Watching Watson, And Wondering Where Culpability Begins And Ends

Watson, playing at Gablestage until this December 22nd, replaced the show originally scheduled for this slot in the company’s season. Director Joseph Adler, who also helped playwright James Grippando develop the show, felt that its story was especially urgent, and it doesn’t take any great leaps of the imagination to see why. 

Though the play makes no direct reference to modern times or our current political circumstances, the bleeding subtext implicit in a play that explores the risk of kowtowing to a corrupt political leader is beating just under the surface. The “Watson” of the title is Thomas J. Watson, founder of still-dominant technology company IBM, and the show focuses on his and IBM’s role in providing the Third Reich with machines that were used to more efficiently catalog Jews and corrall them for slaughter.

Some theatregoers who prefer brighter subject matter (again, e.g. my mother) may be put-off by the idea of yet another Holocaust play, espeically if they managed to make it to Gablestage’s last season closer. Yet there are so many angles from which one can approach the matter, so many people at least a little at fault, so many ways-in to just one gargantuan tragedy that it’s not a subject apt to get old. Perhaps, in fact, we should never be done talking about it, just in case such a silence would allow it to happen again.

Grippando is new to theatre but has made a name for himself as a crime and thriller writer, and though this is his first play, he shows an intriguing grasp of the theatrical form. Watson begins the play by addressing the audience directly and offers us further monologues and asides throughout, and the play moves smoothly across time and space to create an engaging tableau. All of the play’s supporting actors (Peter W. Galman, Peter Haig, Diana Garle, Margot Moreland, and Barry Tarallo) are tasked with playing multiple roles, and their versatility is essential to making the play work.

Stephen G. Anthony plays Watson, a likable, charismatic, and intelligent man, who also just happened to find himself in the middle of an impossible dilemma. I think, too, that he remains a relatively honorable a man despite this one life-shattering mistake. After all, it’s impossible to know: would Watson not sending over his machinery have actually prevented any of the turmoil? 

The character who persuades Watson to go against his initial impulse and do so, says no, Hitler was just going to build his own machines if he had to, would find some other way, but there’s no way of knowing whether that way would have been quite so horrendously efficient.

Oddly, I actually do not blame Watson for his indiscretion as harshly as his rebellious son, a feisty Iain Batchelor as Thomas J. Watson, Jr does, and the conflict between the two regarding the matter often felt a bit exaggerated and forced. 

Watson frames his decision as less about his personal gain than about the interests of his company and his stockholders, an excuse that does make a certain amount of sense. Yet, if everyone has such excuses, then who’s left to stop the next massacre? 

The flimsiness of this excuse is furthered illustrated in an interesting scene depicting a rabbi who provides a list of non-practicing Jews to the Nazis to ensure that he and his family would be safe from his ravages. Is someone who did something that led more directly to harm when he and his loved ones were in immediate danger more or less culpable than someone like Watson, who made a decision that led less immediately to evil from his cushy white-collar office?

The relationship between Watson and one of his long-time employees, crucial to a moment near the end of the play, could have been more developed to give said moment more of an impact on us in the audience, but this is a play still in development, and such kinks could easily be ironed out in future drafts. Far more memorable than it’s flaws were the questions Watson raises, which keep me wondering even now.

Everything May Not Be Super Great, But “Everything Is Super Great” Was

For… reasons that are definitely reasons, our eternal and often futile struggle to create and maintain human connection is a bit of a preoccupation of mine. Maybe that’s why I felt myself so affected by Everything Is Super Great, the new play by Stephen Brown that appeared in it’s co-world premiere at Theatre Lab last weekend and is playing until December 22. (In a co-world premiere, more than one company produces a play at about the same time so they can share world premiere credits.)

Thanks to a witty script that offers a consistent stream of laughs, the show’s two and a half hours seemed to go by in a flash; in hindsight, I wonder if such repartee masked gaps in character development, but at the time I was too busy enjoying it all. Stand-out scenes include a slapstick balloon-popping sequence, a workplace smoke break, and an incredibly awkward Christmas party. 

The show is subtitled (a comedy about what’s missing), but the show certainly had its dramatic side as well. Perhaps it could more accurately be described as about who’s missing; most notably, the main character Tommy’s brother, whose absence shapes the plot and his psyche, but also some loved ones of supporting characters Dave (Tommy’s therapist) and Alice (his manager at Starbucks,  also kind of his crush).

