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April 11, 2014

Six Shows in Six States

Before the excellent revival of A RAISIN IN THE SUN – and, oh, that LaTanya Richardson Jackson! – we hear over the Barrymore’s sound system a long-ago radio interview with Lorraine Hansberry. In it, she bemoans that theater is limited “to six blocks in New York City.”

All right, she exaggerated; at the time it was 11 blocks, from 41st to 52nd Street. But Hansberry had a point. Alas, if she could have lived beyond 1965 – she died at a mere 34 – Hansberry would have been cheered by the just-starting-in-earnest regional theater movement.

In that spirit, I visited six regional theaters in the past couple of weeks and found much to cheer. I only wish that the 83-year-old Hansberry could have been next to me and enjoyed all I witnessed.

There was a time when these theaters routinely offered such mysteries as TEN LITTLE INDIANS and DIAL “M” FOR MURDER. Some wonder why we don’t have plays such as those anymore. But we do have a mystery in another form, thanks to Sharr White’s THE OTHER PLACE at TheaterWorks in Hartford.

The accomplished Juliana Smithton is addressing a seminar on dementia. As she delivers both smart and smart-ass remarks, we think that she’s quite something. In Rob Ruggiero’s mesmerizing production, she indeed is, thanks to Kate Levy’s indelible performance. But Juliana becomes more and more of a mystery as the 82-minute play unfolds. We feel for her because her husband is cheating on her – until we’re unsure that he is. Little by little we get clues that make us question Kate’s methods and intransigence. Then we must ask, “She says she’s 52 - but is she playing with a full deck?”

Those playgoers who start out hating Juliana will find their emotions swerve to sympathy and then pity. And unlike mysteries of the past that did little more than let us know that “Crime doesn’t pay,” White’s work has much more to say. Parents who have been considering evicting their recalcitrant adult still-at-home children may think twice after seeing THE OTHER PLACE.

Don’t you love when a director makes you feel in the first seconds of a production that you’re in superb and intelligent hands? Fred Sullivan, Jr. does just that in his wondrous MACBETH at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Sullivan – a fine actor for 30 years at nearby Trinity Repertory Company of Providence – first plunges us into darkness, then lets us hear the thunder and see via lightning one ominous witch standing tall. Lights out, more thunder and lightning, lights suddenly up on the second ominous witch. Then – well, you can guess.

Through Tony Estrella’s pensive performance, we see Macbeth as a middle-management early victim of The Peter Principle: he rises to his level of incompetence. Of course we can’t blame him for his first promotion; he didn’t get the Thane of Cawdor unThaned. Estrella looks appropriately stunned that a prediction that the witches had made 14 seconds earlier has already come through.

People have surmised that Ricky Ricardo endured Lucy because they were dynamite in bed together. Well, they had nothing on Estrella and the Lady Macbeth of Jeanine Kane; the two kiss with get-a-room lust. Then there’s equal passion in the stinging way she slaps him when he doesn’t follow orders.

Sullivan makes us see that Shakespeare should have called this play THE TRAGEDIES OF THE MACBETHS. Kane has a cri du coeur that lasts so long that if Ethel Merman were still here, she’d ask her for lessons in note-holding. Estrella smartly doesn’t have Macbeth realize the left-handedness of his compliment “Thou art the best o’ th’ cutthroats.” Later, when he says “Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane” almost as if he’s joking, he reveals the extent of his madness. Good thing he won’t live to see how his enemies spit on his severed head. The rest of us respond differently to Macbeth when he (and everyone else) comes out for curtain calls. If the thunder at the top of the show was loud, what we give at the end is louder.

Off to Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre to see what might have been Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s favorite play: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. Long before Mrs. Meers decided that it was “sad to be all alone in the world,” Abby and Martha Brewster (the excellent Mary Martello and Jean Ridley) felt the same. Thus, these elderlies’ elderberry wine is poison-laced -- all in the cause of euthanasia.

