Friday, June 17, 2016

Himself and Nora: A Musical Look at James Joyce

James Joyce, the author’s love for Nora and his journey to get published provides the structure of Himself and Nora.  Some beautiful singing provides the breath and soul of the play.  Wonderful performances by Matt Bogart (as Joyce) and Whitney Bashor (as Nora) bring these two characters to life.  So the question becomes, why is the whole not better.

Himself and Nora isn’t a bad musical by any stretch.  It is an involving story that sheds new light on the personality and struggles of the famous author, making him more human and accessible.  For most of the two plus hours, it is almost a great show.

It starts with the irascible but charming James Joyce in Ireland, where he fights with his dad, buries his mom, rejects the Catholic Church and meets a charming young woman, Nora.  Joyce and Nora share a remarkable emotional and sexual chemistry at the outset, but Joyce won’t marry.  He won’t subject himself to the Catholic rite that approves of his choice.  Nora, understanding the man she loves and willing to be a partner, not a wife, agrees to the arraignment.

Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor in ‘Himself and Nora’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)
And just like that, the Joyces are off.  First to Trieste, where they struggle and live happily as James writes, teaches, and drinks.  A visit back to Ireland to get published convinces him that Ireland will never accept him.  Luckily, he finds a sponsor and publisher in Paris, where he and Nora settle down.

The second act is less heartwarming, as many biographical pieces tend to be.  IN fact, it is a slog. Success has come, but James Joyce wants more: the next county that will publish Ulysses, the next book and most of all, the American market.  Nora, fed up with being the mother of bastards, wants to get married.  The children are problems, with the Joyce daughter being sent to a mental institution.  World War II rears its head. And then Joyce dies.  And, in the worst of biographical musical traditions, he dies for a long time.  Three songs at least, and we haven’t been able to make that investment in the character.

The music and the singing are wonderful, and the acting is excellent; Himself and Nora just needed someone to edit it ruthlessly.  The supporting cast, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Zachary Prince and Michael McCormick, all shine in multiple roles.  Director Michael Bush does a very good job with the spare stage and trappings, focusing the attention onto the cast.  It is frustrating, because there is a great musical there in Himself and Nora could unburden itself of the extraneous.

Book, Music & Lyrics: Jonathan Brielle | Director: Michael Bush | Cast: Matt Bogart. Whitney Bashor, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Zachary Prince, Michael McCormick | website

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Indian Summer Works It’s Magic Lightly

With Indian Summer, playwright Gregory S. Moss sets out to capture that fleeting moment of youth on the cusp of adulthood.  The moment that feels impossibly real while it is happening and impossibly dreamlike in retrospect. It often succeeds.  Indian Summer plays with time and memory like the sand dunes where the play is set - both real and permanent, but constantly shifting.

Owen Campbell portrays Daniel, a young man of 16 or so, left at his grandfather’s house on the Rhode Island beach in the summer for an indeterminate length of time by a flaky mother.  Daniel, friendless and annoyed, takes to the beach to sulk, escape his grandfather and feel sorry for himself in that desperate way only the young can.  But the beach throws up the detritus of life: his grandfather, marking time after the passage of his wife, a townie stuck in the rules of masculine preening and Izzy, the local girl that challenges and entrances him.

Elise Kibler and Owen Campbell in Indian Summer
Elise Kibler gives life to Izzy. A native Rhode Islander with an Italian working class heritage that is perplexed by the skinny pale “summer people” with an attitude that is Daniel. Together they talk gently and long about life and their future and their dreams.  Theirs is that first great summer infatuation filled with possibility, not only of the person you meet, but also of being bigger and more than you are right now.  These two actors grow into that moment organically and honestly. One of the most touching moments is as they sit, back to back, role playing a distance future in which they meet with their respective partners.

Joe Tippett brings a sense of playfulness and sweetness to Izzy’s lug headed boyfriend Jeremy.  He is the perfect counterpoint to Daniel and Izzy’s relationship and a rebuke to the easy path many writer’s take where the current boyfriend is, for some reason, horrible.  Jeremy knows how good he has it, and the role he has to play here.  The audience gets the sense Jeremy (the character) has played this scene before and knows the ending.  Jeremy is trying to save his own future.

