be All Things

KISS

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 During the first part of Kiss now at the Yale Rep through Saturday, May 19, you think you know what type of play this is: a melodramatic romantic comedy with some satire thrown into it.

But you will quickly realize it is more than just that. Guillermo Calderón has written a play that touches on so many fascinating topics including the interaction between playwright and cast, interpretation and cultural understandings. At a time, when the theatrical world is concerned with appropriate casting in terms of identity and representation and other groups in society are discussing cultural appropriation, this play seems to reflect these concerns.

It would be nice to say that Calderón has succeeded in illuminating these difficult topics; but he has merely touched the surface. Calderón is a Chilean playwright setting the work in war torn Syria and writing in English for the first time.

The play opens on a living set (nicely designed Ao Li) with an attractive 30ish woman (Hadeel) fliting around. The doorbell sounds; it is Youssif who has arrived early which unnerves Hadeel; the polite conversation soon turns to romance. Yousif announces he is love with her, and after some sparring, she acknowledges a mutual attraction. The problem is that she involved with someone who will soon be there. When Ahmed arrives, there are some farcical elements as he is planning on proposing. Soon another friend (Bana) who works at a TV station arrives late; she announces that she has kissed someone.

The scene ends having moved from farce to drama and very confused about Hadeel’s actual feelings.

But while you are wondering what comes next, the woman playing Bana arrives on stage. We now learn that what we had just seen was American actors playing these parts in a new play. So we have left Syria in 2014 and are now in the present (sort of). Laurel who played the part of Bana tells us how they found the play and tracked down the playwright. They are about to have skype interview with her. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the actors by the names of the Syrian characters they play; those are the ones listed in the program, though each actor has a real name as well.

During the course of the interview, the woman (is she really the playwright?) lets the cast know that they have missed a great deal of the significance of the play. In war torn Damascus, words don’t often mean what you think they do; she tells them that some of the words are code for other things associated with the chaos of the war. She points out that her stage directions reflect the consequences of some of these events.

In the final part of the play, we see the events from the earlier version played out by the cast with this new information.

So does it work? Not totally though it is not the fault of the cast. While some of the choices made by Calderón can be understood, particularly if you read the program notes, they still don’t work with the audience. The language is awkward and some phrases are off-putting. Instead of focusing on the totality, the audience is apt to focus on some these phrases and think they are weird.

During the interview, we get to see the real personalities of the actors from the obviously egotistical Ahmed (Ian Lassiter) to the removed Hadeel. Some of the questions they ask are good and others are self-serving. It is clear that Ahmed is only concerned with his part.

Evan Yionoulis directed this piece; her final production at Yale Rep before taking a new position at Juilliard. The challenge this play poses is not only the often awkward English but the combination of genres. The first part swings from farce to drama with an Albee influence. The interview attempts realism and the final part is played as pure melodrama. This confusion of styles has you feeling as though you are seeing three separate plays.

The melodramatic last part misses the mark. It would be interesting to see how the actors adjust their performances based on the new information the playwright has given them. But it is not clear what they have done; it has just become an exaggerated mess. We cease caring about the situation or the characters or even the awful consequences of the war in Syria.

The many references in the play to Syrian television melodramas is obviously intended to inform our approach to the work, particularly the last part. The four are gathering to watch a melodrama miniseries on TV, Bana is apparently an actress in one and the dialogue makes numerous references. In the notes, we learn that these, called musalsalaat, are not just soap operas but include satirical sketch comedy, thrillers and much more.

The actors do an excellent job with the challenges of playing two characters and two different approaches to the same situation. Ian Lassiter as Ahmed (the boyfriend) was particularly good.

How you react to this 90 minute piece may depend on how willing you accept it on its own terms. Several theater knowledgeable friends said they “hated it” – I found elements of it fascinating and the questions hinted at interesting. I look forward to a play that will address these issues in a more profound way.

