Friday, July 28, 2006

Barrington Stage's "Wonder of the World" Wacky, Bizarro, Effective

David Lindsay-Abaire's oddball rather than screwball comedy, "Wonder of the World" is, at its best, reminiscent of laugh-out-loud sketches one might have enjoyed during Saturday Night Live's crazed but sterling early days.

Keira Naughton plays the leading, manic, desperate leading lady - Cass. She's walking away from her Park Slope apartment and seemingly good-guy husband, Kip (Brian Hutchison). Cass boards a bus for Niagara Falls. Having discovered a disburbing secret amid her husband's sweater drawer, Cass departs asap. Lois (Finnerty Steeves who was splendid recently in the NYC staging of "Almost, Maine") sits next to Lois on the bus. Lois has a drinking problem and a disposition toward committing suicide. Turns out she and Lois, who share a room near the Falls become wonderful, rib-tickling (for the audience) pals. Lois never manages to tumble over the Falls in her barrel.

Cass falls (forgive me) for Captain Mike (Dan Cantor), whose wife recently passed on due to a peanut butter escapade. (By the way, Costco even has a place within WOW).

Susan Louise O'Connor, multi-cast as a helicopter pilot, three waitresses (Pocahontas and a screeching individual included), is stunningly versatile.

Also on the scene are Karla (Libby George) and Glen (William Bogert) -- private investigators nobody in his right mind would ever hire. But, they're edgy, nudgy, and far off-center. They might as well be wearing all left shoes.

Rob Ruggiero, who is most-often found directing at Hartford TheaterWorks, also mounts plays each summer for Barrington Stage. Ruggiero is an important contributor; otherwise, the actors might occasionally and literally trip over one another. Rob is fortunate enough to work with Luke Hegel-Cantarella's sliding, folding, pliable set. In short, the scenic design is terrific.

Keira Naughton is a fine actress. I will attest to that, having seen her perform during past summers in Williamstown. This time around, she's good but appears, at times, to be making too strong an effort to milk each moment. Again, she is clearly talented and understands comic timing. She needs to relax, trust her instincts, and play off the able ensemble members who surround her.

Steeves is a hoot and (intending praise here) she reminds me of Jeanine Garafalo. Her role insists that Lois counter Cass with one or two liners and Steeves comes through again and again.

"Wonder of the World" is occasionally hilarious, oftentimes just plain funny. That's a no-brainer.
Lindsay-Adaire also has something to say. At least three of his characters question the value of continued life above ground. The playwright, beneath the comedy, probes about the tentative quality of existence. Kind of fits in with the current landscape, I would say.

Barrington Stage Company, biding its time for just a few weeks until settling into its permanent home in Pittsfield, brings "Wonder of the World" to Lenox High School's Duffin Theatre through August 5.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Coastal Disturbances are predictable in Howe's play

Tina Howe, has been, for me, an inspiring playwright -- until I saw, with great anticipation, "Coastal Disturbances" at the Berkshire Theater Festival yesterday. The play, despite energetic performances and a lovely sand/lifeguard stand setting, is terribly flat. Doesn't surprise, doesn't move, doesn't hold attention. It isn't bad but it hasn't an edge or the eclectic type of humor -- qualities which distinguish some of her other plays.

I saw "Painting Churches" twenty years ago at StageWest and the production sticks with me. I remember performances by Ellen Lauren and Anne Pitoniak but had to look up the name of the third actor -- John Straub. Eric Hill directed.

As a community college theater director, I chose to stage "The Art of Dining" (slapstick) and "Museum" (parody). Lotta fun and some patrons laughed (I hope with us) as they departed the theater.

"Coastal" boasts intriguing if recognizable characters. Annie Parisse is sublime as Holly Dancer (a photographer who has wandered onto a beach north of Boston). She cannot desist from falling for muscular lifeguard Leo Hart (Jeremy Davidson). He can't keep his hands to himself, eventually burries her in the sand.

Meanwhile, Ariel Took (Jennifer Van Dyck), a divorcee, berates her most obnoxious young son, Winston (Rider Stanton). Ariel's friend Faith (Marcia DeBonis) speaks of the lifeguard's physical and undeniable attributes. M. J. Adams (Patricia Conolly) and her husband Hamilton (Jack Davidson) have been married for decades -- somehow -- since they've endured indignities, cheating.....

Late on the scene is full-of-himself Andre Sor (Francois Giroday) who will provide the artiste, Holly (also his lover), with a major show for her work. Holly skips jauntily out of Leo's reach, settles within Andre's welcoming arms, and leaves the beach.

Howe has written in a love triangle. But, Andre is thoroughly unsympathetic, Holly betrays her physical instincts, and poor Leo (not surprisingly miffed and irritated) tends to the final days of his summer job. During the second act, I had high hopes that Howe's conclusion would be: wry, dark, ironic, unsettling -- something! No such luck.

I expected more. Howe is a fine dialogue writer. Bill Clarke's scenic design is charming. Dan Koglowitz shifts his lighting accordingly from broad daylight to sunset hues.

Not enough happens. Hence, "Coastal Disturbances" is not especially disturbing.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

"Trying: A Play About Generations" (three plus stars)

At TheaterWorks in Hartford through July 28 as a few supplementary performances have been added on, "Trying" is about friendship. It is subtitled "a play about generatrions." Judge Francis Biddle (Michael McGuire), now 87, worked as Attorney General when Franklin Roosevelt was president. Sara Schorr (Lena Kaminsky) 25, arrives in Philadelphia (it is now 1967) via her native land of Canada. She is tight-lipped, sharp, highly functional, and cannot keep all of her notions to herself.

