By Karen Isaacs
Next to Normal at TheaterWorks.
You could criticize practically nothing in this production. Rob Ruggiero cast it brilliantly with Christiane Noll, David Harris, Maya Keleher (in her professional debut), Nick Sacks and John Cardoza. Ruggiero used the aisles to add to the intimacy; it was remarkable.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage
This Shakespeare play is done so often, it is easy to say “oh no, not again.” But Darko Tresjnak’s production was outstanding. He balanced all the elements and did not let any one of the multiple plots overtake others. His handling of the play put on by “the mechanicals” at the ends was terrific.
Fireflies at Long Wharf
Jane Alexander, Judith Ivy and Denis Ardnt gave touching performances, creating real people in this sweet romance about an older, retired school teacher, her nosy next store neighbor, a drifter. Gordon Edelstein kept it moving and preventedit from becoming saccharine.
Rags at Goodspeed
This story of Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of New York was completely revamped for this production: extensive revisions of the book, lyrics and songs. The result wasn’t perfect but with Rob Ruggiero’s sensitive direction, this show touched the heart.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Plekey at Hartford Stage
This may have been a touring show, but James Lecesne not only was brilliant in turning his novel into a one actor play but did so much outreach in the community on the issues of teens facing bullying due to sexual orientation.
Diary of Ann Frank at Playhouse on Park
David Lewis made full use of the large and sometimes awkward stage area to create the attic in which the Franks and others hid for many years. Director Ezra Barnes cast the show almost perfectly from Isabelle Barbier as Anne to the entire ensemble. It was touching and real.
A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage
It is perhaps Shakespeare’s silliest play and director Darko Tresnjak emphasizes it beginning with his own colorful Mediterranean village set, a canal with real water and more. Who cares if the lines sometimes gets lost in the process?
Seder at Hartford Stage
How do you survive in a repressive regime? How do you make others, who have not lived through it, understand your choices? That was at the heart of this new play which thoroughly engaged me. Plus it had Mia Dillion once again showing her skills.
Wolves at TheaterWork
Wolves was a sensitive and insightful look into both the world of girls’ sports (in this case a soccer team) but also into the society that teenagers create for themselves. Though a few of the young actresses looked a little too old, we become totally engaged in them and their lives.
The Games Afoot at Ivoryton
Sometimes just seeing actors have a great time with a so-so play is more than enough. That was the case in this comic thriller by Ken Ludwig. It succeeded because of director Jacqueline Hubbard, set designer Daniel Nischan and a cast that just had fun.
The runners up
“Trav’lin’ –the 1920s Harlem Musical at Seven Angels.
It may not be a great musical, but this show introduced me to a lesser known composer – J. C. Johnson who wrote “This Joint is Jumpin’” and many others. The plot is simplistic but the cast was wonderful.
Noises Off at Connecticut Repertory Theater
My favorite farce got a fine production this summer with some inventive touches by director Vincent J. Cardinal, terrific casting and timing that was just about perfect.
Million Dollar Quartet at Ivoryton
This show lives and dies on the quality of the performers and here Ivoryton Playhouse and executive director Jacqui Hubbard hit the jackpot. All six of the major performers are experienced and the four “legends” have all played their roles before.
The Bridges of Madison County at MTC
The music is glorious and Kevin Connors created a production that worked very well on his three sided stage. While the chemistry didn’t seem to be there, musically the cast was strong.
The Great Tchaikovsky at Hartford Stage
Hershey Felder combines his talents as pianist, actor and director to create shows about the lives for well-known popular and classical composers. This show about Tchaikovsky was a delight.
Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage
Darko Tresnjak directed this version of Shaw’s masterpiece. It might have made the top ten BUT for one decision that Tresnjak made: he decided to make Boss Mangan a Donald Trump look/act alike. The similarity would have been recognizable without it and it distracted from the play.
Endgame at Long Wharf
Samuel Beckett writes difficult plays requiring an audience to understand his pessimistic world view and his abstract characters and plots. Gordon Edelstein directed a production that may not have been definitive but gave us outstanding performances by Reg E. Cathey, Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi.
Biloxi Blues at Ivoryton
This Neil Simon play, part of the Eugene trilogy got a fine production directed by Sasha Bratt that focused less on the laughs and more on the situation.
Native Son at Yale Rep
This production boasted a terrific performance by Jerod Haynes as Bigger, an urbanset by Ryan Emens and jazzy sounds by Frederick Kennedy that produced a taut, film noir feel to this story about race and prejudice.
Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse
Mark Lamos, who is a fine director of Shakespeare gave us a pared down version of this classic tragedy that featured some fine performances – including Nicole Rodenburg as Juliet, Felicity Jones Latta as the Nurse, and Peter Francis James as Friar Lawrence, plus a magical set by Michael Yeargan. Lamos emphasized the youth and energy.
West Side Story at Ivoryton
This production had many more plusses – Mia Pinero as Maria, Natalie Madion as Anita, good direction by Todd L. Underwood – than minuses.
By Karen Isaacs
Two boys and two fathers. Aaron Posner, in his revised adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen now at Long Wharf through Dec. 17, explores two variations of that relationship.
It is 1944 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and two teenage boys become friends despite being very different. Reuven Malter, who sometimes serves as the narrator, attends a Yeshiva (private religious school for Jewish boys) and plays baseball. His father, David, is an editor and writer. They have a close relationship that includes a good measure of friendship.