Timothy Mark Davis is believably bumbling and consistently hilarious as Dave, who, it turns out has no suitable qualifications for therapizing. Christian Mouisset, as Tommy delivered an overall excellent performance, but occasionally slipped into a somewhat whiny register, especially when delivering questions or dealing with his perennially annoying mother, Jeni Hacker’s Anne, though I could also certainly sympathize with his characters’ dismissive reaction to her overeager mothering. 

Anne works at Walmart, her idea of a homemade baked good/appropriate Christmas gift is a buttered and toasted pop tart, and an amateurish collage seems to her an appropriate way of commemorating her missing child. Hacker played the role unironically and sincerely, which was especially impressive given these somewhat lowbrow attributes and led to both some of the play’s funniest moments and the most touching ones, which showcased her ardent love for her son.

In the end, though Dave and Alice’s missing person subplots both find some resolution, there are no real answers to be had regarding Tommy’s brother; instead, he and his mother must begin to cope with the fact that answers probably will never be had. 

Meanwhile, though Alice and Tommy bond throughout the show, it never becomes overtly romantic, and by the play’s end, the winds of chance that brought them together seem to have brought them apart again; a bittersweet final monologue by Tommy suggests that this separation will most likely be permanent. It isn’t any less special because it was not a “relationship” that it was so short-lived, or in that it most likely will never be rekindled, sustained. Sometimes moments are all we get . It was there. It happened. It matters. 

Once Upon The Time I Saw “Once”

Based on the 2000s hit movie of the same name, Once, playing until this December 22nd at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, is pretty non-traditional as musicals go. For one, most of the musical numbers do not serve as inexplicable expressions of character’s internal states but instead spring organically from the characters’ status as musicians.

The play’s gorgeous music was definitely its most memorable aspect, starting even before the curtain was officially up with a rousing pre-show full of traditional Irish dancing and gorgeous folk songs. However, its plot-or-lack thereof was somewhat less remarkable.

The show also takes place in Dublin, and though this gave the show a charmingly foreign feel, the characters’ heavy European accents occasionally made it hard for me to make out lyrics and dialogue. This was especially notable during the Bank Manager’s (Todd Aulwurm) comedic number towards the end of Act One.Though Aulwurm’s energy and demeanor were mightily amusing on their own, I suspect the moment would have been even funnier if I could actually make out what he was saying.

Recent Rider University graduate Mariah Lotz played the female lead, an interestingly unnamed “Girl” whose quirky surface belies hidden burdens. Jack Gerhard, as her counterpart, the “Guy,” is often stuck playing the straight man to Girl’s peppier antics, but his soulfulness comes through in the music the two’s relationship revolves around. 

Guy and Girl, after all, first connect after the latter is so struck by a song of Guy’s that she forces her way into his life despite his initial reticence to connect. Their bond deepens after the two duet on the movie’s most famous song, the Oscar-winning Falling Slowly, which actually appears once towards the beginning of the musical and again towards its ending, its meaning having shifted mightily in the meanwhile. 

Their mission to make music together continues to define their untraditional “love” story throughout the play. Their narrative lacks any traditional resolution or consumation but results instead in the recording of an album once guitar-playing Guy and piano-playing Girl join forces and the Girl pulls some strings (the non-guitar kind, if I need specify) to secure them studio time.

Once’s music’s sometimes dubious connection to its plot is more or less atoned for by the show’s unique and intuitive choreography and the consistent beauty of both the casts’ strong vocals and their instrumental accompaniment, which was provided, interestingly enough, by themselves; near every multitalented cast member doubled as musician!
Once is the sort of low-key story the casual theatregoer (eg, my mother…) might walk out of wondering what, exactly, the point was. I, though, maintain that unique beauty of tragically missed connections, especially when they result in some unforgettable art-making, can be a kind of point in and of themselves.

Luscious and Lascivious “Lipstick”

While I doubt any comedy will ever get quite as close to my heart as darker material tends to, there’s also really no bad time to take a visit to one. Theatre, after all, is as much escapism as it is anything else, and the breakneck pace, too-perfect coincidences, and fast-paced dialogue of well-done humorous farces like Lipstick, which finishes its run this upcoming weekend, often constitute a perfect evasion from everyday.

Produced as it was by LGBTQ-focused theatre company Island City Stage, it’s no surprise that Lipstick was distinguished from its farcy predecessors by its raunchy plot and array of LGBT characters. Jodi Dellaventura provided a detailed and realistic apartment set, strong enough to stand up to the play’s wide variety of theatrical antics. 