Long, too, before Samuel Beckett decided that “Critic!” was the worst name a person could be called, playwright Joseph Kesselring (or show doctors Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse?) had Elaine Harper (the delightful Jennie Eisenhower) so angry with beau Mortimer Brewster (the nifty Damon Bonetti) that she snarled “You – you critic!” Well, let the punishment fit the crime. It’s what Mortimer does for a living (back in a time – 1941 -- when one COULD make a living as a drama critic). Thus we get plenty of jokes about the profession – Abby’s “Oh, Mortimer hates the theater” … Mortimer’s “I’ll see the first act and pan the hell out of it.” Alas, these gags don’t register with the audience. For that matter, the theatergoers can’t infer from “Bully!” or “Dee-lighted!” that the character in the Spanish-American-war-era military uniform believed himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. What a difference from 1941, when even thirtysomething theatergoers had first-hand memories of the 26th president and immediately laughed out of recognition.

Did the audience even get the reference to the semi-forgotten Boris Karloff, whom evil brother Jonathan Brewster (the apt Dan Olmstead) now resembles after a plastic surgery even less successful than any of Joan Rivers’? No one knew it at the time, but the playwright(s) would have done better to choose Bela Lugosi, whose memorabilia now outsells Boris Karloff’s by a substantial margin (at least according to the delicious film ED WOOD).

Despite all this, uproarious guffaws that greeted the rest of the script couldn’t have been any louder when the play was en route to becoming the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history. There are still enough belly laughs to fill several Salvation Army Santa Clauses. Charles Abbott’s sure-handed production is straightforward aside from one slightly different reading. Usually when Teddy remarks to the ruined-faced Jonathan “You look like someone I met in the jungle,” he says it blithely with malice towards none. But here, Ben Dibble’s (superb) Teddy knows when he’s being threatened, and says it insult drenched in, shall-we-say, arsenic?

Down to Wilmington to see the opening of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ at the Delaware Theatre Company. Richard Maltby, Jr., who directed it here too, tells me that this cast – Doug Eskew, Eugene Fleming, Kecia Lewis, Cynthia Thomas and Debra Walton -- is the closest he’s had to the original that won a Tony for him, the show and Nell Carter. And while Maltby’s obviously experienced more AIN’TS than I (this was my ninth), here’s the finest quintet I’ve seen in the last (can it already be?) 36 years.

You can always tell how much an audience is enjoying a show when the performers come forth, raise their two arms high and start clapping in rhythm. This universal symbol for “Now you do the same” usually winds up having an audience clap as the long as the performers continue – but not much longer. However, the first-nighters kept clapping until the end of the song. That’s proof positive that they genuinely felt what the performers wanted them to feel.

Next at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, I am certainly not in mourning for my life at Maria Aitken’s swift production of THE SEAGULL. Seldom has a production that nears three hours moved as quickly.

“I think a play ought to have a love story,” says Nina (the charming Auden Thornton). In fact, THE SEAGULL has a few of them: Medvedenko loves Masha who loves Konstantin who loves Nina who loves Trigorin who’s loved by Arkadina. Whew!

No good comes to any of them. Credit Aitken for casting heavy-set Meredith Holzman as Masha; charts may tell us that she’s overweight, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be the rabid object of a man’s affection. Too bad she accepts Medvedenko once she sees Konstantin will never be hers; Chekhov knew that when you marry on the rebound, you pay now and forever.

Morgan Ritchie solidly delivers Konstantin’s monologue in which he complains about his actress-mother’s limited view (in his view) of art. “I take to my heels and run,” he roars, “as Maupassant ran from the Eiffel Tower, which crushed his brain by its overwhelming vulgarity.”

I love that line. Remember, the Eiffel Tower was a mere seven years old when THE SEAGULL opened in 1896 – and the jury was still out on whether it was a monstrosity or a monument of glorious proportions. Was Chekhov suggesting that Konstantin couldn’t recognize greatness when he saw it? Or did the playwright agree with Guy de Maupassant?

