Starting Off, Catching Up

Hello and welcome to StageStruck, younger brother of StageStruck, my column on the Stage Page of the Advocate’s print and online editions. This offspring was conceived from a pair of incompatible circumstances. The column is no longer weekly, and the region’s stages are busier than ever. This critic’s writin’ fingers got itchy, and so StageStruck, the Blog, was born.

With the summer season in the Valley and Berkshires already well underway, there’s a lot to catch up on. Here, then, for starters, is a roundup of onstage highlights I haven’t yet reported on.

New Century Theatre led off its season with a play I simply can’t stand. Lend Me a Tenor is a comedy by Ken Ludwig that recalls, simultaneously, classic hotel-room comedies of the thirties and classic bedroom farces. But it’s not so much an original homage as a pale imitation (well, not “pale,” maybe—see below). The situations, complications, sight gags and frantic action are almost perfunctory copies of classic clichés.

And then there’s the blackface. The piece turns on mistaken identities between two guys who, both in costume as Otello, the Moor of Verdi, can’t be told apart. Sure, it’s a farce, but despite what seems to be a general consensus that the whole thing is so silly we just have to accept that convention and laugh, the convention inevitably rests on the notion that “all black people look alike,” and each time I’ve seen this play, I’ve been uncomfortable.

So why even bother going back for another helping? Because I try to see everything at New Century, the Valley’s coolest purveyor of hot-weather theater. And because, for all its unpleasant subtext, Jack Neary’s production was brisk and funny and crammed with laugh-aloud gags—my favorite being a series of spit-takes involving grapes that landed in the front rows of the audience. Good performances, too, especially from Sam Samuels, cocksure in both senses as the operatic superstar; Lisa Abend as his harridan wife (delicious nails-on-blackboard voice); Sandra Blaney as the not-so-dumb blonde ingenue (delicious screwball-comedy voice); B. Brian Argotsinger, puppy-dog naive as the stand-in who sets the misadventures rolling; and Julie Robbins as the lofty opera patroness, more than holding her own among the pros in her mainstage debut.

New Century’s second production couldn’t have been more different. No slamming doors and frenetic action here, but a tense two-man drama with almost no action at all, on no less a theme than life and death. Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited puts two disparate characters in a claustrophobic New York kitchen after one of them has prevented the other from jumping in front of a train. McCarthy has called this work “a novel in the form of a play,” but it’s really neither. It’s an extended philosophical dialogue in the form of a collision between two world views that you would think are irreconcilable, and at the end you find out you were right.

There’s an actual black man in this one, called simply Black in the script, an ex-con and born-again Christian trying to convince White, an atheist-nihilist academic, that life is worth living. For me, it doesn’t work as a play because one of the protagonists has nothing really at stake. It’s not a dramatic confrontation, but largely a sermon delivered to an indifferent target. For Black, a reformed sinner whose life derives meaning from giving hope to others, rescuing this soul-in-torment is a test of the power and validity of his faith. White, on the other hand, is deeply world-weary, with no goal but extinction. He listens to Black’s persistent but fruitless arguments out of middle-class courtesy, before finally insisting on leaving to keep his interrupted appointment with that express train to oblivion. (The symbolic dichotomy of the names seems to represent diametric world views rather than racial tags, and reverses the usual implications of the terms, Black representing the forces of light while White describes himself as “the professor of darkness.”)

While the play is interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, the performances, and Sheila Siragusa’s meticulous direction, were deeply rewarding. As Black, Gilbert McCauley was mercurial, impassioned, sardonically witty and utterly winning. Indeed, his character comes off far more sympathetic than White, whose position is simply negative, a death wish based on life’s ultimate futility. In that role, a character who says little and reveals less, Rand Foerster produced a compelling portrait of existential despair, limned in the sag of his shoulders and the blank of his eyes.

The season opener at Chester Theatre Company carried a similar theme: another lost-cause attempt at rescuing a lost soul, in this case two. Arms on Fire is the new musical play by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik of Spring Awakening fame, which I previewed a few weeks ago. Quite incidentally, both plays take place in downscale New York apartments, and while both revolve around self-destruction and failed redemption, the roles, or at least the energy levels, are reversed. Here the animated, propulsive figure is the one on the downward slope, while his would-be savior is patient and passive.