At the game, Reuven is hit in the eye with a baseball when Danny Saunders hits a comebacker to the pitcher’s mound. Danny is an aggressive and powerful hitter. He also attends a Yeshiva, but his is a Hasidic school; his father is the rabbi. The Danny and his classmates view Reuven and his classmates as “apikorism” of Jews who are educated in the faith but deny its basic tenets.
Despite these differences, Reuven and Danny become fast friends and both fathers approve, though Reb Saunders has to “test” Reuven first. Danny does not seem happy with having to follow in his father’s footsteps. He is secretly reading secular literature including Freud which he finds fascinating. But he is obedient to his father’s word, even when he orders Danny to not talk to Reuven.
We follow these two boys – and to some extent their fathers – through the end of the war, the liberation of the concentration camps, college and the fight over the creation of Israel.
Besides the major world issues that go on around them, this is a classic story of two boys growing up, finding their own place in the world, and learning how to separate themselves from obedience to parental authority.
This central conflict is universal. But the play also explores other issues as well – the breach between these two branches of Judaism – the Hasidim, often considered ultra-Orthodox and those who are considered observant conservative. The two view each other with suspicion and their religious views influence their world views.
As a coming-of-age story, The Chosen is excellent. It is only when it ventures into some of the other areas that this two act play comes up short. Most obvious is that we don’t learn enough about David Malter, Reuven’s father, so that some of both his actions and those of Reb Saunders do not make sense. The two fathers have a history which would be helpful to understand.
The other area that could use more is the divergent views on the founding of Israel. You would think that Reb Saunders would be an adamant supporter of the founding of the Jewish state. He isn’t and the reasons could be clearer.
But this production directed by Gordon Edelstein does illuminate some of the issues of the play. He has gotten excellent performances from the four principal actors. Four others appear occasionally as students and others; they are mainly walk on roles with little character delineation.
It’s hard to select a standout performance from among the four principals. Each is excellent and each embodies his character. George Guidall who plays Reb Saunders returns to Long Wharf after a too long absence. He gives this character the certainty and sternness needed but shows that underneath it is an amazing understanding and warmth. He is matched by Steven Skybell as David Malter, though having to suffer two heart attacks on stage is a little much. Skybell embodies the character’s reasonableness which allows him to co-exist in this conflict neighborhood.
As the two young men, Ben Edelman as Danny Saunders uses the posture of the perennial submissive and depressed to illuminate the character’s inner dilemma: obedience to his father and his destiny versus his own desire to break out. Equally good is Max Wolkowitz as Reuven who is trying to make sense of this world.
Eugene Lee has created a terrific set; I especially liked how he handled the baseball game that begins the play. In that, he is aided by the sound design by John Gromada. In addition the lighting by Mark Barton and the costumes by Paloma Young thoroughly create the world of this play.
The Chosen succeeds as a coming-of-age story and mostly succeeds in revealing truths about this conflict within the Jewish community.
It is at Long Wharf, Long Wharf Theatre or 203-787-4282 or 800-782-8497 through Dec. 17.
By Karen Isaacs
It’s all about the acting. Fireflies by Matthew Barber which is now at Long Wharf through Nov. 5 is a sweet romantic comedy that won’t break any new theatrical ground. But in this production, the thoroughly likable play is showcasing some of the best actors in the U.S.
Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey and Denis Ardnt are the three main characters. It’s a small
south Texas town and the never married Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) is busy making jam in her hot kitchen while her neighbor Grace (Judith Ivey) prattles on. Grace talks about everything, but she keeps returning to the “drifter” that has been seen around town. She is convinced that he is up to no good and is looking for women living alone like Eleanor and herself for some nefarious scheme.
Eleanor, a retired beloved school teacher puts up with the endless chatter, recognizing that Grace wants news that can be spread. Finally she has had enough and encourages Grace to go home.
Is it any surprise that soon the “drifter” – Abel Brown shows up at her doorstep? He’s an older man and says he has been traveling around for decades. He tells her that her vacant cottage sustained some roof damage during a recent storm and offers to repair it. After checking out the cottage, Eleanor agrees.
Soon Abel has mowed the lawn and repaired the broken air conditioner. He brings dinner for the two of them and even plays – not very well – her father’s old violin. Both of her parents died years ago in a traffic accident. He makes her an offer; he would like to stay in the cottage, which he refers to as a “honeymoon cottage” for free while he renovates it for her. She has mixed feelings about the cottage; unsure whether to sell or rent it, but also wishing it would somehow miraculous burn to the ground.
While she accepts his offer to renovate, she tells him he can’t stay in the cottage because of the neighborhood gossip.
Eleanor is cautious but lonely (she had never married) and Grace, who is a widow is also lonely. Grace wouldn’t mind male companionship.
The question of course is, who really is Abel Brown? Is he just a scammer preying on lonely, older women? What is he hiding?
We get the answers to these and more as the play gently progresses. Predictably, Eleanor assumes the worst about Abel when he disappears for 36 hours, Grace isn’t sure if she wants to say “I told you so” and Abel is perturbed by the questioning.
We learn of Abel’s past, but not much about Eleanor’s or even Grace’s. Did Eleanor have a romance that went sour? Is that why she wouldn’t mind the cottage’s destruction? Is the term “honeymoon cottage” fraught with meaning for her? Her father built the cottage for her.
We don’t ever learn this, but who cares? Sometimes it is more fun to make up our own stories about a character’s past.
What takes the gentle comedy to a higher level is the acting. Jane Alexander is well known both in Connecticut and the US for her talent. Judith Ivey also is well known to both Connecticut and New York audiences. But Denis Arndt is something of a surprise. A great deal of his work has been done in regional theaters particularly on the west coast. His appearance last fall on Broadway in Heisenberg opposite Mary Louise Parker earned him attention and a Tony nomination. I’m glad that he seems settled on the east coast.