The audience holds its collective breath as Ritchie delivers the line that his mother’s “drawing-room is filled with nothing but celebrities, actors and writers, and among them all the only nobody, myself, am tolerated only because I’m her son.” It could have come across as autobiographical, for Kate Burton is Ritchie’s mother (and Richard Burton his grandfather). The actor’s surefire performance let us concentrate on the script.

And yet, the family that does plays together stays together, so here’s
Ms. Burton as Arkadina, capturing the grandeur that this Russian actress truly believes she has. Is Burton or Aitken responsible for the wonderful visual distraction that Arkadina makes during Nina’s monologue in Konstantin’s play – when she takes her eyes from the stage and takes time to kill a fly? In dealing with Trigorin (a solid Ted Koch), Burton conveys well that she isn’t threatened by the young Nina … but lets us see a tiny underbelly of fear that she’ll lose him to youth. At play’s end, Burton immediately ages before our eyes, for no matter what anyone tells her, she knows that that loud sound she heard was Konstantin’s suicide by gunshot.

And the last regional theater? Why, it’s one in New York. We’re a region, aren’t we?

LES MISERABLES is not the only show in town with empty chairs at empty tables; Jack Cummings III has ten dining room tables spread across the floor at The Gym at Judson and has the audience sit around the perimeter for John van Druten’s 1944 hit I REMEMBER MAMA.

A cast of 11 not-young women play everyone from Mama to Uncle Chris to sole son Nels. The warm comedy doesn’t need concept staging, but even a cast of 11 is cost-prohibitive, let alone the 22 that the show originally sported.

But Cummings might have opted for this approach because he sees the dining room table as the nerve center of such a family. Maybe he means that Barbara Barrie, playing teen daughter and budding writer Katrin, is now in a senior facility and is putting on a show with her peers.

No matter. Let’s just chalk it up to non-traditional casting. The women are all phenomenal, but none more than the Mama of Barbara Andres in the best performance an actress has given this year.

What a CEO Mama would be today, with her native common sense and sense of fairness. She really runs the Hansen household, although she never makes her husband feel impotent. Mama is simply a natural leader, and her four children – not to mention three sisters – all turn to her for sage advice.

Mama never misses the mark, but more importantly, doesn’t ever lord it over everyone in I-told-you-so fashion. She’s just doing her day-to-day job – but she happens to do it extraordinarily. In a scene where she meets a rich-and-famous author, we see that Mama believes her time is as valuable as anyone else’s. She’s not haughty about it, mind you, but she has a confidence that says all women are created equal. That includes Uncle Chris’ mistress, who’s shunned by the other three sisters. Mama knows what happiness the woman has brought her uncle, and gladly gives the lady her due. Never mind what propriety or religion might demand.

Katrin picks up her mother’s best qualities, but her sister Christine more resembles Aunts Jenny and Sigrid, who aren’t Auntie Mames. When Christine accuses Katrin of making “everything dramatic,” the lass responds “But it is dramatic.” Van Druten proves that in a play where nothing happens and everything happens: a pet must be put down; a brother is saved by art from a bad fate; Mama makes a big sacrifice and Katrin makes one almost as large.

Because Cummings doesn’t extinguish the house lights, I can see Mary Testa, Ann Harada and Jackie Hoffman, all of whom have beatific looks on their faces. And who’d ever expect to see a beatific look on Hoffman’s face? I can even see tears on Testa’s which are matching mine and my girlfriend Linda’s.

After it ends, I say to Linda, “The aunts may have come from Norway, but they reminded me of my Italian aunts Vera and Elaine.” Linda responds, “They could have been my Jewish aunts Dotty and Phyllis.” I can’t wait for someone to come over from Tokyo, see I REMEMBER MAMA and tell Cummings afterward, “I don’t know how this could have been a success in America. It’s so Japanese!”

         — Peter Filichia

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