Kiss is at Yale Rep through Saturday, May 19. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

KISS

Photo by Joan Marcus

 

“Admissions” Skims the Surface of Important Issues

admissions posterBy Karen Isaacs

 Admissions, the new play by Joshua Harmon,, the author of Bad Jews and Significant Other, attempts to deal with an interesting subject. How do those individuals who support and promote diversity handle the results of their support when it impacts them personally? Or the even larger question, what happens when a social movement you support is going to be detrimental to you or someone you love?

In Admissions which played on LIncoln Center’s Mitizi Newhouse Theatre, we have parents, both private educators (he’s the headmaster and she is the admissions director) who support the idea of diversity. She has worked tirelessly to increase the minority population; the school is now nearing 15 percent). Their son, Charlie, is a senior and in the fall of his senior year, the early decision letters arrive. To his and their dismay, he did get early acceptance to Yale. His good friend who is biracial did get accepted.

Charlie is upset. He has already had a disappointment during the fall. He was in line to be named editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, but the person in charge selected a minority girl for the position.

In act one, Charlie rails against the idea that his opportunities are limited because past discrimination occurred. Why should he suffer for the faults of others?  It is a long rant. His mother, Sherri, is disappointed in what has occurred. She also feels it is unfair. Charlie is convinced that his friend was not as worthy a candidate for early acceptance as he was; that his biracial status was what the difference.

The father, Bill, views his son’s statements as reflecting “sniveling drivel” and tells him, in effect, “that’s the way the world works. Get over it.”

As the play progresses, the issue evolves but don’t really move forward.

Charlie has a complete change of attitude and heart, which may be indicative of the volatility of the opinions and views of an 18-year-old. His new decision puts his parents in an even more uncomfortable position: do they go along with what they feel is a self-destructive, immature choice or force him to agree to their desires?

Along the way, Sherri has to deal with the friend’s mother (Roberta) – who, when she learns that Charlie feels her son was accepted only because of race, is very upset.

In addition, we have Sherri dealing with an older woman, Ginnie, who works in the Development office and who is responsible for publication of the school promotional materials.

Harmon attempts to raise some interesting issues, particularly in the setting of the elite prep school. What is meant by diversity? It seems that Sherri is focusing exclusively on race/ethnicity and ignoring economic diversity. She is counting among her “diverse” successes, the son of a South American ambassador, the daughter of wealthy parents in India, and a son of wealthy Arab parents. While these students may represent ethnic diversity, they all come from backgrounds of privilege.

One of the funniest parts of the play is when Sherri is talking with Ginnie about the photos in the upcoming publication. She is telling Ginnie that the photos should reflect this new diversity, but then complains that one of the students who does represent diversity, doesn’t look like he does. Ginnie is obviously confused.

Harmon is trying to point out some of the absurdities that become part of the debate and the process. For those in academic settings, the whole thing seems contrived and unrealistic.

Director Daniel Aukin has made it has realistic as possible, with the help of an excellent cast.  Ben Edelman plays the volatile teenager with total commitment. Whether he is ranting against the injustice of using ethnicity as a determining or the opposite side that he must pay for the past injustices, he is totally convinced.

Jessica Hecht is fine as Sherri, who seems so proud of her achievements and doesn’t recognize the hypocrisy in her “mother bear” attitude about the effect on her son. Andrew Garman is good as the father who has little patience for his son’s rants.

Sally Murphy is the older, befuddled Ginnie. She doesn’t quite get what all the fuss is about and is totally confused by Sherri’s seemingly contradictory demands.

Harmon has promise as a playwright though I’ve found his previous works, Bad Jews and Significant Other, too often go for the obvious when much more could be explored.

 

Intimate Space Adds Emotional Impact to MTC’s Fine Production of “Fun Home”

funhomeBy Karen Isaacs

 Fun Home won the Tony for best musical in 2015. The Music Theater of Connecticut (MTC) is one of the first regional theaters to be given the rights to produce the show. The resulting production that runs through May 6 is excellent. Once again, artistic director Kevin Connor has done an excellent job both casting and directing this show.