Each of these actors develop fully formed characters that you absolutely believe in, from the somewhat “starchy” Eleanor, to the nosy Grace, to the mysterious Abel.
It is a pleasure to see them work – each movement, gesture and facial expression is perfectly aligned to the characters and the situation.
Gordon Edelstein has done a fine job directing these three, plus Christopher Michael McFarland who has a small role as a former student who is now a police officer.
Alexander Dodge has created a set that embodies Eleanor’s kitchen and dining area. Not new or modern, but reminiscent of any old house built in the 30s or 40s and never truly modernized. Jess Goldstein has given us costumes that totally suit each character. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting and John Gromada’s sound contribute to feeling the hot Texas summer.
The title, Fireflies, can have multiple meanings. The tiny lightening bugs are so much a part of rural summer nights, but they also flicker for such brief moments.
If you yearn for a sweet, romantic play, Fireflies not only fits the bill but will enchant you with its fine acting.
For tickets, visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282, 800-782-8497.
By Karen Isaacs
Napoli, Brooklyn is getting its world premiere on Long Wharf’s main stage through March 12 in a co-production with New York’s Roundabout Theatre. It will open at its Laura Pels Theater in May.
The play is set in Brooklyn in the fall of 1960. It centers on the three daughters of Luda and Nic Muscolino, both immigrants from Italy. The daughters range from 16 to early 20s and each is not only very different but “a type.” Vita is the eldest daughter with a strong independent streak who is willing to speak her mind without regard for the consequences. Tina is the middle girl who dropped out of school and works in a box factory. Francesca is the youngest; still a teenager she already knows she is a lesbian.
Nic, their father, is a violent and angry man who lashes out and resorts to attacks against his wife and his daughters. His abuse is not just verbal but also physical. Luda, his wife, is worn down but resigned to the situation. Their Catholic faith plays a major role in their lives.
While playwright Meghan Kennedy talks a great deal in the program notes about multiple ideas, none of these really resonate in this play which could be any made-for-TV movie. She tries to bring in the civil rights movement (Tina is friends with a black woman at work), the women’s liberation movement (The Feminine Mystique) wasn’t published until 1962), and the current debate over immigration.
She has set the play around the mid-air collision of a United Airways and a TWA jet; the United plane crashed in Park Slope killing all 128 on board and six people on the ground; the resulting fire destroyed 10 apartment buildings. It happened just nine days before Christmas.
The only apparent reason for bring the crash into the play is to have a spectacular first act curtain, and to supposedly motivate some changes in Nic and Connie, Francesca’s friend.
Early in the play, Luda, again for reasons that never become clear, is both angry with God and also upset because she can no longer cry when she cuts into an onion. We learn about some of the recent events in the family: Francesca and Connie are planning on running away (to France) by stowing away on a boat; they seem physically attracted to each other. Vita is in a convent, but she is not planning on being a nun; Luda sent her there to be “safe.” Tina, who appears stoic and placid is making a friend at work with Celia, the married African-American woman. There’s even a hint that Luda enjoys flirting with Albert Duffy, the butcher who is Connie’s father and is apparently widowed.
We also learn that Nic’s reaction when Francesca cut her long hair was so violent that Vita stepped in between, threatened her father and was beaten by him resulting in severe injuries. That’s why Luda has sent her away – to be safe from her father.
After the crash, Nic has apparently totally changed – rather than angry and violent, he appears placid and easy-going. Connie has changed her mind about leaving with Francesca because her brother was killed in the crash, and Celia is bunking on the couch since her husband was killed also. It seems too coincidental that though only six people on the ground were killed, two were intertwined with the family.
It is these odd events that keep you guessing and finally leave you dissatisfied. Because, though it is all neatly wrapped up at the end; you don’t necessarily believe any of it.
The cast, under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, does its best to make these characters believable and their actions motivated. Alyssa Bresnahan does yeoman’s work as the mother, keeping a slight accent. She does her best to help us see why this woman stays and protects her daughters. Jason Kolotouros gives us a Nic that is a stereotype of the violent, angry man. He reminds us of Stanley Kowalski but without the redeeming features that Stanley can have. His final decision seems totally out of character.
Local resident Jordyn DiNatale is the teenage Francesca. She captures the gawkiness, the certainty and the neediness of the character. She tries so hard to make her father like her; even hinting at her lesbianism as though that would make him view her as the son he always wanted.
Christina Pumariega is the stoic Tina who slowly begins to assert herself. Of the three daughters she seems the most passive; yet, she too begins to reveal an independent streak.
As Vita, Carolyn Braver plays the character as the emerging feminist, though that term was not particularly used.
Graham Winton, Ryann Shane and Shirine Babb play the three other characters: the butcher Albert Duffy, his daughter Connie; and Tina’s work friend, Celia. They do the best they can with roles that are only minimally developed and whose actions seem unmotivated.
Lighting designer Ben Stanton did an excellent job including putting Christmas lights all around the theater; as well as the lighting effects for the plane crash. In addition, the lighting helps define and identify the various locations in the play. Fitz Patton, the sound designer contributes to the effect. Eugene Lee’s set shows us a typical apartment that also can turn into the factory, the butcher shop, the convent and more.
Napoli, Brooklyn is a play that attempts to do a lot more than it succeeds in doing. It creates some characters that you can care about, but then leaves too many questions dangling. It is at Long Wharf Theatre through March 12. For tickets visit Long Wharf.