He is cranky, professorial, sardonic but also warm-hearted. She is caught in an unfortunate marriage and (paradoxically) becomes drawn to Biddle. He corrects her tendency to split an infinitive, coaxes Lena to take charge of his checkbook, waxes on about the future or lack of pertaining to political liberalism.

Joanna McClelland Glass has written a script which (unlike many contemporary stage books) hooks the viewer during its opening moment. Glass develops characters and Biddle is drawn with deft, clever, precise brush strokes. McGuire has taken physical nuance to the maximum here and his consequent performance is riveting on a couple of levels. For the acting student, McGuire demonstrates discipline as he matches word to physical gesture. This is how it should be done. He is always aware of his audience. Hence, McGuire's turn is as proficient as might be imagined. His timing is perfect and he his able to take each comic line and spin it towards the audience. Enviable work.

She, the foil but finally the friend, understates her role as secretary. Initially submissive, she soon steps up to Biddle, sticking him with a few barbs of her own. The repartee, flying back and forth like a ping pong ball) marks "Trying" with distinction.

Steve Campo, as director, must make certain that the proceedings push forward. Except for a short portion of time after intermission, the dialogue compels. Campo has the actors positioned on an angle which allows the audience to become active.

Glass has written about morality as she composed "Trying," a script evidently drawn from reality. Biddle will soon die, he knows it, minces no words about his remaining time. Sarah is beginning her career and about to give birth. Still, each learns from the other. She understands that obstacles are tantamount to existence. He sees that he must not become completely myopic -- that he must include others within his vision regardless his limited time.

This play's success is very much dependent upon actors' sense of one another. It probably doesn't take a whole lot to posit that as the run evolves the protagonists are increasingly effective. They probably have one another's lines committed to memory. Toss them onto another set and they most assuredly would run through the play.

The scenic design, by the way, is quite helpful. Adrain W. Jones provides a wooded interior serving as Biddle's library and study. It comes complete with period typewriter, cot, etc.

"Trying" is also quite amusing, in its wry and witty modes. Biddle, a parody of the still dapper but limping and arthritic elder statesman, milks his moments. Sarah is imitimidated -- for the first minute of the play. Then, she smiles and holds her own. That she is from Saskatchewan and an a couple of rungs beneath Biddle when it comes to social class matters not. If this woman had a candle, she might, by the end of the dialogue, hold it clearly up to Biddle's eye.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Burnt Part Boys -- BSC Musical Theatre Lab

"The Burnt Part Boys" features musical compositions which are (quite favorably) "Rent"-like.
Chris Miller, the composer for the Barrington Stage Company show, won the Jonathan Larson (Rent-creator) Award three years ago. Any connections or influence in the air?

This musical, still evolving, fills the intimate, inviting confines of a basement theater at the Berkshire Atheaeum in Pittsfield with joy (amid darkness), harmony, and music in a minor key which often resolves. Pretty wonderful couple of hours.

Six adolescents (okay some seem post-teen) search for their fathers, whom they've lost through an accident in a mine. It's the early 1960s; the music is universal in time.

The director, Joe Calarco, and his obviously talented design team must have arrived at the performance space six or so weeks ago, taken a look, and smiled. Colarco and musical director/keyboard artist Deborah Abramson place three musicians on a landing which looks down upon the stage. The actors move along a rectangular plane as they play to theatergoers on either side. Everyone has an excellent view of the proceedings. Chris Lee, who lights, the show, is pivotal. He must create sunshine or shadow, according to need and mood.

What's going on here is that Pete (Daniel Zitchik), Dusty (Robert Krecklow), Frances (Katherine McClain) to reconnect with their fathers -- who are gone, physically, forever. "Burnt Part Boys" is about journey: of the self; toward understanding of life and death; about moving onward in the midst of personal tragedy.

The music is absolutely stunning. A group of miners, including Joseph Breen, Robert Dalton, Drew Davidson, and Brian Litscher open with a truly moving acappella version of "God's Eyes."
That sets the tone and terrific numbers follow suit.

Soloist Halle Petro, as Annie, does a splendid job with "Loving the Boy," and, in a more comic vein, "Lost," during the second act.

With a book by Mariana Elder and lyrics by Nathan Tysen, "Burnt Part Boys" speaks of past, present, and, by implication, future. The mix of Equity with non-Equity acting personnel makes for a terrific ensemble.

But, without Joe Calarco's direction, this production loses zip, appeal, and its charismatic charm. I've directed more than thirty-five non-professional shows myself and (as a critic) have reviewed more than my share of high level regional stage Typically, I join hands with those who allow actors room to discover -- voices, character, physicality and so forth. That philosophy, however, would fall a bit short when it comes to "The Burnt Part Boys" at the Berkshire Athenaeum. Without an individual at the helm who makes specific blocking decisions, establishes pace, and facilitates flow, the musical cannot prosper. Kudos, then, to Colarco who must have been a galvanic figure during the rehearsal process.

Brian Prather is an imaginative set designer who utilizes ladders (on wheels), wooden chairs to symbolize wooded or hilly terrain. This scenic choice bests a literal representation.

This play demonstrates nifty symmetry as the miners open and (all but) conclude the production with their voices. That device is mood setting at the outset and it brings closure, too.
As a theater piece, this one needs attention and editing about two-thirds of the way through the opening act when the action flags just a bit.

Presented as a portion of Barrington Stage Company's Stage II: Musical Theatre Lab (led by the estimable William Finn), "The Burnt Part Boys" is most promising. Julie Boyd's notion to grant the public access to works in-process yet not quite at peak, is a fine and welcome idea. Audiences will gravitate. The run has just been extended through July 15.