Actress Vanessa Elise served as the good-hearted center of the show,  the (relatively) down-to-earth Anna, while Corey Rose appeared as her more flamboyant best friend Mal. Their grounded friendship and consistent characterization were key to our investment in the story, laying a good foundation for the play’s zanier moments.

Other major players included Rachel Gil de Gibaja as Cara, Anna’s somewhat unhinged ex, and Abby Nigro as Kelly, the sexually confused yoga class pal Anna invites over for what she optimistically hopes is a date. Gibaja brought a comic intensity to her role, though if anything she could have been more out there to suit such an extreme plot and her character’s unusual behavior: namely, running away from her own wedding in an attempt to win Anna back.

Meanwhile, Nigro brought the right mix of appealing innocence and sensuality to justify her status as the apple of Anna’s eye. Apart from Nigro’s winning coquettishness, I also have to give credit to the costume department for her stylish and ambiguously gay look.

In a not-entirely-psychologically realistic twist, Nigro’s character’s confusion and repression regarding her sexuality was revealed to stem mostly from conflict over her vanished father, who had his own outstanding sexual issues. 

Though I admit to initially rooting for Gibaja’s character to pull off a romantic win, (nothing gets to me like the rekindling of a lost love…) Anna and Kelly’s chemistry eventually won me over to their side, and the pair’s sweetness and genuine affection for each other came through even within the play’s bawdy setting. 
Dean Nigro, Peter Bisuito, and Christina Alexander also nailed their smaller roles, with special props to Nigro for pulling off an impressive array of costume and character changes. Plotwise, though, the ultimate revelation of the identity of Bishuito’s character, Hank the handyman struck me as a little too convenient and too out-there, even for a farce, or maybe it just could have stood to be a little more directly foreshadowed. Or maybe I could stand to get a little more used to the absurd, at least when attending a play like Lipstick!

A Funny Review Of That Musical About The Forum

Fortunately, you still have a whole weekend of performances left in which you might behold A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, a uniquely uproarious musical farce. The show was produced by MNM Theatre Company, a group that can be distinguished by its live music and its practice of showcasing exclusively Florida-based actors, which made the musicals’ more or less perfect casting and the sheer caliber of everyone onstage all the more impressive. 

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum also happens to be the first work for which my beloved Stephen Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics. Though it is one of his more accessible shows, so accessible in fact that even my rare theatergoer of a father came along with me voluntarily, it is not devoid of the composer’s trademark wit and wordplay. This was especially evident in songs like “Impossible,” that rhyme “impassible” and “irascible” while pitting father Senex against son Hero in a battle for the lovely Philia’s affections.

Johnbarry Green served as the memorable and capable centerpiece of the show: Pseudolus, the slave whose quest for freedom set the rest of the play’s cascade of capers and mistaken identities into motion. He drew us in right away in standout opening number “Comedy Tonight,” and easily maintained our attention show-long with his playful antics.

(Fun fact: the show was in danger of closing until the aforementioned number replaced an earlier opening song; the play then ended up running for 964 performances (more than two and a half years!)

J. Savage and Meg Frost as young lover and ingenue Hero and Philia both exuded an innocence and earnestness so endearing that you couldn’t help but root for them as a couple despite their characters’ apparent shallowness and idiocy.

Then there was the incredible Sean Williams Davis, whose booming voice immediately made a huge impression when he appeared as Miles Gloriosus midway through Act 2. His hugely dramatic reactions to his character’s unfortunate circumstances led to plenty of drollery. 

Aaron Bower as Domina also nailed her one major song and exuded a strong presence throughout the play, serving as a worthy opponent to the formidable Troy Stanley as her husband Senex. Even Stephen Eisenwasser, Frank Francisco, and Elijah Pearson-Martinez as the three Proteans, who had the unenviable task of shape-shifting into a variety of characters in order to fill out all the play’s minor roles, provided more than their fair share of hilarious moments.

If I had to find something to nitpick about Forum, it might be less the folly of MNM than of the script itself. Despite the cast’s excellent delivery of it, I couldn’t help but be put off by the blatant lecherousness of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” by the fact that the character Philia had no aspirations or personality traits besides being “absolutely lovely,” or by the fact that Hero falls for her unquestioningly simply because she is.  I also thought the costuming of the courtesans skewed a little male gaze-y and I would’ve appreciated if, well, any of the female characters had had a little more agency, but you know, no show can have everything, and it was written nearly 60 years ago. Forum had more than enough going for it to add up to an incredible evening.