In fact, the small stage with performers just feet from you, adds to the emotional impact of this show about a father, a daughter and family where secrets are often buried well below the surface.

The musical is based on a graphic novel of the same by Alison Bechdel that recounts stories from her childhood and her discovery of both herself and family secrets.

We see various episodes in the life of this typical American family – which was anything but typical. The adult Alison narrates and comments while we see “small Alison” as a child of about 8 or 10 and “Middle Alison” as a freshman in college.

The Dad, well played by Greg Roderick, is a high school English teacher who has restored their home to historic perfection and also runs the family business, a funeral home which in the family is referred to as “Fun Home.”  But he is a demanding parent who seems to easily fly off the handle if things aren’t “perfect” or done his way. Quickly you sense that the relationship with his wife strained. So we see various episodes – the Dad (Bruce) showing the house proudly to a woman from the Historic Society, shaming “Small Alison” into wearing a dress to a party, berating “Middle Alison” for her literary opinions and more.

The story is told in a non-chronological fashion so we skip around in time; this sometimes makes it difficult to know exactly when something occurs. It seems to begin in 1975 or 76 and ends before 1990.

But though we know the ending at the start, we also begin to get many hints of how it all came about. Alison is writing the novel to try to understand both herself and her father.

In college “Middle Alison” realizes that she is a lesbian, and always has been. At the same time, Bruce’s life is unraveling; his is gay and has acted upon many times sometimes with boys under the age of consent.

Yet, while at times Fun Home can be confusing, it is also moving. Jeanine Tesorii who wrote the music and Lisa Kron who wrote the book and lyrics have created characters that you care about and that you can recognize.

The three actors playing Alison at different ages are all terrific: Caitlyn Kops as “Small Alison,” Megan O’Callaghan as “Medium Alison” and Amy Griffin as Alison, who also serves as the narrator.

Greg Roderick shows us all of the dimension of Bruce, the father. Raissa Katona Bennett has the less developed role of the mother, Helen. She handles the contradictions in the character well. The role is less central to the story and depends more on non-verbal than lines. Anthony Crouchelli plays a variety of young men who seem almost interchangeable.  Abby Root plays “Middle Alison’s” girlfriend.

The program does not list the individual songs. Several stand out despite that. The young Alison and her brothers do a terrific mock TV commercial for the funeral home, “Come to the Fun Home.” Bruce’s final song, “Edges of the World” is also moving. “Ring of Keys” is also excellent—sung by both Alison and “Small Alison” it talks about seeing a female delivery driver at a diner and admiring her.

Director O’Connor has done an excellent job. While the small thrust stage bring intimacy, it also forces more than half the audience to crane their necks to see some of the playing areas. Alison’s drawing table is closest to the audience. But at the back of the stage the far right is the funeral home set and on the far left an area that represents several areas, including “Middle Alison’s” dorm room, a NYC hotel room and more. For those siting on the sides, these can be hard to always see and I’m sure that at times some of the people at the front of the stage may be blocked by Alison at her drawing table.

But that is small prices to pay for the emotional impact that the intimate theater gives to this space. Those who may be uncomfortable with this type of non-traditional family may be jarred by this story.

But the rest of us, will come away with a sense of loss. The price that many paid because our society could not accept the reality of sexuality.

For tickets visit MTC or call 203-454-3883.

fun home

“Second Chance” at Seven Angels Is Unexpected Fun

By Karen Isaacs

 Seven Angels Theatre is presenting the Second Chance, a lightweight piece by comedy writer Mike Vogel through April 29 that is geared for baby-boomers and their children.

Jack, is a 77-year-old widower living alone in a NYC apartment. His son, Larry, is concerned about several recent incidents that point to Jack not really being safe living alone. He has left the stove on several times, not taken medications for his angina, and just attacked a grocery delivery person.