That one would be Ulysses, a burned-out Honduran exile who takes a high-strung, strung-out young hustler, Smith, under his wing and into his life. An ex-DJ who made his living talking, now Ulysses likes to listen—to Smith’s rants and fantasies, and to his LP collection. His most treasured recordings are of Josephina, the sultry nightclub singer he loved and lost back home, an incandescent spirit who burned out despite his efforts to save her. (The show’s title refers to the reckless, fiery passion that ultimately consumed her, and to the heroin habit that is devouring Smith.)

If you wanted to dig, you could unearth a dissertation’s worth of parallels to Homer’s Odyssey, from the older-and-wiser man’s helplessness to keep his impulsive dependents from destruction, to his own addiction to the Siren’s songs. Those songs were performed in Chester’s world-premiere production by the full-throated and unquestionably sultry Natalie Mendoza, mostly behind a scrim, fronting a four-piece combo led by guitarist Joe Belmont. Guiesseppe Jones was a solid, stolid Ulysses, a portrait of the Serenity Prayer, courageously accepting the things he cannot change. And as Smith, James Barry, seen previously at Chester as the irreverent Dr. Faustus in Wittenberg, was literally breathtaking, the embodiment of hyperkinetic anguish.

This is clearly a work in progress, and Sater and Sheik are lucky to have been able to try it out in such a thoughtful and supportive environment. For me, what was missing—similar to the problem with The Sunset Limited—was a balance in passion between the two men. The early going, especially, lacked drama, with Smith burning up the stage and Ulysses flickering sadly.

Arms on Fire is a play with songs, not really a musical, but Animal Crackers, which opened the season at Williamstown Theatre Festival, is the genuine article. It’s a revival/adaptation of the Marx Brothers vehicle, a 1928 Broadway show that was filmed two years later and is now a comedy classic. The original version, stage and screen, consisted primarily of a string of visual and verbal gags, a flimsy plot about a distinctly trepid African explorer and a purloined painting, and half a dozen songs by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby with a couple of music-hall chestnuts. The revision, first mounted in the eighties and later re-adapted by Henry Wishcamper, replaces many of the original songs with numbers by Kalmar and Ruby wrote for other shows, including “Three Little Words” and other now-standards.

Wishcamper directed WTF’s giddy, slam-bang staging, which employed the services of both a choreographer (John Carrafa) and a “director of physical comedy” (Paul Kalina). Although apparently the production’s biggest selling point was the notion of “the Marx Brothers” onstage again, for me that was its problem—though I hasten to add I’m in a distinct minority here.

For me, the most entertaining parts of this restoration were the non-Marbro moments. Here we had a charming, tuneful, footloose pastiche of twenties/thirties musicals, interrupted at regular intervals by three guys doing Marx Brothers impressions. It created a strange kind of cognitive dissonance—enjoyable, nostalgic, but not quite right, like a Beatles tribute band.

I found the “new” sequences more engaging because they more cleverly and stylishly evoked the style and period than the carbon copies of the brothers’ zany routines. This approach also allowed the secondary figures to come into their own as comic characters rather than as cardboard plot devices and/or foils for the top bananas’ shenanigans. The dissonance was particularly pronounced because, while the movie includes the fourth Marx Brother (you knew there were four, right?—five, in fact, but that’s another story), in this stage version the young romantic lead isn’t a Zeppo impersonator. Even the grande dame figure, owned by Margaret Dumont in several Marx movies, was given a non-imitative turn here by the less Amazonian but equally imperious Ellen Harvey.

All the performers, a dozen in all, played multiple parts, and that quick-change ensemble feel was one of its charms—winking at comic conventions, for example, Jacob Ming-Trent, an African American, as not only the black butler but also a Texas tycoon and an Orthodox Jew. The three actors mirroring Groucho, Chico and Harpo provided more-than-creditable and often uproarious impressions of their models, especially Joey Slotnick, in greasepaint moustache, bent-kneed gait and wisecrack pace, and Jonathan Brody, who can actually play Chico’s virtuoso piano solo.
You can still enjoy the original film on DVD, and as amiable as these fellows are, they just ain’t the Marx Brothers. The rest of this production, on the other hand, was better than the movie.

If I’ve piqued your interest in attending any of these productions, tough. They’ve all closed as the summer-season juggernaut rolls along. Next installment: a now-playing potpourri.

Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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