On Stories/Some Thanksgiving Thoughts

So, I plan on reflecting on the experience of attending and speaking at New City Players CitySpeaks towards the beginning of this month— procrastinated a little on this one since it wasn’t as urgent as the play reviews I’ve been working on, but it’s kind of a good Thanksgiving fit nonetheless!

I also plan on seizing the broader topic of “storytelling” as an opportunity to ramble about some of my writing and some of generally experiential stuff, so get ready for a pretty wild ride!

New City Players’ CitySpeaks is a monthly gathering that offers community members the opportunity to share and listen to each others’ powerful true-life stories, in the spirit of more well-known storytelling events like those hosted by The Moth.

Now, though I am an introvert with an absurd amount of social anxiety, I’m also a bit of an adrenaline junkie and can have quite the exhibitionist streak — does any writer or actor not? Plus, there was at work the same force that routinely draws me to improv, a kind of exposure therapy ideology: me thinking that if I just force myself into enough uncomfortable situations th discomfort might eventually start to fade.

So when a New City Players member who’d read some of my previous pieces about the company asked if I’d be interested in telling a story at the next CitySpeaks, it was a relatively quick road to: well, why not?

In contrast to NCP’s more formal Forums, City Speaks is a pretty freeform affair; storytellers are actually encouraged not to have something strictly prepared, only a loose idea of the story they are going to tell onstage.

 But since I wasn’t sure if I could handle quite that much impulsivity, I decided that, instead of working off the top of my head, I was going to try and condense the ideas in the 300+ page memoir I’m basically-finished writing into a pre-written 8-minute speech.

I put together this speech the day of the event and ended up running slightly over nine minutes, so I’d say I did pretty well, especially considering that I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task, partially because a defining thread of that memoir is the fallibility of narrative itself.

To quote its opening chapter, “Stories can be our prisons and our motivators, our elixirs and our poisons, our diseases and our cures. They can help us make meaning and sense of tragedies that first appear vast and random and indecipherable, but they can also distort the simplest of things to the point that they are unrecognizable. The stories we tell ourselves can save, but they can also, quite literally, kill.”

There are times when our stories can strengthen us, help us hold onto who we are and what we believe at times when all else seems lost. Yet if we start believing the wrong story, get sucked in by some sort of flawed dogma or even just start thinking the wrong things about ourselves—not good enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough—the walls of our stories can close in around us and start to cut us off from the world, from truth itself.

For example: if an otherwise rational person genuinely believes a “story” in which they will not be happy unless they are thin, they may take some pretty absurd or even dangerous actions in an attempt to achieve that goal.

One of my fatal flaws is my tendency to make things and people into more than they are. Letting my obsession with being a certain weight entirely eclipse my capacity for rational thought on and off for a good 10 years is one example of this (semi-starvation also has a way of physically precluding people from thinking rationally, especially about food and weight, but that’s a 40-page tangent for another time); getting so attached to my view of how things ought to be and how people ought to feel that I completely disregard their actual feelings is another.

In a way, I think my tendency to see unlikely connections between unrelated things, my capacity for passion and obsession, and my inclination towards experiencing the world at such a high pitch is part of the reason that I ended up a writer, since writing is both an unexpected application of these traits and a surprisingly useful coping mechanism for them.

After all, the very act of telling a story can be healing. In addition to the anecdotal reports of artists worldwide, many formal studies have shown that expressive writing can have significant positive psychological effects.

Some of this evidence was in fact so strong that it spawned a whole field called “narrative therapy,” which helps patients “rewrite” their life stories and revise their self-conceptions in a way that helps them envision a better future.

Which brings me to the bizarre point that I think my journey from my most eating-disordered moments to my current state of semi-sanity was defined less by any sort of conventional mental health algorithm than by a long winding road of making sense of it by writing stories, first in the form of a slightly autobiographical theatrical script and then in the form of this aforementioned memoir.

Weirdly enough, I wrote the bulk of both of these things during periods where my behavior ranged from incredibly disordered to… well, still pretty disordered. Yet I found myself writing strangely hopeful, strangely radical, and strangely impassioned anti-eating disorder and anti-diet-culture manifestos before I ever consciously allowed myself to consider that I might actually believe what I was saying; that perhaps I’d been arguing in favor of health so unambiguously less for any as-of-yet abstracted reader than because some part of me wanted to justify it for myself.

