By Karen Isaacs
Writers, including playwrights, love dysfunctional families. From Oedipus to August, Osage County and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dysfunctional families have populated the stage.
For any family, the death of the last parent and the dismantling of the home and possessions of the parents are times of stress, bringing up emotions, resentments and memories. For a family that is fractured in some way, these events can trigger Armageddon.
This is the basis of the story of Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins now at Westport Country Playhouse through Sept. 2.
The play opens with what seems an eternity of blackness and loud whirring sounds that could be traffic, machinery, or as we learn actually are cicadas, those insects that emerge from the ground every 13 years to mate, bury the eggs and then die.
Into a darkened overly cluttered house, a man enters through a window followed by a younger woman. It is Frank and his fiancée, River, entering his father home in rural Arkansas. He has returned because the house will be auctioned within days. Frank, who now calls himself, Franz, is, we learn, the “wayward” son – the last to leave the family home, the one who has battled addictions, who committed a terrible act, and who has been out of touch for ten or so years.
Why has he come?
We soon meet Toni, the eldest sibling who is tactless, aggressive and angry. During the course of the play, we learn her backstory. She mothered her two younger brothers when their mother died, she has spent time looking after their ailing father, and she not only recently was divorced but she has lost her job and her son is estranged from her. She feels put upon, unappreciated and overwhelmed.
By morning we have met Bo, the middle child and his wife, Rachel, and their two children – the younger Ainsley and the 13-year-old Cassie. Bo, too has resentments and pressures on him: he has supported his father and the house during the final years and resents that Toni was named the executor; he is also under job pressure, plus his wife harbors resentment towards the father.
I can’t tell you about all the resentments and family skeletons that emerge during the course of this rather lengthy (2 hours 45 minute) play. Let’s just say that at the heart of the revelations and fights are how each sibling views the father and how each feels he or she was treated. Each believes he or she was short-changed in some way.
Jacobs-Jenkins has added in a large degree of mysticism or spirits: is the house haunted?
But one of the primary conflicts, besides the age old question of who did dad love best, is how each of the siblings and Bo’s wife, view the father. Toni has idealized the man, while Bo and Franz have varying degrees of realistic understanding.
Yet all of them, seem blindsided when one aspect of their father’s history (and beliefs) is discovered: a photo album that contains horrifying images. Toni resists accepting that her father, a Harvard educated lawyer who was talked about as a possible Supreme Court candidate, could have harbored such beliefs.
As with any young playwright, Jacobs-Jenkins has tried to cram too much into this work. He is very talented, but in his program interview he talks about family dramas and that they are all about race or ethnicity or identity. In some ways it is easy to see the sources of his inspiration.
Adding to all of that, is very heavy and sometime obvious symbolism. He has titled the three acts of the play: The Book of Revelations, Walpurgisnacht (or witches’ night) and The Book of Genesis. Then there is the supernatural element to the play. River, Franz’s fiancée, believes she detects ghostly vibes in the house, and this is carried through to the rather bizarre and overly long ending. Let’s just say that it doesn’t end when you think it does.
Even the title of the play, Appropriate, has multiple meanings and pronunciations. It can be suitable or to take without permission. Both seem operable in this play.
Director David Kennedy has done an excellent job with his cast to keep the play moving and to illuminate, at least some of the issues. He is aided by the various sound, lighting and set affects the play requires. So kudos to the production team: Andrew Boyce (scenic design), Matthew Richards (lighting) and Fitz Patton (sound).
It is a compliment to Betsy Aiden who plays Toni, that by the end of the first act, you want to strangle her. She makes no attempt to soften the character, but goes full throttle with her resentments, anger and sense of victimization. Shawn Fagan plays the damaged Franz for just that, a man trying hard to reconnect and gain acceptance from a family that only remembers his problems. David Aaron Baker has a difficult job with Bo, the middle sibling, partly because the character seems rather passive. He does not seem to react to what is going on around him, but fades into the woodwork even during the angry scene between his wife and Toni.
Perhaps the clearest voice of sanity is Anna Crivelli, as River. She may be young and be a little too “new age” but as played she also seems to have the ability to remain clear-eyed. This undoubtedly is due to having no history with anyone in the family.
Diane Davis is good as Bo’s wife, Rachel. She has felt estranged from the family for years. The two teens are played by Nick Selting as Rhys, Toni’s almost adult son, and Allison Winn as Bo’s early teen daughter.
How you react to Appropriate may reveal your own family problems or lack thereof and your tolerance for watching people try to avoid hurtful truths.
