Saturday, February 24, 2007

Review of "Heart and Souls" published in the News of Delaware County, 2-21-07

Some restaurants cater to those with wildly varying tastes; the bar with 300 beers on the menu, the sampler platter for those who can’t quite settle on what they like most. And sometimes a theater company, instead of picking a play that might satisfy everyone, serves an a la carte menu of their own.

Such is the case with Theatre Exile’s entry into the Philadelphia New Play Festival, an evening titled “Heart and Soles,” with short works centered around the (oft-humorous) failings in relationships. Local playwrights Michael Hollinger, Bruce Graham, and Arden Kass provide the various short and longer “menu items” of the evening, all set in Philadelphia, featuring familiar characters you know, and others that make you wonder where in Philadelphia these playwrights spend their time.

Five items on the menu included:

The dish that looked good but didn’t satisfy: Hollinger’s “Senior Moment,” presents veteran actor Harry Philibosian as a degenerating patient too wise for the scam that his son (Allen Radway) is trying to play on him during a visit at a nursing home. The twist amuses and surprises, but it’s a one-trick pony that took too long to get out of the gate and quickly ran out of steam.

What came out of the kitchen undercooked: Kass’ “Kick Me,” showcasing the eternal battle between a predatory egoist (Julie Czarnecki) and an alleged altruist (Amanda Schoonover) as two best friends turned business partners, now fighting over the same man (Radway). While strangely acted, (and oddly punctuated by monologues and green face paint) this piece is the only one of the evening capable of sustaining its (real) theme into a fuller work.

The entrée you wanted more of: Hollinger’s “Truth Decay,” where a pathological liar (Radway) pretending to be anything but a dentist finds himself on the unlucky end of a rendezvous with a self-help junkie (Schoonover) looking to finally cure her fear of…you guess it, dentists. But it’s the perfect introduction to (nationally-produced) Hollinger’s quirky humor, and hysterically presented as a specimen of physical comedy.

The plate that should have never left the kitchen: Kass’ “Sole Searching,” about a shoe-obsessed lover (Czarnecki) unloading on a hapless cabbie (Philibosian) after she committed an “unspeakable” act against her boyfriend. More told than acted (I would’ve liked to see the intense love for the man played against the intense contempt for his footwear), it provided little tension or drama—though both actors did their best to animate this staged Taxicab Confession.

And then, like a glass of water used to clear your palette after each course, Bruce Graham’s “Full-figured, Loves to Dance.” Broken up into three parts, it’s two skillfully written monologues between South Philly lunk Dave (Pete Pryor) and unhappy BBW Donna (Karen Getz), both looking for love at their local bar. While Dave’s (crude but accurate) lines evoke nothing but laughter (and no sympathy), it’s Getz’s Donna who displays an infectious and disarming charm at the evenings end, letting you go home with a smile and the hope that sometimes relationships aren’t any more complicated than a dance.

While not all the dishes satisfied, I’d recommend this performance to anyone—particularly for the strong, ambitious, and often-hysterical acting by which all of these dishes were served.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Preview of DVD release of "Doctor Who: The Complete Second Season" published at News of Delaware County

“Everything happens once, just once, and it’s gone, it’s finished and will never happen again.” Except for Doctor Who, the time-and-space traveling hero of one of BBC’s most popular programs and the longest running Sci-Fi show in television history. And the show continues, as Jan. 16th will see the release of the Season Two Box set on DVD, with David Tennant playing the role of the series 10th Doctor.

In Season One, the Doctor battled aliens with Charles Dickens, listened in on the first phone call, and fought (sort of) in WWII. Season Two begins with “New Earth,” witnesses the “Rise of the Cybermen,” and culminates, quite aptly, on “Doomsday.” Each episode brings a new adventure, as the Doctor and his companion Rose Tyler (British pop star Billie Piper) travel haphazardly through time and space, encountering and solving the problems of the universe, both human and otherwise.

A bit of back history: BBC ran Doctor Who for 26 consecutive years from 1963-89, then restarted with “Season One” in 2005, so “Season Two” is slightly misleading. However while paying homage to the old series, gone are the cardboard sets and cheesy special effects, these replaced by Hollywood style technology and CGI created aliens.

Also abandoned, the producer’s long-standing ban against any physical relationship between the doctors and their companions, bringing a welcome change for many viewers. Indeed, for many, Season Two represents both the continuation and culmination of the Doctor’s (and fans) two-year love affair with Rose Tyler, as half the fun of each episode lies in watching them flirt, waiting for one of them to finally drop their guard.

What doesn’t change is the sense of adventure. Virtually indestructible (he’s capable of regenerating when near death), the Doctor’s levity in danger’s midst gives the true image of a knight-errant with a strong sense of justice, but no personal stake or concern. In this, there’s a pure vicarious joy in watching him gallivant through history and the universe, interjecting himself into cosmic struggles, yet traveling only for the benefit of seeing history “happen right in front of his eyes,” knowing that he will survive whatever happens. Or as Rose tells him, “you can go back and see days that are dead and gone a hundred thousand sunsets ago. No wonder you never stay still.” I wouldn’t either.