Of course, in line with my penchant for overthinking everything ever, I then went for another meta-loop and made that process of discovery and how it related to my self-invention as an artist part of the narrative of my memoir itself.

(I promise, it makes sense in context.

Um, maybe. Anyone wanna read it and let me know?)

Yet things still are seldom as linear as we’d like them to be, especially not things as deceptively complicated as eating disorders. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that certain conceptions of eating disorders dominate the cultural sphere, while those with less visible or straightforward presentations are less acknowledged.

When someone is asked to imagine someone with an eating disorder, they’ll probably envision the skeletal anorexic, the off-to-the-bathroom bulimic, or the obviously overweight binge eater.

There’s less of a template for someone who, for instance, vacillates between periods of bingeing and periods of restriction often enough to maintain a normal weight but is so preoccupied by these behaviors and compulsions that she cannot maintain a normal mind or life, or a “bulimic” who compensates for binges solely through over-exercise and fasting rather than the behaviors we typically think of as “purging.”

I won’t say that I’m free of every disordered thought or behavior today, but that the formerly maddening extremes have become a lot less extreme, and that I am slowly regaining my capacity to give my full attention to the things and people around me rather than being entirely preoccupied by my neurotic insular world.

I want to believe that this upswing will continue, that I can make peace with my entirely normal weight rather than spend the rest of my life chasing some improbable ideal. I want to believe I can eventually become one of those sincerely body-positive people I so admire and have the confidence to start… posting bikini pictures on Instagram or something. (For that matter, be able to wear a bikini…buy a bikini?)

I want to abandon the physically and mentally limiting beliefs of diet culture entirely so that I can obsess instead about theatre and books and politics and climate change and human rights and animal rights and everything else in the wider world that is more important than goddamn calories.

Now, all of the above is true, but it is also true that I was fully committed to a hare-brained weight loss scheme less than a month ago. (Now, that’s yet another story…..)

So maybe that makes me a hypocrite; or maybe life just isn’t linear, and maybe, in some ways, realizing how much better it feels to be in weight-loss limbo than to be on some stupid diet might be one of my most important realizations yet.

But I was supposed to be talking about Cityspeaks!!!

Perhaps thanks to one nerve-steadying glass of wine before I was called up to the mic, I was able to accomplish my basic goal of reading my full story in a relatively understandable fashion. My four fellow storytellers also happened to have some amusing and amazing stories; I won’t go into detail about those stories here since I’m not sure whether the readers intended everything they said to propagate beyond the evening and that particular audience, but to Rafael Martinez, Nick Valdes, Meaghan Richter, and Shannon Adams; bra-freaking-vo.

So, now, bringing things back to Thanksgiving: I’m grateful I got the chance to speak, and maybe even more grateful I got the chance to listen; got a chance to have my perspectives questioned and my horizons broadened, and to be reminded of some of the ways in which I wasn’t alone.

Hearing stories, after all, can sometimes, be as healing as writing them. It can be a great relief to know that you aren’t the only one who experiences anxiety, or has experienced injustice, or has felt betrayed by their own body or mind. The understanding and empathy that can emerge from stories can help raise awareness and start a dialogue; and that could well be the first step to change.

And so to finish off this sweeping Thanksgiving day proclamation: I’m grateful that the world has so often and so efficiently saved me from my own idiocy, and I’m grateful I have such amazing friends and an amazing family who have consistently supported me despite it.

I’m grateful I live in an incredibly privileged sector of the world and of the country, even if it doesn’t always feel like I do. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to see some incredible theatre, and participate in some incredible theatre, and learn, over the years, from some of the best theatre and writing teachers around.

I’m grateful that the collective consciousness of my generation is changing, and widening, and exploding, that awareness of so many issues is expanding so quickly, for how much more open things are now than they were even when I was growing up. I’m grateful that I can publicly admit to things like having autism, or being bisexual, or even having an eating disorder without feeling the world will (necessarily) come crashing down around me if I do. And I’m grateful that whenever I’ve almost totally lost faith in the world’s goodness, something—or someone—will most always materialize to restore my hope.

The next CitySpeaks is on December 5th, if any of ya’ll feel like checking it out. In the meantime, everyone, happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy this video of my “story!”