The final role is George, Daniel’s (step) grandfather. Jonathan Hadary does a good job with a tough role.  As the wandering narrator, he is wonderful.  As the self-absorbed widower, well that is a difficult role to pull off honestly.

Indian Summer does some things so fantastically, that it is regrettable that other things just don’t work.  George and Izzy’s sudden role-playing seems whipped up to offer a bookend to the show, not because it is organically driven.  Izzy is best and most enthralling when she is the tough local teenager that slowly opens up to Daniel because he is so alien.  He is non-threatening and her guard lowers a bit at a time in a believable and touching way.

Director Carolyn Cantor handles these moments of quiet brilliantly. Daniel and Izzy are like too different species to each other, fascinating, beautiful and fragile.  Watching Indian Summer is like watching tide pool, everything in that moment is so perfect, but will be washed away at high tide and redone countless times.
Indian Summer | Playwright: Gregory S. Moss | Director: Carloyn Cantor | Cast: Owen Campbell, Elise Kibler, Jonathan Hadary, Joe Tippett | website

Monday, October 20, 2014

Billy & Ray Sheds Light and Laughs on Double Indemnity, but Preserves the Mystique

Larry Pine as Raymond Chandler and Vincent Kartheiser as Billy Wilder
Billy & Ray, now at the Vineyard Theater, tells of the unlikely paring of famous director, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.  Together these two produced one of the first and best of the film noir vehicles, Double Indemnity.
The play opens with Austrian transplant, Director Billy Wilder, played with amazing energy by Vincent Kartheiser, breaking up with his writing partner.  He is determined to bring Double Indemnity to the screen.  The story, from the novel by James Cain, is considered unfilmable due to the surfeit of content that raises flags with the production code.  Billy convinces the studio producer to bring in hard-boiled detective writer Raymond Chandler to help with the script, this was Chandler’s first film work.
But it turns out that Raymond Chandler, in the flesh, is nothing like his characters.  Chandler is a broke, retired schoolteacher, churning out short stories for rent.  Chandler is brought to boring, straight-laced life by Larry Pine.  Chandler has no use for Cain’s over sexed novel, Billy’s vulgarities or the studio high life.  But he does need the money and he writes amazing dialog. Billy and Ray shows how this odd couple never become friends, but forge a working relationship to get Double Indemnity pass the censors by making an intelligent, adult film.
Double Indemnity is one of the great American films, and this story would be fascinating even without back and forth between this two brilliant and difficult men.  But their interaction drives the story humorously and ingeniously to life.  Mr. Kartheiser, as Billy Wilder, the play forward with his frenetic energy and restless nature.   His energy and verve make up for a horrible accent in the first few scenes, where he seems to be channeling Austrian German accent via Dublin.  Once he gets into the rhythm of the piece, his voice migrates across the channel to Vienna and settles down.  Perhaps as the show progresses this minor complaint will prove obsolete.
Vincent Kartheiser, Sophie von Haselberg and Larry Pine

Sophie Von Haselberg plays Billy’s secretary, Helen.  The daughter of Bette Midler and Martin Von Hasleberg, she is perfect, channeling the sass of Eve Arden with the mildly maternal instinct of every great secretary.  Her resemblance to her mother is uncanny. Drew Gehling plays the producer Joe Sistrom, balancing his desire to bring this story to life against the day-to-day B pictures the studio shoves at him (“The Hitler Gang”).
Billy and Ray looks beautiful, the offices at Paramount brought to life by Charlie Corcoan.  Watching Vincent Kartheiser lean out of his window to heckle Bing Crosby is one of the small moments that make this piece so perfect.  Legend Garry Marshall directs the piece with a familiarity of the Hollywood system, albeit with a little too much sit-com familiarity.
Billy and Ray is a love letter to Hollywood in general and Double Indemnity in particular.  If you have never seen the movie, you will want to after seeing Billy and Ray, and that is high praise indeed.
Billy and Ray
Playwright: Mike Bencivenga
Director: Garry Marshall
Cast: Drew Gehling, Vincent Kartheiser, Larry Pine, Sophie von Haselberg