Larry has found an assisted living place that has room for Jack; after some disagreements and an arm wrestling contest, Jack agrees to try it for a week.

Once there, he is pleased to learn that there are four women for every man. In fact, Violet, a 70-year old resident is soon in his room, being very friendly. Things are looking up. He also meet Chet, another resident who wants the women, particularly the “young ones” to himself; he evidently means Malka, an attractive younger woman who is on the staff. Malka will give shoulder massages, etc. and seems to like to flirt. She is a single mother from Eastern Europe.

Can you predict what will happen?  You may think you can, but Vogel has avoided the expected at least some of the time. It’s one of the reasons that the play is so enjoyable.

Soon Jack is dancing up a storm and making out with Violet to the despair of the unseen Blanche, another resident. While Chet may not like someone moving in on his territory, he can accept Violet preferring Jack.  But when Jack becomes friendly with Malka, (Jack,a former teacher, helps her son who is 8), Chet is enraged.

Larry is happy his dad is fine; after all he is paying $5,000 a month for it. Yet the talk of sex and Viagra is a little disconcerting to him Jack is also pushing Larry to “find a nice girl,” yet also asks him if he is gay.

Son and Dad have some baggage. Larry views Jack as having been a distant, unloving parent. Jack admits that while he was devoted and faithful to his wife, soon into the marriage, he had realized it was a mistake.

In addition, the facility has been sold and conditions are deteriorating. While Jack may briefly entertain the idea of Malka, he realizes he is too old for her. She “needs a nice man.” His relationship with Violet also goes through many ups and downs.

This may not be Neil Simon, but Vogel has given us a well-rounded portrait of an aging man who must confront his current condition, the reality of how he lived his life and hurt both his son and himself, and his fear of both change and the future.

Paul D’Amato does an excellent job in filling in all the dimensions of Jack. Marina Re who played Violet in last year’s off-Broadway production is adept at giving us more than just Violet’s surface aggressiveness. While not thoroughly dealt with in the play – a failing of it – she lets know that beneath the brash and apparently happy surface, there is some residual deep hurts and regrets. Amanda Kirstin Nichols, who also was in the NYC production, plays Malka. This is a difficult role, for you are never sure of her motivations: is she a gold-digger? Just a “nice” person? Or what? Nichols does the best she can with the role that seems so central but so sketchy.

It’s nice to see Warren Kelly back on the stage in Connecticut as Chet — the cock of the walk who is not happy at Jack moving in on his territory. Again the role is surface and there is little for Kelly to work with in terms of showing us more about Chet.

Larry, the son, is played well by Jack Lafferty. He is restrained and contained but you can guess that there is deep emotions underneath it all.

Director Russell Treyz has done a good job at keeping the plot moving and letting the laughs land.

It may not be a great play but Vogel’s use of the unexpected and the fine cast, make it enjoyable entertainment.

For tickets, contact Seven Angels Theatreor call 203-757-4676.

Playhouse on Park’s Presenting Good Production of the Frustrating “The Revisionist”

The Revisionist-5_edited

Carl Howell and Cecelia Riddett. Photo by Kurt Henderson

 

By Karen Isaacs

 The Revisionist by Jesse Eisenberg is a frustrating play though Playhouse on Park is giving us a good production of this puzzling work through April 29.

It seems so promising; a young writer in the midst of a writer’s block and deadline pressure visits an elderly cousin in Poland whom he has never really met and knows little about. How will they change? What will the young man learn?

That wee leave with almost same the questions, is the frustrating part.

The play opens with Maria (played beautifully by Cecelia Riddett) watching CNN on her television in her apartment in Poland. The doorbells rings, and standing there is David, an American cousin in his late 20s. The relationship does not start smoothly; she seems upset he is late (his plane was delayed), he is annoyed that she keeps talking while he wants to put down his bags (why doesn’t he), and when she offers him the food she kept warm, he declares he doesn’t eat chicken, that he is a vegetarian.