A Look At “Andy And The Orphans”

The play Andy and the Orphans, currently onstage at Sol Theatre courtesy of Primal Forces Productions, was originally titled Amy and the Orphans. This version of the play was gender-flipped to accommodate the casting of Edward Barbanell, a Coral Springs resident who actually understudied the role on Broadway last year and shares his character’s diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome.

Barbanell’s casting is a huge win for authentic representation, and the actor gave a nuanced and moving performance as the movie-obsessed Andy, a character who was heavily based on the playwright Lindsay Ferrentino’s real-life aunt Amy. Like the title character of the play, the real Amy had Down’s Syndrome and spent most of her life institutionalized. Amy and The Orphans was thus Ferrentino’s way of grappling with the more unpleasant aspects of her aunt’s life.

The inciting incident of the play is the death of Andy’s father Bobby, which prompts his newly “orphaned” siblings Maggie (Patti Gardner) and Jacob (Jeffrey Bruce) to make a rare visit to their brother Andy in order to tell him what has happened and take him on a road trip to the funeral. What they didn’t count on was Jacqueline Laggy as Andy’s caregiver Kathy being required to join them or being confronted with a devastating revelation about their brother’s past.

Though some criticism of the show focuses on the fact that Ferrentino seemed to put Maggie and Jacob at her story’s center rather than Andy himself, I did not get the impression that the playwright focused on them unduly. After all, the character of Andy has a somewhat inherently limited perspective, and the experience of the loved ones with disabilities can certainly be as complex, interesting, and stage-worthy as the stories of those who are disabled themselves.

I definitely think this play explored both sides of the story and presented Andy’s siblings as relatively sympathetic characters, since the most horrific events of the play happened when they were children and couldn’t conceivably intervene. I also viewed their efforts to reconnect and make amends with Andy as sincere ones, and may too have been skewed by Bruce and Gardner’s wonderful performances. Their humorous road trip antics and laughably pedestrian concerns (like Jacob’s obsession with juicing and Maggie’s skittle-related health scare) did much to balance out the story’s darker aspects, as did Laggy’s Kathy’s no-nonsense exasperation with the two.

The parents of these three “orphans,” on the other hand, portrayed in flashback by Joey De La Rua and Amber Lynn Benson, came across as somewhat less likable, and I’m not sure how much of that to put down to the writing and how much to the performance. Though Benson showed some considerable comedic chops as Sarah during the couples’ lighter moments, she definitely came off as a little too casual and self-assured when making the wrenching decision to institutionalize Andy (especially in comparison to the character of Tami in Falling earlier this season, who wholeheartedly resists making a similar decision about her own son).

De la Rua as Bobby seemed somewhat more genuinely affected by the gravity of the situation than his wife did, but it is implied that both are complicit in surrendering Andy to what we would eventually learn was a horrifically abusive environmentit cost him his teeth and a chunk of his leg! It’s also, unfathomably, implied that Bobby and Sarah knew exactly how horrific that this environment was.

Fortunately, Andy seems to have found some happiness in a more caring institutional environment by the play’s present, and found even a job and a girlfriend, and I was glad to see him assert his desire to stay there even after his guilt-ridden siblings presented him with an alternative.

Still, Andy’s woundedness is expressed in a surprisingly moving closing monologue in which he uses movie quotes to express his complex feelings about his family and his past. The incredible work of Barbanell in the role lent credence to play’s conviction that his character, too, may have been able to live a more productive and fulfilling life—if only anyone had ever given him a real chance, Andy “couldda been a contender” indeed.

A Visit to “Visiting Mr. Green”

I got a chance to see Jeff Baron’sVisiting Mr. Green this past weekend at Bob Carter’s Actor’s Repertory Company in West Palm Beach, and found the script so old-fashioned that I was initially surprised to find out it was written only in 1996—a little over twenty years ago!

Speaking of old-fashioned, it was pretty refreshing to see an elderly actor playing an elderly character instead of a younger actor made up to look old: Allan Myles Heyman as Mr. Green walked with a noticeable hunch and otherwise looked to be within a decade or so of his character’s 86 years. He gave a superb performance, nailing both the comedic bickering that defined the first half of the play and the more serious moments that arose in the second.

His acting partner in the two-character play, Nani Edry, was also earnest and likeable as young businessman Ross Gardinier, if maybe a little too likable and light-hearted; his initial irritation with Mr. Green could’ve been played more strongly to give the character more room for transformation, and the inner conflict about his sexuality he describes during the play’s second half could’ve used a slightly darker tint.