It is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets call 888-927-7529 or visit wWestport Country Playhouse.
By Karen Isaacs
Money is the subject of many adages – from “money is the root of all evil” to “money makes the world go round” to the biblical lines about the difficulty the rich have in entering heaven. In the 1980’s the motto seemed to be that “greed is good.”
The very talented playwright Ayad Akhtar has combined all of these viewpoints with a political thriller to create the compelling The Invisible Hand now getting an excellent production at Westport Country Playhouse through Aug. 6.
The play opens with Nick Bright (is the name a little too symbolic?) handcuffed in a small room with an obviously Muslim guard, Dar. During the exposition we learn that Nick works for Citibank in Pakistan and has been kidnapped partly by mistake; the group wanted his boss. They have demanded a $10 million ransom but nothing is happening. The group led by Imam Saleem; wants to use the ransom to fund economic and health projects to help the country. Saleem’s lieutenant is Bashir, whose parents left Pakistan for England years ago.
Nick is a brilliant trader in all sorts of financial instruments, able to determine how to make money in almost any situation and to find “the edge.” He is also very knowledgeable about Pakistani politics. In fact he has advised Dar how to make money on the potato crop.
As the rather long first act unfolds – it is over an hour – we see the gratuitous cruelty (Bashir kicks Dar in the groin), the despair of Nick and the intricacies of the relationship between Bashir and Saleem.
Since the bank seems in no hurry to pay the ransom, Nick and Saleem negotiate a deal. If Nick can make his ransom within one year, using as a starter money he has stashed in a Cayman Island account, he will be released. Bakshir will be his assistant and Nick is charged with teaching him how the markets operate.
Thus the title: The Invisible Hand. The termed is by the early economist Adam Smith to describe the unintended social benefits that arise from individuals pursuing their self-interests; that they balance out each other for the good of the whole.
Nick and Bakshir set to work; soon Bakshir gains some knowledge of an impending political assassination by another group and Nick parlays that into a $700,000 gain. But fissures start to appear. Barkshir feels he is being used as an errand boy, not a student and the Iman takes $400,000 from the working capital account to purchase vaccines. Nick suspects a large part of that went into the Iman’s pockets.
The three men clash with Nick often forgetting that he is their captive and at their mercy. He believes they need him for his ability to “create” money. The Iman, while autocratic and ruthless, seems more practical than the younger Bakshir who is filled with resentment for the Western world and its values. He remembers the numerous slights and insults he endured in England.
At times the dialogue seems like a class in economics from the Bretton Woods agreement after WWII that made the American dollar the de facto monetary standard for the world, to the meanings of stock market terminology such as “put” and “calls.”
Yet, it never becomes dry or boring. We are caught up in the suspense. Will Nick succeed in raising his ransom? Will his captors actually release him? As Bakshir gains knowledge will he challenge either Nick or the Iman?
In keeping with the political thriller genre, I won’t tell the answers to any of this. Let’s say some of it was predictable and some was not.
Playwright Akhtar, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Disgraced has again created a play that will have you leaving the theater thinking. While American born and raised, Akhtar has an almost innate understanding of the perceptions and philosophy of the Islamic world. He is able to let us into a world that to Americans seems strange and perhaps “wrong.” He also articulates how the third world sees the dominant political and economic powers, of which the US is the most powerful.
Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy has kept the pacing tight and helped the actors delineate their very different characters. His direction helps us look at the various viewpoints presented. The structure of the playing space, designed by Adam Rigg assists. The “curtain” – it isn’t really that – triangulates into the audience. In addition, Fitz Patton has created a sound design that lets the outside world infiltrate into Nick’s prison. Special mention must be given to Louis Colainni, who as the dialect coach, helps all of the actors to be both understandable and “in character.”
Rajesh Bose, who played the lead in Akhtar’s Disgraced at Long Wharf last year (and won awards) plays the Iman. He has to convince us that this pragmatic man who will let Nick manipulate money so that the Iman can use it, is also naïve enough to misjudge the results. The playwright has given him a difficult task. Fajer Kaisi is very effective as Bashir, the younger and both angrier and more idealistic follower of the Iman. It is he who carries the burden of presenting the third world view of America. Eric Bryant is outstanding as Nick. His posture and gestures show us what may have happened (abuse?) before the play opens, but also his confidence as he gets into job. This is a multi-dimensional, layered performance that encourages us to be protective of him while also at times amazed at his sometimes dangerous outbursts.
The Invisible Hand through Aug. 6 will both have you on the edge of your seat and questioning some of your assumptions. It is at Westport Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets visit wwestportplayhouse.org.