By Karen Isaacs
Any serious student of theater acknowledges that Samuel Beckett is a major playwright of the 20th century. The Irish born Beckett lived for many years in France and wrote many of his plays originally in French only later translating them into English.
Yet, it is sometimes hard to anticipate with pleasure seeing a Beckett play. It is rather like eating spinach or kale – good for you but not necessarily enjoyable. His works express a view of the world that can be disheartening and can force you to think about ideas that you would rather avoid. So, like spinach, Beckett is good for the intellect even if we would prefer to avoid it.
Endgame, which is now at Long Wharf Theater through Sunday, Feb. 5, is one of his greatest works. This production, directed by Gordon Edelstein delivers the goods. He manages to find both the humor and the humanity in the work while not subverting Beckett’s point of view. Beckett, by the way was very insistent that his works be presented as written (including stage directions and casting) often causing productions that attempted liberties to receive “cease and desist orders.” The Beckett estate continues the practice.
The first character we meet is Clov, an elderly servant who enters what appears to be basement filled with the detritus of life – broken furniture, books and other things scattered on the floor. He proceeds through a ritual of opening the curtains on the two high, small windows, then returning to look out each clouded window. He reappears pushing a large object covered in a sheet, on a wheeled base.
After finally removing the sheet, we meet Hamm – an elderly blind man seated on a dilapidated arm chair. Hamm is obviously the master; he cannot move and is therefore dependent on Clov, who he summons with a shrill, loud whistle. These two have been together a long time. We learn that the two large boxes on the side of the stage are where Hamm’s elderly parents reside – Nell, his mother and Nagg, his father. By the way, Clov and Nagg are all words for nails in different languages.
The action that occurs is much less important than the conversations. In reality not much occurs. Hamm orders Clov about, and Clov sometimes retreats to “the kitchen;” Nagg and Nell reminisce and Nell dies and Clov finally leaves for good.
What causes some literary experts to consider Endgame the greatest play of the 20th century is the dialogue. It includes humor, elements of poetry, literary and biblical references and philosophy.
It forces us to confront a myriad of questions we would prefer to avoid – is life simply a replication of meaningless activities? What is life? What is death? What is the relationship between people? Is the world ending? The title, which is only an approximate of the original French title refers to the term used for the strategies and moves made at the end of a chess game. So are we all just part of a chess game played by God?
Each audience member will find his or her own meaning in this work. Certainly it was influenced by the events of the 1940s and 50s; the atrocities of WWII, the development of the atomic bomb and weapons of mass destruction, existential philosophy, and even the “God is dead” idea. (Beckett only began writing plays after WWII which he spent in France working as an ambulance driver in in Saint-Lȏ, near Omaha beach. It was one of the hardest hit cities during the war; few buildings survived.)
The set by Eugene Lee is brilliant, but we can argue what it is: simply a basement in a home, a prison, a morgue, a bomb shelter, or even purgatory. It seems no one populates the outside world – we know that from one window Clov can see water and from the other land. But there is no mention of other living things except a possible flea and a rat.
What is the meaning of the various disabilities the characters have. Hamm is blind and cannot rise from the chair; he depends on Clov to move the chair around. Clov can stand but apparently cannot sit. Nagg and Nell seem almost disembodied – they do not have legs? Even though their crates are side by side, it is almost impossible for them to reach or touch each other.
Each is dependent on the other – Hamm needs Clov for food, water and movement; Clov needs Hamm for food, and Nell and Nagg need each other from scratching as well as need Clov and Hamm for food.
The plot is simply will Clov leave Hamm?
Any production needs excellent performances and direction to hold the audience’s interest. In addition to Edelstein’s fine direction we also have excellent performances. Lynn Cohen gives us a flirtatious and optimistic Nell while Joe Grifasi gives us a sometimes exasperated Nagg with an occasional touch of an Irish accent. While Cohen only appears in one short part of the play, Grifasi is in several scenes; each time you can’t take your eyes off of him.
But the majority of the play rests of Reg E. Cathey as Clov and Brian Dennehy as Hamm. Again, it is hard to fault either’s characterization. Cathey shows us Clov as resigned and subservient but with a spark of rebellion within. Dennehy who has the most dialogue is imperial and impervious to those around him.
Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design gives us clues to the outside world – is it sunny, cloudy, day or night. Kaye Voyce designed costumes that look well worn. I was surprised to see no credit for sound design because sound plays an important role in the production. From the piercing opening sound to the shrill whistles to the slamming doors, sound is an essential part of this universe.
Endgame is fascinating because it is open to so many interpretations. Just check the internet and you will find a wide variety of interpretations, but it is more fun to discuss it with someone and develop your own meanings.
Endgame is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Sunday, Feb. 5. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-7282 or 800-782-8497.
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By Karen Isaacs
Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner now at Long Wharf Theatre through December 18, is a play that has always been schizophrenic. Does it want to be a romantic comedy with a bit of cynicism thrown in OR does it want to be a hard-hitting play about our current economic/business environment?
It tries to have it all, but doesn’t quite succeed, not even in this excellent production directed by Marc Bruni.The play was written in the late 1980s and had its first major production at Hartford Stage, later it had a successful run off-Broadway and was made into a film.
Other People’s Money is about corporate raiders, small town values and the economic costs to our country of greed. When it was written by Sterner (who was in finance/Wall Street), theater and film goers were seeing Wall Street where George Gecko proclaimed the virtue of greed, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross showed the cut-throat world of the boiler room salesman, and people were reading Tom Wolfe’s novel, Bonfires of the Vanities.