The two’s strange relationship begins when Ross accidentally runs over Mr. Green with his car and is then, in a pretty unrealistic turn of events, sentenced by a judge to make weekly visits to the old man as his form of community service. Neither Ross nor Mr. Green are very happy about this arrangement, and the ensuing conflict between them offered quite a few laughs—though it was also plagued by some overlong scene changes. The bond that begins to develop between the two after Ross finds out more about Mr. Green’s past and Mr. Green softens a bit was also genuinely moving.

However, things take a turn for the heavy-handed after Ross reveals his homosexuality to Mr. Green at the end of the Act One. When Mr. Green vehemently states his distate for Ross’s orientation, repeatedly calls him by the Yiddish slur “fagela,” then reveals that he disowned his daughter for marrying a non-Jew, I stopped seeing the character as a crochety but sympathetic old man and began to grow frustrated with him.

Additionally, the script dragged even more once the drama began to overtake the humor, so I was more than ready for the play to conclude when it arrived at its ending. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that Mr. Green’s long-held prejudices against non-Jews and against homosexuals were too-quickly and too-neatly resolved. Before final bows, Ross successfully convinces Mr. Green to reinitiate contact with his previously estranged daughter, and it looks as if some happiness is finally in store for the senior. However, after 80some years of bigotry, I’m not sure if Mr. Green quite deserves it.

A “West Side Story” Well-Told

The “story” of West Side Story is a timeless one.  In fact, the story is so timeless that Shakespeare told it a good few centuries before Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Stephen Sondheim (music) did when the show premiered in 1957.

For those who don’t know, West Side Story was based on the Bard’s equally timeless Romeo and Juliet, which, incidentally, is one of the Shakespeare plays that it’s become trendiest to hate, mostly because of the apparent boneheadedness of the teenage leads. West Side Story is also playing at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center (hosting their first Broadway At The LPAC production) until this December 1st, and I was lucky enough to catch it on its opening night!

West Side Story also reminds me a little of South Pacific in that it’s one of those shows that’s become such an integral part of our theatrical canon that we can often forget how revolutionary it was when it first came out. Now that musicals routinely explore everything from teenage suicide to the AIDS epidemic, it can be hard to remember that topics as dark and political as West Side Story explores were once revolutionary.

Today, parts of West Side Story, set in the 1950s, come off as positively quaint, particularly the censoring of curse words to phonetically similar bastardizations. One might also reflect on how many of the characters’ misunderstandings could have been avoided if only they’d had access to cell phones. Yet the core of the story, which pits love against the formidable forces of racism and gang warfare, is still all too relevant in an era that may be even more saturated with violence than was the era in which it came out.

Perhaps West Side Story’s biggest flaw is the same flaw that afflicts its centuries prior predecessor: the fact that it represents the whirlwind star-crossed courtship between Maria, a young recent Spanish immigrant whose brother Bernardo is a ringleader of a gang called the “Sharks,” and Tony, who is a Caucasian member of their rival group the “Jets,” as “true love.” It certainly stretches believability that any two people could go from “strangers” to “willing to run away with each other” within only a day, and that this affection persists even after Bernardo’s demise at Tony’s hands.

Yet once you accept that the two characters are genuinely in love, the rest of the story makes perfect emotional sense. After all, who, when properly infatuated, isn’t as earnestly eager to murmur the name of their beloved as Tony is when he sings “Maria”? Who wouldn’t, under the influence of enough raw passion, forgive their loved one even unfathomable crimes?

Photo Flash: First Look at WEST SIDE STORY At The Lauderhill Performing Arts Center

Besides a few questionable wig choices for the Jets’ girlfriends, the set and costume design of Lauderhill’s production was pretty on-point. One highlight was the balcony scene, in which the stage was memorably lit by a backdrop of stars, and Ron Hutchins’ choreography also shined throughout the production.

I also found few flaws with the performances. Alexa Lopez, an American Heritage high school senior making her professional debut, brought a nice balance of innocence and sensuality to the part of Maria. Her singing voice, an absolutely stunning soprano, also had me trying not to count down the minutes until her next song. It’s not hard to see how she ended up in callbacks for the part on Broadway (as per the show’s press release), and I’m certain her theatrical future will be an exceedingly bright one.