By Karen Isaacs
And a Nightingale Sang is one of those plays that is difficult to categorize. While it is getting a beautifully acted and directed production at Westport Country Playhouse through June 27, one ends up wondering. Is it a “kitchen sink” drama? A memory play? A melodrama? Or just soap opera?
I’ll vote for either of the first two though certainly it does have elements of both melodrama and soap opera.
The C. P. Taylor play — which incidentally got its American premier at Hartford Stage in 1983 — tells the story of a working class family in Newcastle, England during World War II.
The title references the popular song of the period, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” which tells of falling in love though the wartime romance lasted only a brief time.
In the play, we meet Helen Scott, the older daughter who tells us the story of their war time experiences. Helen is single, has a limp and feels unattractive and undesirable. As the play opens, war is looming and her younger sister Joyce is dithering whether to accept the proposal of Eric, a young soldier. George the father is blue collar worker who endlessly plays popular tunes on the piano. Peggy is the Mom of the family; devout to the Catholic church with numerous premonitions. Peggy’s father, Andie also lives with them part-time, expressing his rather fatalistic point of view.
During this first scene, the family experiences their very first air raid warning; the men in the group respond humorously — Eric attempts to take charge but George is frantically looking for the booklet of instructions and Andie is proclaiming that it doesn’t matter if they die.
During the course of the play — which covers the time until V-E Day, a variety of things occur to shake up the family. Joyce and Eric marry but they are able to spend little time together since he is posted at a base and only gets the occasional leave. During one of those, he introduces Norman to the family and soon Norman and Helen are in love. We see the strains in Joyce and Eric’s marriage — on his first leave, she can barely touch him — and we see Norman and Helen develop a real relationship. Helen begins to blossom becoming more confident. We also see the strains on the older generation — Mom is made increasingly nervous by the constant raids and the tensions between Joyce and her husband. Andie continues his fatalistic viewpoint and when he becomes tired of being shuttled between his two daughters, strikes out on his own. George not only becomes a shop steward but a Communist, to Mom’s horror.
The ending is bittersweet but I will not reveal it here. Let us just say that only one of the two young couples ends happily.
Taylor has some surprising elements in the play for those of us not intimately familiar with Britain during the war. First, neither of the two soldiers are sent overseas. Each works on bases that allow for visits home and leave. Second, while there is some talk of rations there is little sense of deprivation. The family does not talk of being cold, of not having enough food, etc. Life seems relatively normal. There is also little talk of the blitz and bomb damage; perhaps Newcastle – in northeast England – was not as badly damaged though it was an industrial center.
What makes this production special is the fine acting and direction by David Kennedy. In addition, Fitz Patton gives us realistic sounds of air raid warnings and the whizz of the potential bombs. The scenic design by Kristen Robinson is flexible– the one setting is easily adapted to the park bench, various parts of the house and other locations. Michael Krass gives us typical 1940s costumes though I would have though the clothes would have been more threadbare by the end of the war due to the terrible shortages. Even the King complained about worn out clothing.
So let us turn to the highlight of this production — the acting. Brenda Meaney is terrific as the sensible daughter Helen, who also serves to narrate the play. She not only captures the slight limp due to Helen having one leg shorter than the other, but she also captures her loneliness and feeling “different”. She is the one who mediates between the other family members. We see her blossom as the play goes on.
But the other cast members are also excellent, each capturing their “type” but also adding depth to the characterizations. Jenny Leona as Joyce is more than just a flighty girl who always gets what she thinks she wants. Deirdre Madigan is the mother with the devotion to the Catholic church and the priests. She shows us how the anxieties of the bombings have worn on her already frayed nerves. Sean Cullen is a father somewhat removed from the family – more interested in learning his pop songs — the selections are terrific — and his new enthusiasm for Communism — then the goings on in the family. Richard Kline is also very good as the grandfather, Andie. Probably the least developed roles are those of the two soldiers: Joyce’s Eric played by John Skelley and Helen’s Norman played by John Matthew Greer. Each do a fine job but somehow we wish we could see behind the surface more with each of them.
Your reaction to And a Nightingale Sang may depend on how you feel about “slice of life” plays — not a lot of big things happen, and the pace can be slower. What you are experiencing is seeing a family’s ordinary life in a difficult time. For me, that was than enough when combined with the fine acting and directing.
And a Nightingale Sang is at Westport Country Playhouse 25 Powers Court, through June 27. For tickets visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call 888-927-7529.