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Truing: Hearing Voices in the Silence

The Truing, now premiering at the NYC Fringe festival, is one of those plays which the Fringe is justifiably renowned for finding.  It is a well written and well-constructed play, beautifully acted.  This is the type of show the Fringe can introduce slowly and build an audience for.  And The Truing deserves to be seen.  The audience I watched it with was swept up in the show, which is a thoughtful comedy.
The Truing takes place during an AIDS bicycle fund raising ride, although the experience is universal throughout participatory fundraising events.  It could have just as easily been set during a 10K Run for Cancer or the # Day Walk for Breast Cancer.  It tells the interwoven tale of six people who are part of the ride, but were somehow stranded at the first campsite as event has moved on.   
Stephen Hope plays Gil, who crews because he is not healthy enough to ride on this trip.  Gil opens the piece in a monolog addressing the audience.  Only later do you realize the monolog is sort of a nervous twitch while he waits for his crew partner, Skip to return.  Kathryn Gerhardt plays the Gil’s best friend and roommate Skip.  She is Gil’s confidant and partner in every way, except sexually.  Skip struggles with Gil’s recent health problems more than he does.  Ms. Gerhardt and Mr. Hope hit every mark in the the chemistry of longtime friends, a friendship that has morphed into family.
The Cast: Kathryn Gerhardt, Joel Mark Mijares, Stephen Hope, Billy Hipkins (back), Andrew Dawson & Esther Chen
Joel Mark Mijares and Esther Chen play Doc and Marion.  Doc is a member of the traveling bicycle repair crew, and Marion is a very embarrassed rider who wakes up in Doc’s tent.  Their tentative outreach towards one another is hampered by the awkwardness of the “morning after” a night of drunken revelry.  It doesn’t help that they are stranded together waiting for transportation and Marion doesn’t quite remember everything from the night before.  Ms. Chen is quite good portraying the many emotions that come with a walk of shame, where you never arrive home.  And Mr. Mijares projects a laconic ease and sensuality that makes Ms. Chen’s reactions organic and understandable.  His ease with her is offset by an irritation with being left behind.
The last two members of the cast are Howard and Chickie, both of whose stories play out over time, in bits and pieces. Andrew Dawson plays Howard, a long time fundraising rider who seems a bit too insistent on getting his bicycle out of bike repair.  Chickie, loosely based on a collection of actual characters, is brought to life by Billy Hipkins.  Chickie takes part in the ride every year, in a chicken suit.  Famous on the ride for this bit of theater, Chickie plays up the eccentricity.  Howard and Chickie are introduced as caricatures - the   enthusiastic participants that are too invested in the event.  Their unique stories are shared slowly, with a deft touch by director Douglas Hall and writer Joe Norton.
Kathryn Gerhardt & Stephen Hope share a laugh

The Truing follows these six one afternoon, as they are pressed out of their comfort zones.  They will have to work together to resolve a couple of problems.  In that sense, The Truing shows people struggling to find the inclusiveness of the ride before it became a marketing vehicle.  As these events – the AIDS ride, the Walk for Breast Cancer, the 10K for Heart Health or Aerobics for Multiple Sclerosis - become bigger, they lose a sense of community they once had.  This play explores the reason people take part in these events and the friendships that can grow unexpectedly.  The reasons can often get lost in the quest for donations and the antics of the crowd.  The desire to be part of something and the need for human understanding, drive the emotion delivered in The Truing.  
That said, this is the Fringe and there are pieces of the show that could be improved with time and more work.  Marion is a little more frantic than she needs to be, and Chickie is a bit too fluffy.  But these are minor points, the show will leave you laughing and feeling better about life.
The Truing continues Thursday Aug 14th, Thursday Aug 21st and Saturday Aug 23rd.  See for more information.
The Truing
Playwright: Joe Norton
Director: Douglas Hall
Cast: Stephen Hope, Kathryn Gerhardt, Joel Mark Mijares, Andrew Dawson, Esther Chen, Billy Hipkins