The play is about a wire and cable factory in a small Rhode Island town. The family run business – led by Jorgey as its chairman – has been in business for years serving as the leader of the local economy. Times have been tough yet the company has hung on though not really making money. One day, the president of the company, Coles, notes that the stock has had unusually high trading volumes and the price is climbing. He is instantly suspicious though Jorgey just thinks it is because people are recognizing its value.
Soon the corporate raider/takeover specialist, Garfinkle is arriving to point out that the company’s assets and subsidiary businesses are worth millions. As weeks go by Garfinkle continues to buy up stock and soon owns a substantial percentage.
Coles and the audience soon realize what Garfinkle’s plan will be: gain enough stock to convince others to cede control to him; he will sell off assets, possibly keep the profitable parts and shut down the plant.
But Jorgey is an old-fashioned business man, a pillar in the community, who cannot recognize what is happening. When he finally listens to advice, he will not do what needs to be done to protect his company and workers.
His longtime assistant, Bea (who is also the love of his life though they both were married to others) convinces her daughter, Kate to help out. She’s a high powered lawyer who works in merger and acquisitions. Battling Garfinkle is something she jumps at but is frustrated by Jorgey’s reluctance to take action.
Lots of corporate financial terms get bounced around – golden parachutes, poison pills and more. Also there is a lot of sexual talk. Garfinkle’s conversation is crass and vulgar to the extreme and Kate isn’t above using her looks and the same in return.
Yes, a plan is developed to try to save the company but I won’t spoil the ending.
Bruni has directed a fine cast. The play is narrated in part by the company president Coles played by Steve Routman. Should we be shocked that some point he is willing to sell out in order to look after his own goals? In fact, most of the characters are less than heroic, with the possible exception of Bea, Kate’s mother and Jorgey’s assistant who will do whatever she can for the man she loves.
But while Kate tries to save the company, she too has one eye on the prize of what defeating Garfinkle would do for her career. Even Jorgey is not a totally heroic figure; his unwillingness to understand the current economic/corporate world leads to his problems.
Lee Savage has created a fine two-tiered set with Garfinkle’s shiny modern office in the back and the more homespun factory office in front. Even the paint is peeling. Anita Yavich has also delineated the differences between these two worlds in the costumes for Kate and Garfinkle – NYC polished but provocative—and Coles, Bea and Jorgey – more middle class conservative.
The cast is fine. Steve Routman’s Coles seems all professional and honest yet we early are on are shown his self-interest; at least initially you feel sympathetic for him. Edwards James Hyland gives us a Jorgey (everyone calls him that though his name is Jorgenson) is the downhome business man straight out of a Sinclair Lewis novel. He’s stubborn, honest and has bought him to the conventional values. Karen Ziemba’s Bea is the motherly type. Her scenes with Kate have a harder edge and you really want to know more of the backstory between Bea, her husband and Jorgey.
Liv Rooth gives us a Kate who is ambitious and realistic. She is the stereotyped Wall Street lawyer. Rooth’s Kate seems to enjoy the game with Garfinkle, but accepts the outcome too earily.
As Garfinkle, Jordan Lage is all greed and testosterone. He truly could be called “the snake.”
The problem with Other People’s Money isn’t the cast or the directing; it is that you leave the theater not depressed that nothing has changed but feeling slightly dirty from the humor and the ideas.
Other People’s Money is at Long Wharf Theatre through Dec. 18. For tickets, contact Long Wharf
By Karen Isaacs
Watching Meteor Showers, the world premiere play by Steve Martin now at Long Wharf through October 23, it is obvious it is written by an intelligent individual with a quirky sense of the absurd.
For this play blends fantasy and psychology together to make interesting observations on our multi-dimensional selves and marriage in the 21st century.
The play opens at the home of Norm and Corky in the California desert. The magnificent set by Michael Yeargan shows us mid-century modern living room and the adjoining outdoor space with two chaise lounge chairs. The set rotates so the perspective changes
Norm (Patrick Breen) and Corky (Arden Myrin) are a long married couple, seemingly mild mannered. It is also clear from an early conversation that they have had some marital difficulties and consulted a therapist. Early on there is a hilarious episode of practicing a counseling technique known as reflective listening/affirmation of feelings. But they do it in a very simplistic way. It is evening and they are expecting guests – Gerald and Laura who have apparently invited themselves. Gerald and Laura have visited other couples in the area including one that Norm and Corky would like to meet. The reason for the visit? Gerald has told Norm there is a spectacular meteor shower and since Norm and Corky live in an area which gives a good view of the sky without city lights, he want to see it.
Soon Gerald and Laura arrive – actually the pre-arrival and arrival scene are repeated three times—and things feel a little strange. Both are very assertive and assured. Gerald (Josh Stamberg) both brags a great deal and seems to know everything. Laura (Sophina Brown) is dressed and acts like a seductress. The two easily dominate and fluster the quieter Norm and Corky.
Things seem to deteriorate until a meteor crashes into a chaise lounge and Norm is apparently killed. But all is not as it seems, he is not dead and arrives back at the house to find strange goings on. In the second act, after a phone call from the couple Norm and Corky hope to meet, the visit is replayed with very different results.
The play combines many elements. First of all it has elements of fantasy or perhaps more accurately nightmares. We’ve all dreamed of the predatory stranger. It is, similar to the play Constellations, a retelling of the same events with different results.
It is funny but it certainly has elements or pays reverence to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? though rather than George and Martha playing “get the guest”, here Gerald and Laura are playing “get the host.”
