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February 20, 2015


To quote Lili in CARNIVAL: “Can you imagine that? Can you imagine that?” The only thing is that what I couldn’t have imagined is that there wouldn’t be a single Broadway opening during the entire month of February.

Yes, it’s the shortest month of the year, but this year it may remain the longest month for those who want the excitement of a new show between Forty-First and Sixty-Fifth Streets. When it happens, we rush to our computers to read what both amateur and professional critics have to say on the latest great big Broadway show.

Ah, well! There IS still life outside of Broadway, thank the Lord, and February hasn’t sold us short on other venues at which to be entertained. For example:

How often do I hear a theatergoer so convulsed by laughter that he must stomp on the floor to release all his mirth? It happened at RASHEEDA SPEAKING, Joel Drake Johnson’s sensational play that The New Group is staging at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Anyone’s who’s worked in an office will relate to this comedy-drama. The doctor who hired Jaclyn (the magnificent Tonya Pinkins) is having seventy-second thoughts about keeping her, but he’s afraid of what Human Resources will say or do if he fires her. Ileen (the superb Diane Wiest) defends her, but damn if we know why after Jaclyn enters. What a complainer she is, down to everything about the every toxin in the air.

Actually, the main toxin turns out to be Jaclyn, as horrible as the doctor described her in the first scene. When dealing with a patient (the always reliable Patricia Connoly), Jaclyn blithely tells the lady “possible tumor” without any concern for what those words will mean to the woman.

Director Cynthia Nixon beautifully builds the tension , especially when Jaclyn tells a story about her eccentric neighbors. Before, Ileen loved these tales, but now, after all that she’s seen Jaclyn do, she just sits there without a shred of commentary, let alone laughter.

Jaclyn reminded me both of Talky Tina, the anti-heroine of a famous TWILIGHT ZONE episode, and Mr. Mannigham, who drove his wife crazy in ANGEL STREET. That hit closed as the fifth-longest-running play in Broadway history, and RASHEEDA SPEAKING deserves no less. It takes a hard (but not long: 95 minutes) look at Affirmative Action, African-American slavery and even what it’s like to sit next to an office worker who feels like talking when you certainly don’t.

And if the ramifications of slavery are still relevant, what about the Holocaust, which had only ended about a dozen years when Ira Levin’s INTERLOCK premiered on Broadway? Literally 57 years to the day that it closed after a mere four performances, I saw it at the Vagabond Players in Baltimore.

This is, by the way, “America’s Oldest Continuously Running Little Theatre,” as the troupe likes to call itself; that it’s in its 100th season certainly supports the claim. Its first production was THE ARTIST by Baltimore’s own H.L. Mencken, but that was trumped the following year after a board member went to Provincetown to meet a playwright named Eugene O’Neill who sold Vagabonds his BOUND EAST FOR CARDIFF (for $15!).

Zelda Fitzgerald’s SCANDALABRA got its world premiere here, too, although it went so poorly that Zelda’s drunken husband – one F. Scott – basically cut the script in half for the remaining performances. The chair on which he did it is one of the Vagabonds’ prize possessions.

Both Mildreds Dunnock and Natwick appeared here as well as Kathleen Turner, but community theater always has great actresses on hand, and here was Laura Gifford to maintain the tradition. She became Mrs. Price, a grande dame who’s been in a wheelchair ever since her husband was involved in a boating accident that killed him. She has taken a shine to her helper Hilde (the able Karina Ferry), a German immigrant who’s engaged to Paul (the solid Rick Lyon-Vaiden), a recent arrival who’s still understandably shaken from his years in a concentration camp. His dreams of being a concert pianist were stalled, but Mrs. Price has a piano and she’d be only too happy to share it. Oh, the lady’s a bit much where pretensions are concerned, but she does seem to want to do good whenever she can.

Paul, however, can’t accept charity, which Levin suggests resulted from the worthlessness he felt in the camps. Hilde convinces him and he is eventually appreciative – for a while. Ever notice that people tend to be grateful for only so long?

These are themes worth exploring, but a hidden secret emerges from Mrs. Price’s servant when asked a question she would know not to answer. For that matter, Mrs. Price wouldn’t keep her around, knowing that the servant has this upper-hand knowledge. If Levin had established that the woman had been paid off, fine, but he never brought that up. So matters could have become terribly melodramatic if director Roy Hammond hadn’t staged the show with such drive and passion.

En route to Baltimore, I stopped at the Delaware Theatre Company to see Michael Mastro’s production of NORA – Ingmar Bergman’s take on A DOLL HOUSE.

Yes, A DOLL HOUSE and not A DOLL’S HOUSE. Ask any Norwegian, even those who don’t know a thing about Ibsen. From Batsfjord to Kristiansand, you’ll hear that it should be A DOLL HOUSE.

All right, Michael’s going to be directing a staged reading of my play ADAM’S GIFTS at the York on Monday, March 2 at 2 p.m., so I may be a little biased. (Do drop in!) I don’t think so, though. He certainly kept Kim Carson on a perfect arc from a giddy young woman who really believes herself when she tells the super-desperate Krogstad (the magnificent Chris Thorn) “You just leave everything to me!” She expects everyone she meets to share her joy to the nth degree and has no idea that something’s coming, something bad. Here’s a lady who will rue that she was born too early to have her Miranda rights read to her, but until then, she’ll literally play the tambourine as her doll house metaphorically burns. Carson takes every necessary step of the journey from Nora’s not having a care in the world to having a world’s worth of care.

And yet, Bergman was careful to include one vital detail. When Nora’s husband Torvald (the excellent David Arrow) insists on being called “Mr. Helmer” by his employee, she’s there to judge it petty. Yes, we’ve got to see some early starch in her for what’s to come.

Hearty masculine laughter greeted Nora’s dismissal that she might one day grow old and ugly. But men and women both were so rapt in attention that when Torvald went to open the off-stage mailbox, the sound of the key turning shook through the house like a thunderbolt.

Set designer Alexis Distler uses the back black wall to represent the house, which makes for a marvelous moment near play’s end when the famous door is rolled on. Before then, there’s a devastating moment when we hear an offstage “Mommy!” that makes even clearer that Nora will soon be walking out on her children.

What’s also impressive is that Bergman was able to condense Ibsen’s lengthy masterpiece in a mere 90 minutes without making a theatergoer feel that he’s missed anything. However, those who miss NORA – there’s still this weekend -- really will miss something.

So who knew that Winston Churchill liked to call his wife “Pussycat” and she enjoying calling him “Pig” – and that the animal imagery continued when they had children? One day when they were all under the table making feline, porcine, bovine and canine noises, the Archbishop of Canterbury walked in and saw the entire menagerie in full voice.

If this is the type of humanizing detail you like in a one-person biographical play, get thee to New World Stages to see Ronald Keaton perform his own CHURCHILL. You’ll also find that the favorite speech he gave was not the famous one about “blood, sweat, toil and tears.” And see if you agree with me that Keaton looks more like Alfred Hitchcock than Churchill. Perhaps that famed director should be his next subject, which would at least allow for the potential of suspense and excitement.

And while there wasn’t an opening on Broadway all month long, there were rumors on each of the 20 days so far that one show is moving there: HAMILTON. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical has already caused my e-mailbox to be filled and has kept my phone ringing. Teenagers, senior citizens and those in-between have all raved, raved, raved. I hope I join them when I write about HAMILTON next Friday.

         — Peter Filichia



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