Once we see him in the room, we can deduce that he has some sort of drugs (crack?) in his luggage hidden in a sock and that he is opening the window to be able to smoke it. He immediately comes across as both immature and somewhat of a jerk.

The play continues through the next 5 days or so; however, the relationship does not seem to improve. Maria wants to show him around the city (Szczecin) and spend time with him. He pleads deadline pressure; his book was due six weeks ago and his publisher wants revisions. But in reality, he appears to spend most the time sleeping, playing computer games and getting high.

Maria is amazed he doesn’t know all about his extended family; she does and has photos of them all throughout the apartment. She tries tell him about them, names, ages, professions, children and more. He is amazed that his grandfather calls her most Sundays.

When he initially does as a question about her experiences in WWII (the family is Jewish), she is very flustered but later on tells the story.

In a sense, this is a story of people revising their lives. David does it initially when he projects himself as a successful author of a young adult novel, but the truth is that he is not that good and is having a major writing block/crisis.

Maria is more substantially revising the story of life in ways that become clear as the play progresses. A widow who has no children, she lives vicariously through the lives of these American relatives, almost all of whom she has never met.

Even, Zenon the fortyish taxi driver who does errands for Maria is revising his life. His mother died and he has transferred one of their rituals to Maria. It is unclear why this particular ritual was created; it is just odd enough that you keep expecting it to have meaning.

The telephone keeps ringing in the apartment, and Maria always answers, speaks for a minute or so in Polish and then hangs up. She says these are solicitors for phony charities for blind people, but you begin to wonder if that is so. It infuriates David because it often interrupts conversations or disturbs him. He keeps urging her not to answer. Yet there is no real resolution to this. Are they really solicitations?  Or is the whole routine, just a ploy to set up the ending?

What could have been an interesting intergenerational story and a probing of how people survived WWII becomes instead just another superficial story.

Emily Nichols has created a set that includes all the rooms in the apartment – the kitchen, living room, David’s bedroom and the hallway. It allows you to see everything that is going on.

This plays lives and dies on the performances – off-Broadway it was Vanessa Redgrave as Maria and the author (who is a well-known actor) as David. Here the actors may be less well known but they bring commitment to their characters. Cecelia Riddett brings a dignity to Maria that, despite some of her more annoying characteristics, lets you understand her and empathize. She also maintains an accent that to my untutored ear, seems authentic as does her Polish. Carl Howell has the difficult task of trying to help us understand David as more than just a free-loading, self-absorbed jerk. That he succeeds as much as he does, is a credit to his performance. Sebastian Buczyk plays Zenon, the taxi driver/friend. This is a less developed role that Buczyk does as much with as he can.

Director Sasha Bratt has done a good job in both keeping the playing moving, getting the laughs (there are some) and helping the performers find nuggets of truth in their characters.

For tickets to The Revisionist, call 860-523-5900 or visit Playhouse on Park.

Broadway Revival of “Angels in America” Features Outstanding Performances

By Karen Isaacs

 Spectacular acting and fine direction combine in the current production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. It is thrilling to see the entire cast on such a high level in this emotional moving and thought provoking epic play.

 Angels in America is one of the major theatrical events on Broadway this Spring. The highly acclaimed National Theatre Production is here for a limited run through June. Tickets are difficult to get.

The two parts Millennium Approaches and Perestrokia make for a marathon of theater going (well over 7 hours) but you will leave the theater dazed by what you have seen and heard. You may not find all of it meaningful.

Kushner subtitled the play: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and it is just that and more. During the course of the play, we follow the early years of the AIDs crises, but we also are plunged into religious and philosophical debates about values, fantasies, God, responsibility on so much more.