As I watched the play, I also recalled the pop psychology best seller of the 1970s: Eric Berne’s Games People Play and transactional analysis.
But the play can also be viewed in many other ways. As Norm and Corky seem to discover by the final curtain, Gerald and Laura are part of their own personas. Are they the people they would like to be? The people they fear they could be? The people they were when the marriage was in trouble? Do they want to break the societal expectations as Gerald and Laura do?
Your conclusions will be just that, yours. But it is certain that mixed into the humor is fear of the consequences of our impulses. What happens when the mask of civility is removed? It is we have seen occur in our world in the last of year, particularly in the political world.
Director Gordon Edelstein has done an excellent job keeping the play moving and the audience guessing. He hints at all of the possible interpretations and establishes the dynamics between the characters.
The four person cast plays off each other very well, even though there was a last minute
cast change. Craig Bierko was originally playing Gerald but he left the cast for reasons undisclosed. Luckily John Stamburg who had played the role at the Old Globe Theater (the co-presenter with Long Wharf of the play) in San Diego was able to step into the role. It is interesting that the other cast members from the Old Globe are not in this production. Rather unusual with a co-presentation.
Patrick Breen’s Norm is just as the name implies – a normal guy who keeps his emotions under control and seems a little bland. Yet he also lets you see in some of the scenes with Corky that there is something simmering below the surface. The mild manner appears forced.
Corky as played by Arden Myrin is his equal – seemingly bland and sensitive. But again it seems not quite real; Corky is playing a role perhaps due to the unexplained but acknowledged past marital problems.
Gerald and Laura are the showy roles. Josh Stamberg’s Gerald is all testosterone and bluster. He is the person who announces how much the wine he brings costs. Stamberg captures this bluster in both voice and movements; yet somehow you have an inkling that it is just for show to cover up insecurities. Sophina Brown’s Laura is all sex from her low cut, tight dress, to her movement and sexy voice. But is it a caricature or a real person?
John Gromada has composed the original music and handled the sound design which includes the crashing of the meteor. Jess Goldstein’s costumes add to our understanding of the characters.
Meteor Showers is a fascinating evening in the theater. It is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven through Oct. 23. For tickets visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.
By Karen Isaacs
The four artistic directors who have helped Long Wharf Theater win acclaim during its 50 years history, looked back on that history on June 7 with moderator Colin McEnroe of WNPR.
Jon Jory(1965-67) founded the theater with Harlan Kleiman. After leaving Long Wharf, he went on to become the producing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville and served as artistic director of the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Arvin Brown (1967-1998) was hired by Jory while still a student at Yale Drama School to work with the apprentice program and children’s theater but was soon directing plays. When Jory left, Brown took over as Artistic Director and worked closely with Managing Director Edgar Rosenblum to establish Long Wharf’s national and international reputation. Under their guidance, Long Wharf won a Tony for best regional theater. Now Brown directs a variety of television projects and series episodes.
Doug Hughes (1997-2001) had a comparatively short tenure at Long Wharf leaving after some disagreements with the board. He has gone on to a successful career directing on Broadway and off-Broadway including winning a Tony award for Doubt and he currently works with the Manhattan Theater Club.
Gordon Edelstein (2002 to present) has seen several productions move to off-Broadway (My Name is Asher Lev, Satchmo at the Waldorf) and other theaters (The Glass Menagerie); he has also worked extensively with Athol Fugard.
Some highlights of the panel:
ory and Kleiman combed the pages of the New Haven Register and developed a list of people who attended benefits for arts organizations. They then “cold” called them to raise the initial $125,000 needed to renovate the space and start the theater. When they had raised $85k they decided to go ahead, hoping that the donors would not let the venture fail.
The Crucible was the first play produced by the new Long Wharf Theater in 1965. There was no theatrical lighting for that initial production. It was summer production.
Arvin Brown had never directed a full-length play when Jon Jory asked him to direct A Long Day’s Journey into Night with Mildred Dunnock and he worried that she and the rest of the cast would guess his inexperience. When years later she learned about it, she was shocked.
Jory recounted that it wasn’t until he was in rehearsal for Moliere’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself that he learned from someone that he was using a translation geared for high school students.
The role of the artistic director and director:
“I think of myself as a placeholder for the audience,” Hughes said. As a director, he becomes obsolete once the audience is there. In shaping a season, Hughes said his aim was to make my enthusiasms contagious.”
“My job is to create an atmosphere where the actor’s artistry can flower,” Brown said.
Jory who feels that the audience was most important in a comedy, also believes that directors work on “infinitesimal” moments in a play. “You are at your peril if you become the audience.”
“You and the cast must have an original agreement on what you are trying to accomplish,” Jory said.
What Long Wharf audiences expect and complain about:
Seasons that are literate, open, honest — Edelstein. “You get complaints about everything” and referred to the scene between the puppets in The Long Xmas Ride Home and the urination in The Curse of the Starving Class.
Brown mentioned audience consternation at the ritual killing in Afore Night Comes as something that upset audiences.
Audiences at theaters like Long Wharf, Jory said have a different relationship with material because of their relationship with the theater itself. It is often almost proprietary.
Edelstein also mentioned the strong response to 16 Wounded which dealt with the Palestinian -Israeli conflict. The audience was so divided that one night two people almost came to blows in the lobby.
There is always an underground river in a play, Hughes said, and Long Wharf audiences accept that and are engaged by it.
Role of theater in society
“People are awakened to how they actually feel,” Hughes said. “The stage is a microscope which gives audiences the gift of focus. It awakens them to how they really feel.”