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Laramie Project; Simple, Honest, Hopeful and Touching

As a reviewer, you try to be fairly objective when approaching a piece of theater.  As a human, you know that you bring your own prejudices and pre-conceptions with you, but you try to avoid it as much as possible.  But, when you can’t avoid them, you at least try to acknowledge them and set them aside.  I did not think I could do that with The Laramie Project, and so last night was the first time I have ever seen the show presented.
I am glad I did not wait any longer.  The company at The Seeing Place Theater handles the intimate, stripped down piece beautifully.  I was surprised by the immediacy of The Laramie Project in a manner I didn’t expect.   
The story of the show is basic.  Moises Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project travelled to Laramie, Wyoming in the aftermath of the Matthew Sheppard murder.  They visited the town, spoke with the residents, friends of Matthew, friends of the attackers, clergy, police and anyone else who would talk to them.  They visited 6 times over the course of the year and ultimately nearly the entire town ended up sharing their stories.  Upon their return they created The Laramie Project.  It is the story of Matthew Shepard’s death, the media circus that descended on Laramie and a town struggling.  That single act of viciousness defined the town in the minds of the country with an undeserved legacy.  Laramie residents struggled with what happened and what it said about them, just as the world passed judgment on the small city where everyone knows each other.
The show doesn’t offer any change in the basic narrative of Matthew Shepard’s death.  He was a slight, well liked and well known young man in Laramie.  After a normal night out at a local bar, he left with two local guys about his age.  They took him out to a seldom-traveled road, robbed him, tied him to a fence post and beat him to the edge of death.
The Ensemble of The Laramie Project
During a slow news cycle, the 24 hour media machine descended and passed judgment on the crime, the city and the people of Laramie Wyoming.  The residents were characterized as stereotypical hateful hicks, bitter and un-educated.  The authors of the Laramie project sought to understand what happened.  They don’t.  There is no a way to “understand” what happened that night.  The perpetrators robbed and then viciously beat an innocent young man, Matthew Shepard died and the media rolled out of town.  But the theater company stayed and listened to the people of Laramie.  And they tell the story of a town rejecting collective guilt, but determined to change because of it.
The Seeing Place actors’ job here then is two fold.  Not just to recreate the townspeople of Laramie, but the actor / authors that created the project.  And they do it perfectly, both in the words that come so easily from actors and in the raw, honest words spoken by the people of Laramie.  It is an ensemble piece and this group of eight actors is stellar.  Calling out any single actor seems unfair since each portrayal is both heartfelt and convincing.
Jonathan Miles, Elle Emerson and Kathryn Neville Brown
Towards the end of the show, one of the women of Laramie, a western mother who has seen plenty in life, admonishes the departing authors to treat Laramie right, to tell the story honestly.  The Seeing Place Theater cast takes this request to heart and delivers.  They have presented a careful, honest telling of a place and time.  The murder of Matthew Sheppard was, in 1998, seared into our collective memory and we thought it would burn forever.  It did not.  Pushed out by 9/11, the success of gay marriage, the failure of our political system and various news stories great and small, the story of Matthew Sheppard fades into history.  But the effect of that young man, the response from the “normal folks of Laramie” has been added to the story of our country and ourselves.  I am very pleased, and a little honored, to see it presented so well.
Ably directed by Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker (who also appear in the piece), The Laramie Project moves quickly, giving plenty of time for the audience to travel the emotional road, but still held together tightly enough that time doesn’t drag.  The Laramie Project is excellent and if you have put it off thinking it would be too depressing, I urge you to see it.
The Laramie Project
Playwright: Moises Kaufman and the Members of the Tectonic Theater Project
Cast: Brian Stuart Boyd, Kathryn Neville Brown, Erin Cronican, John D’Arcangelo, Elle Emerson, Jonathan Miles, Christina M Pastor, Brandon Walker
Director: Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker