Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"Doubt" Benefits from Superlative Performances

"Doubt," winner of multiple Tony Awards and, for its author, the Pulitzer Prize, plays Hartford's Bushnell Theater through Sunday. It is thrilling to have such commanding and provocative drama in our midst. The play deserves its accolades.

Set in the mid-1960s at a Catholic school in the Bronx, John Patrick Shanley's script finds Father Flynn (Chris McGarry), priest and basketball coach, paying special attention of some sort, to the only African-American student, Joseph Muller. Youthful, insecure Sister James (Lisa Joyce) has made an observation regarding Flynn's response to the ten year old boy and she conveys this to Sister Alysius (Cherry Jones), also principal of the school.

It's impossible for anyone within proximity of the stage not to stare at Jones - in admiration. A truly profound actor, Jones alters her carriage, posture, head position, and mouth to fully inhabit the dedicated, troubled nun. Sister Aloysius is righteous, and, until the final moment of the production, seemingly one hundred percent assured -- even if her conviction of mind is based upon intuitive sense rather than hard knowledge.

We never really know whether Father Flynn has, as the senior nun suggests, seduced young Muller. Ultimately, the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller (Caroline Stefanie Clay) confers with Sioster Aloysius in an emotionally intense scene.

"Doubt" is filled with conflict and while the subject matter is not new, its treatment, within the capable hands of director Doug Hughes, is fresh and riveting. The presentation catapults into high drama after Father Flynn's opening monologue. The initial speech about doubt, which is delivered without significant resonance, is not an indicator of what will occur.

Shanley builds in many crescendos and ultimately, leaves it up to the individual theatergoer to determine whether he/she believes that the priest has actually abused the student. Sister Aloysius must reach deeply within her reservoir of faith to become just as certain as she appears to be.

The playwright does an excellent job of allowing for divergence of opinion. Shanley provides Father Flynn with the opportunity to state his strong case. Sister James (and Joyce is appealing through her Bronx accent) is, by implication, more complex than she wishes to be.

The level of performance demonstrated by the quartet of touring actors is enviable. Jones, without any doubt, deservedly received the Tony. That she continues with such fire, conviction, and truth is remarkable. She is surrounded by actors who assist the production as they act with significant skill and understanding.

The plot fueling "Doubt" is fairly straight ahead. And, Shanley provides humor during the first half of the ninety-five minute show.

Thereafter, everyone in the theater watches and listens with heightened attention and uneasy anticipation.; (860) 987-5900.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Cocktail Hour" at Long Wharf -- WASP Craft

Recognizable and familiar, four White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, characters within A. R. Gurney's "The Cocktail Hour" are affecting and just multi-dimensional enough to pique interest. Long Wharf Theater, in New Haven, revives the play which benefits from Kim Rubinstein's direction -- she pushes it forward. You might not wish to revisit a society which opens the curtain on: mixed drinks, repression of feelings, the power of the almighty dollar, and a kind of stylized dress which has been appropriate for any given decade since, say the 1950s. That said, this script still catches one off guard. Gurney is a fluent, observant writer and this particular production is winning.

John (Rob Campbell) arrives at his parents' home (in a small upstate New York hamlet) one stirling autumn Saturday in the mid-1970s to inform his father that a play he (John) has written will soon be staged in Manhattan. John's play and his life center about his belief that his father, Bradley (John Cunningham), never really loved him. John, now around forty, is vulnerable. His father proffers a check for twenty thousand dollars in an effort to divert the grown son from bringing the play to the city. Bradley also wishes his other son, Jigger, had come around.

Actress Mary Beth Peil plays Ann, mother and wife. She is the picture of aristocracy and hopes that John will listen to her suggestion that he convert the play into a book - since that form is far safer. We learn, during the second act, that while her children were growing, Ann was writing a six hundred plus page book which she ultimately destroyed.

Nina, John's sister (Ann Talman) has her own issues. She loves dogs to the point of obsession. Further, Nina is not thrilled when she learns that her character in John's play is quite minor. She pulls through and becomes helpful when the kitchen help ruins a pot roast -- and dinner.

The stage bears the grace and vision of scenic designer Michael Yeargan. He won the Tony Award for "A Light in the Piazza" a couple of years ago and was nominated for his set design, last year, for "Awake and Sing." Yeargan has been creating sets on Connecticut stages for years. No one who saw his luminous creation for "The Return of Martin Guerre" at Hartford Stage will ever forget it.

This time, he fashions ten white-framed windows along the lengthy rear wall of the living room (LW stage). We see bright yellows, oranges, and reds -- fall's colors in abstract form. The choice, assisted by Pat Collins' lighting, influences rather than dominates the show. Just outside the three walls, on the exterior of the room, rest fallen leaves -- similar in hue to the window images.

Candice Donnelly dresses the four men in appropriate sport coats; and the women wear modest, conservative, suitable outfits.

Andre Pluess provides tone-setting music which plays a few times during the performance but not concurrent to dialogue delivery.

Cunningham and Peil lead an excellent cast. I thought, for a time, that I had a problem with Talman's portrayal of Nina. On second thought, however, it's my antipathy toward the character which is upsetting. In other words, Talman probably is doing a fine job. Campbell, as John, gets the WASP persona. His brown tousled hair makes for a precise look.

I attended a midweek matinee and almost every member of the audience could be considered an elderly citizen. They laughed often, catching Gurney's sneaky humor and innuendo.

"The Cocktail Hour" may be a period piece. That period, for better or worse, remains with us.

The play continues through Feb. 4.; (203) 787-4284.

Friday, January 12, 2007

"In the Continuum" - Spirit and Soul - Personal Impact - HIV

While MFA students in acting at NYU, Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira were independently composing monologues addressing: AIDS. One professor suggested that the individual efforts might be combined. The result: startling, poignant theater: "In the Continuum." The world premiere at Primary Stages in New York and the subsequent run at Perry Street Theatre led to stops in various cities. Now, New Haven's Yale Repertory wisely presents this searing, spirited play performed by the women who wrote the piece through Feb. 10.

Abigail (Gurira) reads the news for Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and her career is ascending. Upset about her marriage, she anticipates that when her second child is born, the relationship with her husband will improve. Instead, she is HIV-positive and this, she realizes, will abruptly end the marriage.

Nia (Salter), from Los Angeles, is involved with a wannabe National Basketball Association star. She believes that Darnell, still in high school, will find his promised land within the NBA. But, Nia has AIDS. The dream will be forever dashed.

The women, as primary characters, never exchange dialogue with one another. Yet Salter will also play her boyfriend's mother; a social worker, and others. Gurira, too, takes on multiple roles such as a witch doctor.

Director Robert O'Hara opens the production as the women, whose energy is palpable, move in circles as they explain, implore, and fully engage the audience. They are intense, emotionally available people whose lives have been immediately and absolutely disrupted. "In the Continuum" permits them to remote, to fully emote.....

Sarah Hillard costumes the two women in black. Each, however, utilizes fabric of color to enhance, transform, and alter physical appearance. Peter R. Feuchtwanger essentially clears the stage and allows the blinding drama (which includes moments of humor) to reach crescendo after crescendo.

"In the Continuum" flashes before your eyes acutely and with immediate tension. Abigail and Nia do not meet but personify parallel figures. That these women, playwrights and performers, feel the import of their passionate words is evidenced through the totality of performance. Wonder about the theory that voice is inclusive of the entire human body? Check out this play.

---End of Review Section---

Personal Blog: One wishes to run up on the stage and hug each of these women. Those of us who crave live theater are so, so thankful. Think about it. Students receive an assignment and begin to write. Women from different global regions, each draws focus upon AIDS. And, to be truthful, we've many times watched films and plays, read books about the epidemic. I cherish those moments when I saw "Angels" and "Rent" early on during NYC runs. AIDS again?

Get real. The play is intimate, revealing, wrenching. Not only that. The performers are electric and the direction, essential, is both necessary and precise. O'Hara is melding two one-women shows. Not easy.

I was gratified to have the opportunity, as an active theater lover, to attend. You will, too.; (203) 432-1234.