Violence on stage “is visceral in a way we’ve lost in other media,” Brown said. He referenced the production of Streamers which actually saw people “pass out” in the theater due to the immediacy of the violence.
Stage II opened with the world premier of Wit which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, during Hughes’ tenure.
The production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Mike Nichols (who had directed the Oscar winning film) and Elaine May, his former comedy partner. Arvin Brown directed. He recounted that the initial reading was terrific but that Nichols announced that his theory of directing was to work on Act One until it was perfect, and then the other acts “would fall into place.” So that was what they did. The result was that the last act was not performed until one of the final rehearsals.
An additional moment from that production — Edward Albee saw the final run through. Afterwards, he said to Nichols, “When you were doing the film you said you had insight into the play. [pause] I’m still waiting.”
For Hughes it was The Importance of Being Ernest with Christopher Evan Welch, Tony winner Jefferson Mays as Jack and Edward Hibbard as Lady Bracknell.
American Buffalo with Al Pacino was the moment for Brown.
Doug Hughes first saw a play at Long Wharf when he drove down from Harvard to see Lillian Hellman’s Autumn Gardens. Brown added that when Hellman came to see the show, he took her the old Leon’s; when she complained to a waitress about the preparation of a dish and told the waitress to “go back and tell the chef,” the waitress replied, “Honey, you go back and tell him.”
Jory said it was the first show, The Crucible.
For Edelstein it was getting new plays from Athol Fugard.
Although the forum lasted just 90 plus minutes, you had the feeling that the four could have gone on telling stories and discussing their views of theater for so much longer. You wanted to hear them.
By Karen Isaacs
Edith Galt Wilson has sometimes been termed “the first female President” for how she shielded her husband Woodrow Wilson from his advisors and the world in 1919 after he suffered a stroke. Historians have painted a picture of a woman who during that period made important policy decisions in her husband’s name and signed his name to documents. Some have said, she was partly to blame that the US Senate refused to approve the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and established the League of Nations. (The US never did join the League and never did sign the Treaty; Congress finally passed a separate resolution ending the hostilities).
So in our modern time when the idea of an elected woman president seems a real possibility — and with the partisan gridlock in Washington between Republicans and Democrats, the President and the Congress — looking at that period and those characters — Edith Wilson, Woodrow Wilson and the Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge (a Republican) certainly could make interesting and thought-provoking theater.
This was long before the 25th amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1967) which dealt with the difficult issues of presidential physical or mental incapacity and succession.
The Second Mrs. Wilson which is getting its world premier at Long Wharf attempts to explore this subject.
The play by Joe DiPietro is told in chronological order. It opens in 1915, when Wilson — a widower for less than a year — falls in love with Edith Galt, whose husband had left her a jewelry shop which she has successfully run. His close aides including Colonel House who had been with him for many, many years and his press secretary, Tumulty are less than enthusiastic. Wilson is facing a tough re-election campaign and the aides are concerned how the public will react to the romance; they obviously also had deep affection for Ellen Wilson, the former First Lady. We are also introduced to the animosity between Wilson and Sen. Lodge. Remember this is during WWI and Lodge publically castigates Wilson for not getting the US into the war even as German ships sink British boats (including the Lusitania) and kill American citizens.
At times, act one seems like a pleasant romantic comedy about a middle-aged couple finding a second chance at romance. The president is positively giddy with delight and desire. But DiPietro never really makes clear what the attraction — except perhaps physical — exists between the couple. In reality they did share interests in automobiles (still new fangled inventions) and golf. We do get a touch of some of Wilson ‘s medical problems: blinding headings, nervous strain and more. We also see his moral certitude: the war is wrong and he will not send American boys to die on foreign battlefields.
But it is also hard to swallow that Wilson would be seriously interested in Edith. He had a PhD in history and had served as president of Princeton University before becoming governor of New Jersey. Edith, in one of the early scenes, is totally oblivious to what is going in Europe (the war broke out in 1914) except that it will prevent her from going to Paris to buy couture gowns at the House of Worth. She is equally uninformed about the Constitution and the political system among other things.
But she is shown to be determined: she immediately decides she doesn’t like Colonel House and undermines him in Wilson’s eyes quickly and deftly. The woman had political skills. By the time the act ends they are married before the election, to the consternation of his advisors.
Act II finds us in early 1919. America did get into the war in 1917and American soldiers did die on foreign battlefields. Wilson now has another moral certitude: he has a plan to “end all wars” and 14 points that he wants in the peace treaty. So he and Edith are off to Paris where they are hailed and mobbed as heroes and he helps negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. Included in that Treaty is the outline for the League of Nations, Wilson’s plan for eliminating war. Historians will later point out that many of the punitive clauses of the Treaty were important factors in the rise of Hitler and subsequently, World War II.
As he and Edith return to the US, the real issue is Senate opposition — led by Lodge but not confined to either him or the Republicans — to the League. The argument was really one of sovereignty. One of the premises of the Covenant, as it was called, would require all nations to attack any nation that went to war. As Lodge and others pointed out, that is power granted by the US Constitution to Congress.
With Edith by his side, Wilson undertakes a grueling whistle stop campaign of speeches to drum up support for the war. It is during one of these that he suffers the stroke from which he never fully recovers.
Edith totally takes over. She allows no-one — not even Wilson’s closest advisors to see him; all official papers must go through her and she decides which she will discuss with him during his “good moments”. The stroke partially paralyzed him, and while did not necessarily severely affect his reasoning ability did both limit his speech and contributed to emotional outbursts. As his aides struggle to shield the press, the public and Congress from his condition, they are also attempting to find some compromise that would garner the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the treaty. Neither Edith nor Wilson are willing to move one inch.
The play ends with the Senate defeat of the Treaty. By the way, Wilson never fully recovered and died in 1921; Edith lived on in Washington until 1961.
If the first act plays like romantic comedy, act two cannot decide what its focus is: Edith and her bullying of everyone to protect and hide Wilson’s condition, or the fight to save the Treaty. It appears that DiPietro went for the first option. While one can understand Edith’s wifely devotion to Wilson and his dreams of the League, it is also appalling to modern audiences — her cavalier disregard for the spirit of the Constitution and her usurpation of the authority of the President. For that is exactly what she did: she made major policy decisions on her own authority and she forged Wilson’s signature on others.
Unfortunately in this play, the balance is off. The aides and even Senator Lodge are minimized as characters in the second half so that the issues are never really illuminated. Probably Edith did not allow a discussion but the audience doesn’t even really see the others discussing among themselves the realities of the situation.
With any creative work based on history, the author is allowed to some degree veer away from total historical accuracy. Though DiPietro does this in some significant ways, it is not egregious and does not substantially alter what went on.
The Long Wharf production, directed by Gordon Edelstein, features a lush set by Alexander Dodge that in the rear looks likes a gentleman’s club of the period replete with pool table. Linda Cho’s costumes are accurate for the period and the lighting by Christopher Akerlind creates the mood effectively.
Margaret Colin as Edith gives us a woman who knows how to use her Southern charm but is also a steel butterfly. In the early scenes you almost see her calculating her feelings for Wilson (which were more hesitant than his) with the prestige and status that would accrue. This woman is determined. Later on you feel her affection for Wilson and her influence on him. She begins to control him more and more and undermine his aides. It is clear she is enjoying the power and wants to use it fully.
John Glover gives us a Wilson that is focused on only two aspects of the man: his delight in his later-age romance and his moral certainty about his decisions leading to an unwillingness to compromise because God had ordained it. As he says to Lodge in the play, “how could any good Christian reject this covenant?” In the last half of act two, Glover is really limited to some childishly emotional outbursts as the stricken Wilson.
Harry Groener as Colonel House essentially disappears in act two; he could have been a foil to Edith and also helped illuminate the issue. Fred Applegate plays Joe Tumulty. The biggest disappointment is Nick Wyman as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge — he neither has the carriage nor the sound of a Boston Brahmin and he certainly does not convey the power of this man who in many ways was a certain of his “rightness” as Wilson was. Stephen Barker Turner is Dr. Cary Grayson, who is complicit with Edith in hiding the President’s condition.
Unfortunately, rather than give us a more substantive discussion of this relationship and its effect on the world, author Joe DiPietro has elected to make this a rather lightweight comedy. Too bad.
So if you want a romantic comedy dressed up as history, you may enjoy The Second Mrs. Wilson. If you would like a more substantive approach to the subject see if you can a copy of the book, When the Cheering Stopped OR a copy of the play, Edith by Kelly Masterson which covers much the same territory in a more thoughtful way.
The Second Mrs. Wilson is at Long Wharf through May 31. For tickets go to Long Wharf.
By Karen Isaacs
Watching and listening to the ideas ricochet around the Long Wharf stage in its fine production of Picasso at Lapin Agile is a lot like watching a pinball machine played by a master. Just keeping up may seem like a daunting task to some viewers. Others will find it an intellectual delight.
The Stave Martin comedy, here directed by Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, is pure fiction: a young Picasso and a young Einstein meet in a Parisian cafe in 1904 where the egos and the ideas are fully on display.
Picasso is becoming well known, both for his art and his attractiveness to the ladies. Einstein is just developing his theories while working in the patent office. But he is convinced he will meet the woman of his dreams in this bar, even though they had set another meeting place.
What happens is scarcely what matters. What does matter is how Martin keeps the ideas spinning. Ideas about art, science, creativity, ego, love, jealousy and sex. How all of them tie together and how each is dependent on the other.
While Picasso (played by Grayson DeJesus) and Einstein (played by Robbie Tan) are the central characters, they need the surrounding company to make it all work. These include the bar/cafe owner who is surprisingly familiar with art, though perhaps since his bar is on the left bank this may be it is not so surprising; his wife; an art dealer; an elderly patron; various women looking for either Picasso or Einstein, and an American inventor.
Each contributes something to the discussion of the multiple subjects of Martin’s discourse.
Edelstein has selected an outstanding cast for this production. Donald Marguilies almost steals the show as the elderly man who provides both some humor and also some of the regrets about what is no
longer possible. His timing and the warmth of his characterization, mixed with acerbity is perfect. Jonathan Spivey as the American inventor — and supreme egotist — Charles Dabernow Schmendlman — captures both the braggadocio of the character and its American “can-do” confidence.
Tom Rhs Farrell and Penny Falfour are well matched as the cafe owner and wife — he waxing philosophical about art and she setting up a rendenz-vous with Picasso.
Robbie Tann as Einstein and Grayson DeJesus as Picasso are well matched. Each portrays utter confidence in their destinies. As Einstein points out to Picasso — they both are creative geniuses.
Michael Yeargan has created a authentic looking Parisian cafe of the period and Jess Goldstein’s costumes continue the early 20th century mood. Donald Holder’s lighting designs provide subtle clues.
Edelstein’s direction is sure handed; getting the laughs but also letting the ideas flower.
Picasso at Lapin Agile (which mean agile rabbit) is good fun for those who like ideas mixed with their laughs. It runs through Dec. 21.