A variety of characters are interlinked in multiple ways. We have Joseph Pitt and his wife Harper; she’s mentally unstable and he is a conservative rising young lawyer being touted for a Justice Department position in Reagan years (1985). But he is also becoming increasingly aware that he is a homosexual.

Then there is Louis, a clerk in the government office where Joe works now, and Louis’ lover Prior Walter. Prior – the name comes from a long family history- he says he is the 33rd of that name – is showing early signs of HIV.

Finally, there is Roy Cohn – the lawyer/behind-the-scenes manipulator who came to prominence in the 1950’s Sen. Joseph McCarthy hearings and who made a career of ruthlessness and influential friends. He is Joe’s mentor and pushing him to take the Justice Department job, because he needs a friend there. He feels the raptors are circling. Cohn – though he fervently denied it – was a homosexual well known on the NYC party scene of the period. During Part I, he also is diagnosed with HIV.

But just enumerating these characters and their interconnections gives you only the vaguest idea of the scope of this work.

You may be surprised at the humor, particularly in part 1. Such serious subjects yet so much laughter.

Many of the characters have visions or hallucinations. Harper is convinced there is a man in the bedroom and has other visions. She believes in angels. Prior, as he get sicker and on medication, also increasingly has visions of his ancestors (one killed by the medieval pestilence and one from the later Black plague), but also of an angel that seems terrifying.

In Part 2, the hallucinations increase as both Prior and Cohn become sicker, Joe acts on his impulses, and Cohn is hospitalized and his ethical lapses catch up with him.

Each play is broken into three acts with two intermissions.

Interestingly, each play begins with what seems like a non-sequitur. Part 1 begins with an elderly rabbi officiating at the funeral of an elderly woman whom he admits he knows nothing about. The woman, we learn, is Louis’ grandmother.  Likewise, Part 2 begins with a speech by an elderly Russian soldier at a political rally. We then plunge back to the US and the deteriorating health (both physical and mental) of many of the characters. Remember, perestroika was the term used during the Mikhail Gorbachev era for the reformation of the communist party from within.

Just this alone can keep you pondering for hours. Is Kuhner talking about the reformation of America who he seems to feel has lost its way?

Director Marianne Elliott has made some choices that are problematic, particularly the Angel that is so central to the symbolism of the piece. This angel does not look typically angelic. Instead The Angel looks more like a combination of an avenging Angel and a harpy. She doesn’t have gossamer wings. Her wings are dark and look more like bird wings or even the skeleton of wings of prehistoric creatures. They are held and manipulated by cast members.

But central to the success of this play is the performance. Here we are blessed. Nathan Lane gives us a Cohn who is manipulative, ruthless and also, in a strange way, powerless as his downfall both politically and physically takes place. At times, against your better judgment, you even can feel pity for him.

Andrew Garfield is equal to the task of Prior Walter, the man at the center of play. His nuanced performance catches us by the throat; however, James McArdle as his partner Louis, doesn’t quite match his intensity.

The role of Joseph Pitt is a tough one – he is by turns likeable and dislikeable, easy to feel pity for yet also easy to distrust. Lee Pace brought out all the facets in this role. It is a very fine performance.

Women don’t play a major role in this work with the exception Pitt’s wife Harper played by Denise Gough. It’s a good performance of a woman teetering on the brink of a severe mental condition. Susan Brown plays a variety of roles including the Rabbi who opens Part I and the Old Russian soldier who opens part 2 and as Joe Pitt’s mother. She is effective in all of them.

Angels in America is a must see for theater lovers. Afterwards you may debate whether this work lives up to its reputation. If it doesn’t, it is not the fault of this production.

It is at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. For tickets visit ticketmaster.

Boyd Gaines Shines in Hartford Stage’s “Age of Innocence”

By Karen Isaacs

 Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage through May 6 is a stunning production. Yet, just like the characters, it is at times so controlled that real emotion is difficult to find.