Jacob Tarconish was also quite good as her counterpart Tony, if maybe not quite so awe-inspiring — I could occasionally hear him struggling vocally over some particularly difficult notes— and the leads’ chemistry was especially apparent in moments like their playful dress shop “wedding” scene. Peter Librach made a big impression with relatively little stage time as Doc, especially during the scene late in Act Two when he is tasked with delivering some unpleasant news to Tony.

This could be nothing more than me being bored by the mechanics of a story that I already knew the plot and beats of, having seen the play before, seen the movie at least once, and heard most of the music more times than I can count, but I do think the hour-and-a-half Act One eventually got a little tedious; without the incredible, soaring songs, many of which are now bona-fide classics, I don’t think the dialogue alone would have made this show one for the ages.

Act Two, though, was a lot more engaging and contained most of the show’s highlights: The Jets hilariously hamming it up in “Gee Officer Krupke,” Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita’s heartfelt “A Boy Like That,” the earnest sentiment of “Somewhere,” and the lyrical dance that accompanied it. The production was more of a well-done rendition then a particularly new or striking interpretation, but I doubt any fan of the play would be disappointed by the talent and dedication on display.

West Side Story has a happy ending only in comparison to the ending of the play it’s based on, and I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated besides to say that the final image was a striking one. While I doubt the tentative peace shared by the dueling factions will last, the play’s concluding monologue will certainly be haunting my thoughts for a while.

The Weird and The Wonderful In “The Wolves”

I knew from my first glimpse of the set of The Wolves, the Pulitzer Prize finalist of a play by Sarah Delappe playing through the end of this weekend at Zoetic Stage, that I was in for something a little different. Instead of your typical raised stage, I found myself looking down on a huge curved platform covered in Astroturf!

A group of young actresses playing a high school soccer team then emerged, identified throughout the play only by their jersey numbers rather than given names. They then immediately launched into some of the most naturalistic dialogue I’ve ever seen onstage, spoken with near-perfect chemistry and at lightning speed. Characters frequently talked over each other and non-sequiturs abounded, and the result sounded remarkably like life.

This fast paced style led to a lot of comedic moments throughout the play, and it was also refreshing to see young women immediately start talking frankly about traditionally unlady-like subjects like periods, abortions, nervous vomiting, and who took that huge dump in the port-a-potty. 

Every scene took place on the girls’ soccer field, but the scope of The Wolves stretched far beyond it; the girls’ dialogue touches on issues as weighty as the immigration debate, the Cambodian genocide, and sexual harassment by coaches. However, I use the phrase “touched on” for a reason; as interesting as the play’s conversational style was, it also fostered a leaping from issue to issue too quickly to explore any of them in much depth.

I also wonder if the 90 minute and 9-person show would have been better served by fewer characters who were more developed rather than a whole team given only surface characteristics. For example, we get glimpses of #2’s eating disorder and #25’s exploring her sexuality without really diving into the psychological complexity of either.

Nor do I think the play had a particularly suspenseful or technically well-crafted plot, with tension mostly coming from the subtly shifting relationships between the characters and the minor drama of whether the team will win and who will get scouted. I can see how it might’ve been off-putting to those who came to the theatre in search of more conventional narratives, but in my mind the story’s awkwardness and aimlessness was part of the point

This was most evident near the end of the play, when an emotionally harrowing twist seems to come completely out of nowhere. Yet sometimes, that’s just what tragedy’s like. Not forecasted or foreshadowed, and not necessarily congruent with what came before; just sudden and devastating and so regrettably real. 

Much as I hate naming standouts in such an ensemble-driven piece, especially one featuring an absolutely fierce cast made up entirely of women, I did take note of Katherine Burns’ vivacious energy and consistently brilliant comedic timing as #8. I also noticed the dramatic abilities of Tuesline Jean-Baptiste as #00 In a heartrending scene showcasing the characters’ visceral reaction to grief. Elena Maria Garcia as an unnamed soccer mom also absolutely nailed her intense singular scene near the end of the play.

Finally, I have to once again commend the whole cast for mastering the physical demands of the play, which included keeping control of a soccer ball onstage and multiple high-knee and butt-kick runs across the stage. Though the show’s writing is probably a little too spotty for it to warrant a spot in my all-time favorites, it’s probably worth seeing for the remarkable performances alone, and I’m definitely glad I got the chance to behold something as theatrically weird and wonderful as The Wolves.