Moreover, the new series continues the deeply philosophic writing and themes of past eras (alluding to Star Trek at it’s Roddenberry peak). While all of his companions are human, the Doctor is not, and he often solves problems in a way that causes Rose to balk, forcing him to instruct, “it’s a new morality, get used to it,” as he employs principles that in his mind transcend mere earth-bound provincial concerns.

And the sense of humor remains, ranging from slapstick in how he occasionally exits from danger, to highly witty in the banter of the aliens and humans he encounters. “He’s not human,” one character says of him, complaining, “but he’s got a Northern accent.” Rose shrugs her off, replying, “Lots of planets have a North.”

No matter what they encounter, the Doctor and Rose dish out a humorous response to the life-and-death situations faced by others, keeping you laughing while perched fully on the edge of your seat. January 16th—see the Doctor.

Review of Media Theater's production of "Thrill Me" published at News of Delaware County

In almost any other context, two characters singing the lines, "we're both superior to all" would evoke nothing but laughter.
But not when they're the prelude to one of the most grisly and shocking murders in Chicago's history. "Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story" strips away the sensational aspects of the case and trial, focusing instead on the disturbing and manipulative relationship between the two wealthy teenagers that drove them from petty crimes to kidnapping and murder. Continue reading the rest of this article here.

Review of Act 2 Playhouse's production of "Scotland Road"

Traveling art exhibits. Deep-sea recovery excursions. A Broadway musical; before that, the greatest film blockbuster of all time. Or, as playwright Jeffrey Hatcher puts it in his notes on Scotland Road, “A mysterious woman with a secret. A rational man desperate to believe. A shared obsession. The Titanic.”

Why this endless nostalgia for a disaster we never knew?

In Act 2’s production of Hatcher’s play, a woman (Emma O’Donnell) appears stranded on an ice floe in the Northern Atlantic, saying only one word, “Titanic.” The only problem, she looks no more than twenty years old. Is she what she claims, or a hoax designed to ensnare?

John (Peter Schmitz), a descendant of one who perished on the voyage, brings her to a secluded location, bent on discovering her identity, somehow knowing that it contains the key to his own. And there begins one of the most compelling psychological mysteries I’ve seen on stage.

O’Donnell and Schmitz captivate as the interrogator and interrogated. She gives a mesmerizing performance, contrasting a grim delicateness in the first half with a commanding ability to reduce Schmitz to a writhing spectacle in the second. He responds flawlessly, starting both irritating and manipulative, slowly crumbling until she breaks him, only to redeem his character in the last moments of the play.

And that’s the kick in this production—waiting for it to end, not to understand it, but to know what has happened and why. In this respect, Alan Blumenthal’s direction is absolutely faultless, building tension up to each blackout, only to resume it a notch higher in the next scene. The pauses, just long enough for the actors and props to change are an almost unwelcome element, necessary only for the audience to catch their breath.

Hatcher’s play frustrates, irritates, and captivates—but the urgency is yours, not his, and he knows it, drawing the story along, adding a new layer of mystery underneath each one that the plot strips away, draining your nerves while shattering your beliefs. When the play finally ends, the real question asked by Scotland Road becomes apparent at last.

Not who are these characters, but who are we? The real fascination with the Titanic is that we all do what John does in the play—define ourselves in relation to how we think we’d act in a disaster that demands either extreme courage or abject cowardice. In this, the play reveals the untested answers and illusions we hold in our own minds, beliefs that form part of the core of our own identities.

And what the play shows is that most of the time, if we were somehow transported back to the recurrence of a catastrophe (like the Titanic), we just might see that we’re trapped in the hull of a ship, no longer bounded by what we’d like to believe of ourselves, but by the truth, slowly sinking into an icy sea.

What would you have done on the deck of that fated ship? See this play, then think again.

Review of Arden Theater's "Dex and Julie" published at News of Delaware County

Any new play represents a huge investment for a theater company. But during Philadelphia’s inaugural New Play Festival, it’s no surprise that the Arden Theater, one of the city’s premier companies, would stage an entry. And in Bruce Graham’s latest, “Dex and Julie Sittin in a Tree,” the Arden spared no expense, replicating the interior of a stylish lodge, hiring two of Philly’s finest actors, and drawing director James Christy out of retirement.

The only surprise is how much this new play disappoints.

In Graham’s play, Michael Dexter returns to his alma mater, nominated by professor Julie Chernitsky for their “distinguished alumni award.” Twenty-five years earlier both attended the same school, where they briefly dated. However, he does not suspect that she’s using the award as a pretense for recrimination, revelation, and revenge.

In spite of the possibilities, not much is said, nothing resolved, and very little happens. Ultimately, this occurs because Graham’s play is shot through with clichés, which fail to create any real tension or drama.

The bulk of these clichés inhabit the characters themselves. Dex is an emotionally unavailable, uber-pragmatist who donates to both parties, and is now a twice-divorced lawyer outranking Al Sharpton on “New York’s most hated list.” Couple him with Julie, a virgin and practicing Catholic when she met Dex, who has pined her whole life over their failed relationship, later becoming a professor of obscure romantic poets. Moreover, there’s the Act I cliffhanger (that everyone saw coming) of a possible parentage, leading to Dex longing for redemption and meaning in an after-the-fact fatherhood.