Westport Country Playhouse is presenting the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of the classic play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Here it is called Nora, and Bergman stripped the play down to five characters and just under two hours in running time. We no longer see the children, the housemaid or Anne-Marie the nursemaid. The lack of the latter character and any reference to her story, removes one of the analogous plots in this play.
Instead, we are focused on the problems of Nora and her husband Torvald. After years of economic struggle they are about to be secure but it may all come tumbling around them. Years ago Nora borrowed money to pay for a trip which helped Torvald recover from a serious illness. She has managed to make payments, but she has put herself at the mercy of a desperate man who is trying to reestablish his reputation and social acceptability.
The original Ibsen play is a classic of dramatic realism, but Bergman at times gave it a dreamlike state. In cutting the play, Bergman slighted some of the themes of the original piece in the process of adapting it. This is a play with a lot of “meat” in it — not just in its secondary plots which all expand upon and help us understand the many sides of the various dilemmas — but also in the issues it raises: the role of women, the nature of marriage, the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions and the Biblical idea of the “sins of the father being visited upon the young.”
I first saw this adaptation — translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker at Williamstown Theater Festival in 1993. I was blown away with the adaptation and Michael York as one of the best Torvald’s I have seen.
So, I was looking forward to seeing this version again. A Doll’s House is a play I both love and teach regularly. I have seen students become caught up in the situation and the issues. Class debate is usually lively.
But, this production directed by David Kennedy is problematic. First of all, he has set the play in the 1950s if we can judge by the costumes and mid-century modern furniture. That could make sense, since at that time there were still many restrictions on married women’s independence including borrowing money. But like so many directors (and authors) who have attempted to set the play in contemporary America — I’m thinking of Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Long Wharf — it just doesn’t work as well. I’ve often wondered if it were set in a modern society that still truly limited women (Saudi Arabia, maybe) then it might be effective.
In the case, the audience laughed at some of the lines that were not funny, because they seemed incongruous to the setting. I doubt they would have laughed if the play had been set in the 1880s.
This diminished the power of the piece.
Kennedy does establish the dreamlike feeling that Bergman intended by the setting he uses; a mid-century modern home with no walls and no true entrance the house — people enter anywhere. At times this shows characters almost creeping up on Nora. At other times, it seems as if they are conjured by her mind. The play opens with a window on the dark curtain, an almost too obvious symbol.
Liv Rooth plays Nora, the central character. Nora is a difficult character because in the beginning of the play she appears to be a self-absorbed ditzy housewife. While there is truth to that, it is only one side of Nora. Therefore we start by judging harshly and only later begin to realize that she more than that initial image. Here is another place where Bergman’s truncation hinders our understanding. But Rooth fails to hint at the other side of Nora, so that her transformation to a determined woman does feel grounded in the character.
Lucas Hall is excellent as her husband, Torvald and you feel his loss at the end of the
play. In this version, he is neither too much of a prig (an often failing of Torvalds) nor too violent. Stephanie Janssen plays Nora’s determined and mouselike friend Christine Linde as just that. But again, you often fail to find a multi-dimensional character. LeRoy McClain, as Dr. Rank, a good friend of both Nora and Torvald, is the most sophisticated character. But even here I didn’t feel his situation as I should have.
Shawn Fagan as the purported villain of the piece, Nils Korgstad, used a variety of physical jerks and tics that did not seem either appropriate for his desperate state nor menacing. Krogstad is both a weak man and a sympathetic one at times, but you are too focused on the hands, the bobbing of the knees and the other physical quirks to understand him.
Throughout the piece, the costumes by Katherine Roth reinforce the 1950s feeling; Nora’s costumes reinforce her “ditzy” persona.
But the biggest burden in the production falls to lighting designer Matthew Richards. It is up to him to focus our attention: on Nora on the couch, on the mail box, and on the people passing by at the rear of the set.
But Kennedy’s biggest mistake is the ending. Bergman had set the ending not in the family’s parlor but in Nora and Torvald’s bedroom. While the first part of the ending — Torvald in the dark, naked — can be a very obviously symbolic, Kennedy’s next move which was to bring stage and house lights up to full — just makes everyone in the audience uncomfortable. Torvald stands facing us stark naked.
This ending also makes it difficult for parents to bring teenagers to see this production. To my mind, it was not necessary. I don’t recall if the Williamstown production omitted the famous “door slam” or not, but here, while I was waiting for it, it never came. Perhaps because the set really had no doors to slam.
Nora is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, off Route 1 through Aug. 2. For tickets and information call the box office toll free at 1-888-927-7529 or visit http://www.westportplayhouse.org.