Douglas McGrath has taken Edith Wharton’s novel of constricted high society in New York City in the 1870s and condensed it to 100 minutes. By focusing on specific scenes with little connection between them, at times it feels episodic and lacks flow. It also seems more difficult for the actors to develop their characters fully. It is like you are “dropping in” for a few minutes before leaving.

In some ways he and director Doug Hughes have tried to solve the problem with “the Old Gentleman” who serves as a narrator.  He is actually the older version of the hero of the play.

Newland Archer is a young lawyer from a family well connected and a member of  New York “high society”, what was sometimes known as “the 400.” He is engaged to be married to May Welland, the very conventional daughter of another wealthy society family. But before the marriage can take place – May insists on a year’s engagement – he meets her unconventional cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska who has returned to the City after leaving her husband and perhaps having a dalliance. All of society is horrified by her rejection of their rules and expectations, trying to ostracize her until one of the most prominent families declares that they can’t turn their backs on “one of their own.” Newland finds her both exciting and interesting as he meets her and later is assigned some legal work for her. Yet he goes through with the marriage to May which turns out to be as routine, predictable and dull as he had realized during the engagement. New things, new experiences, doing something different are all anathema to May.

With the Countess still in New York, the two are thrown together often both socially and because of the legal complications of her life. The relationship develops and both acknowledge their mutual attraction. He has even decided to run away with the Countess, who is returning to Europe (but not her husband) before May thwarts it.

The picture of society that Wharton and McGrath paint is damming. These are people who live by a strict set of rules that they have created about how one should behave, what is moral or not, and what is proper. They do not hesitate to ostracize any who violate them in even the slightest way, while viewing themselves as superior to all others, as shown by their causal prejudice and bigotry. They are snobs of the worst type.

That’s what makes most the characters so problematic; they lack any empathy or compassion, are smug in their certainty of their beliefs and feel they are the true leaders of not only society but also the country, or they should be.

So much of this production is excellent. The setting by John Lee Beatty is outstanding. It looks like a glass enclosed conservatory from the Victorian era replete with crystal chandeliers. It recalls a greenhouse or hot house where rare blooms are cultivated protected from any outside elements. A perfect metaphor for the society.

Add to that exquisite Victorian costumes by Linda Cho complete with bustles, boning and trains. No wonder the ladies had “the vapors” – they couldn’t take a deep breath. Add to that Ben Stanton’s fine lighting design.

Hughes makes good use of the piano at the back of the set; Yan Li is at the keyboard to provide background music – some of it recognizable and other parts written by Mark Bennet who also did the sound design. It is a perfect touch.

Boyd Gaines is magnificent as “the old gentleman.” He injects some humor as he mocks his younger self, empathy for the characters, and helps us understand these people. When he exits the stage, it hard not to feel pity for him and want to reach out to him.

Sierra Boggess plays the flamboyant countess who may be unconventional but seems to have the most developed sense of conscience and of proper behavior than any of the others. It’s a showy role and Boggess makes the most of it.

Andrew Veenstra plays Newland Archer, the very proper and conflicted young lawyer. Due to the unconnected short scenes, he has difficulty letting us really know this contradictory young man who begins to want to rebel against the expectations of the society.

Helen Cespedes plays Mae. She gives us hint that Mae has more cunning and awareness than we might think. It’s a difficult and unsympathetic role as she is so unwilling to break any convention.

Director Doug Hughes – would he please come back to Connecticut as an artistic director – sets a mood that doesn’t try to make these people easier to like than they are. He also stresses how contained they are in refusing to show emotions; these are people that you might characterize as “cold fish.”

Age of Innocence could be thought of us an “American” Masterpiece Theater drama. Certainly any who have seen “Downton Abby,” or the earlier “Forsyth Saga,” or the dramatization of the novels of Anthony Trollop or William Thackery will recognize these people.

For tickets visit Hartford Stage.

age of innocence 4

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

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