And none of it works either. The play spends the first third of this ninety-minute piece in character exposition, to have neither lead commit to their roles (granted, I know it’s a mask, but it’s an unconvincing mask nonetheless). And neither looks the part, especially Lumia, whose physique alone betrays the malady-ridden late forty-something the part suggests.

And both have done much better work elsewhere—especially Lumia, because while Childs deftly handles the humor in her part, he’s never once pathetic enough as the aging, regret-filled man who doesn’t know how to make restitution for the mistakes of his youth. (And the play does little to help them, with one of the chief moments of tension coming in a fight over a grilled-cheese sandwich.)

Only the humor is well executed. Childs rummages Lumia’s carry-on and exclaims, “you’re like a fucking Rite-Aid.” Later, teasing him about still liking Billy Joel, he does concede, “I saw him on tour with Elton last year. I felt like I was at a sumo match.”

Beyond the humor, the play holds interest only to see if it finally goes anywhere. Doomed by one last cliché, the play ends on Lumia pleading, “Can we just pretend,” to Childs solemnly intoning, “that was so long ago.” Really? You mean we can’t go back, and to do so would be the falsest form of pretending? Considering all the possibilities involved in a “homecoming” theme (think Grosse Point Blank), why pick the most clichéd of the lot?

But maybe that’s Graham’s entire purpose: to make some meta-ironical point about plays that long for the past—that they must be clichéd because they deal with such a stock human experience. In that case, he should’ve just written an essay, and not wasted so much of the Arden’s money on a new play.

Review of Interact's "House with No Walls" published at

Thomas Gibbons’ “A House with No Walls,” is a very ambitious new play, dealing straightforwardly with many subjects that “no one wants to be reminded about.” Starting with George Washington’s ownership of slaves, Gibbons attempts to present not only the problem of how to talk about this today, but he does so primarily through the voice of a prominent black conservative author. His play opens on Afro-Centrist activist Salif Camara and historian Allen Rosen interrupting the building of the (fictional) Museum of Liberty being constructed on the site of Washington’s former Philadelphia residence, including his slave’s quarters. Enter Cadence Lane, the aforementioned conservative historian turned pundit, who happens to sit on the museum’s board, and an ideological battle over how to commemorate slavery’s legacy for the African-American community begins.

What Gibbons wants to do with this play, Interact does magnificently, presenting one of the finest productions I’ve ever seen on their stage.

As Cadence, Tracey Conyer Lee gives the kind of performance that makes you wish she did all of her acting in Philadelphia. She moves effortlessly from a quiet strength to a subtle portrayal of a self-doubt and longing that nags at her pride and convictions, all the while keeping a resilient calm against an onslaught of insult and criticism. As the activist hoarding “cultural ammunition,” Johnnie Hobbs alternates between accused huckster and impassioned defender, suggesting both while avoiding a demagogic caricature. And Seth Reichgott, playing the deeply liberal, deeply guilt-ridden Rosen, provides much of the humor while making the entire audience uncomfortable with his portrayal of their reluctant and resentful shared guilt. When he cringes over one of the many “damned no matter what you do dilemmas” of political correctness, you cringe with him, because his portrayal makes you feel what his character’s experiencing, and he makes you feel why.

Moreover, Seth Rozin’s direction seamlessly overlays multiple time periods, places, and narratives, enabling faultlessly timed debate and even a few dashes of humor, while never letting the production devolve into the senselessness and anger that too often surrounds these issues. And Andre Harrington’s costumes are perfectly tailored to both periods and attitudes (right down to the Egyptian ankh on Salif’s necklace), while Pete Whinnery’s lighting superbly highlights the sense of longing for resolution and identity.

However, the production constitutes the real success, giving Gibbons far more than he earns, as his ambition ultimately weakens his play. From a very strong premise of how to represent the past in order to enable a future, he widens the play’s scope until it eventually extends into an attempt to deal with every problem (he can think of) that affects and divides African Americans. The issue of reparations, what to make of the growing black professional class, college admissions, if “white liberal guilt” is more a hindrance than a help (Cadence calls it “the black community’s other plague), all work their way into the debates between Cadence and Salif. Unfortunately, this turns what could have been a long, fruitful discussion about black identity and the legacy of slavery into a series of sound-bytes, offering little more than an hour spent watching Hannity and Colmes. As a result, his play must end on a political compromise to the initial problem, with neither side speaking past the other, but with neither side (nor the audience) achieving any greater enlightenment either.

This production is undoubtedly worth seeing, but Gibbons, who is “done writing about race,” should have saved some of these ideas, and given us more in another play.

Review of Pippin (Forrest Theater) published in News of Delaware County

Walking into the Forrest Theater on Thursday, I couldn't believe that artistically inclined people (with money) willingly funded a four-day revival of Pippin. Moreover, I couldn't understand why director Gabriel Barre wanted to reinvent and restage this musical nearly 35 years after it first opened. Continue reading this article at The News of Delaware County here.