Moonbox's "A New Brain": Hitting All the Bungee Chords

“A New Brain”, now being presented by Moonbox Productions, is a (very) autobiographical work from Natick native William Finn (“March of the Falsettos”, “Falsettoland”, “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) who wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book with long-time collaborator James Lapine. Based on Finn’s own diagnosis of an arteriovenous malformation, it’s an unusual idea for a musical, first presented as a less structured song cycle, with almost three dozen songs. Revised in a more narrative if non-linear form, it had its Off-Broadway opening in 1998, ran for five months, and was nominated for Drama Desk awards for music, lyrics and book. Intermission-less, at just shy of two hours, it’s a virtually through sung (dare one say thus operatic?) workout requiring a multi-talented cast and a fluid production. Moonbox (the name refers to a theatrical device that simulates moonlight) has provided just that in this effort, the latest in an unbroken string of critically acclaimed hits under Producer and Artistic Director Sharman Altshuler, who has assembled a cast and crew equal to the material, which is saying a great deal.

“A New Brain” concerns the crisis faced by a young Broadway composer, Gordon (Tom Shoemaker), who worries that either he won’t live to complete his most important work, or will be left incapable of doing so. He is suddenly taken ill and rushed to the hospital where, anticipating brain surgery, he begins to envision songs, hallucinating that they are being performed around him. With a fabulous cast of ten, (or eleven, if you insist, including the multitasking, deconstructing piano that plays more roles than anyone else on stage), the central story develops as “Gordo” confronts relationships with a parent, his partner, and his publicist. These would be his mother Mimi (Shana Dirik), his boyfriend Roger (Ross E. Brown), and his agent Rhoda (Shonna Cirone). And then there’s the frog-costumed Mr. Bungee (Matthew Zahnzinger), for whose children’s television program Gordo writes songs, even as his chords cause some discord. Along the way he encounters Lisa the Homeless Lady (Lori L’Italien), a fumbling minister (Peter Mill), a sassy waitress and tough nurse (both played by Allison Russell), a nice nurse (Aaron Michael Ray) and Gordo’s surgeon, Dr. Berensteiner (David Carney). Everyone of them gets her or his chance to shine in the spotlight, and it would be criminal to try to pick and choose among a group of such incredibly beautiful voices.

There are some particularly poignant moments. One of the first songs is about the “Heart and Music” needed to make a song, as sung by the ensemble, which sets the tone for the show. Then there’s a lovely number featuring Brown and Shoemaker, “Sailing”, which later becomes a metaphor (in the equally moving “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk”) for how our protagonist must face his surgery. And the anthem sung by L’Italien about wanting “Change” (speaking of metaphors), or Brown‘s “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe”, or Dirik’s maternal lament even as “The Music Still Plays On”. Finn has provided a wonderfully varied score, with magnificently nuanced lyrics. He ends with a slight variation on that earlier number, “Heart and Music”, now altered to “Time and Music”, needed in the making of a song. Ah, the wages of synapses: witty lyrics and a heavenly score.

Allison Olivia Choat, Director and Set Designer, has created a truly unforgettable treat, above and beyond the brilliance of her conception of that scene-stealing piano. She’s ably aided by Costume Designer Fabian Aguilar, Lighting Designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg, Sound Designer Dan Costello, and Music Director Dan Rodriguez, who heads up a seven piece combo in great form (though they occasionally overwhelm some lyrics, a risk in such a limited performing space). Special note should be made of the amazing choreography by Rachel Bertone, which proves this cast has more than just singing and acting chops.

In a musical about music, creativity and artistic survival, this company shines, in daylight and moonlight. Finn himself has stated that the theme is to stop and “smell the flowers”. Thus the infant terrible who gave us the “Falsettos” musicals isn’t so terrible any more, as witnessed by this work. It’s a kinder, gentler, but no less edgy writer and composer. As our protagonist Gordo says in quoting his father, “Sometimes joy comes at a terrible cost”. What Finn endured and survived has produced a work where the music definitely still plays on. As the final song by Shoemaker and the entire cast in this sweet, enjoyable creation so aptly put it, surely every audience member left the theater singing “I Feel So Much Spring”. It’s not often theatergoers get to experience the magic of a gem this well polished. It’s as near to theatrical perfection as it gets. Even Mr. Bungee would be pleased.


Trinity Rep's "Social Creatures": It's the Living End

It’s the end of the world as we know it. No, it’s not the Sequester, but the Trinity Rep world premiere of “Social Creatures” by Jackie Sibblies Drury, a graduate of the Brown MFA playwrighting program, who wrote it specifically for Trinity Rep. As the end of world approaches, several survivors are holed up in the basement of a building revealed to be a theater (and an amusingly familiar one), barricading themselves against contagion and whatever else is trying to get in. “Outside” has become an unfamiliar wasteland, as all the trees are dying. The world is being decimated by some unidentified crisis, and the resultant population of zombies threatens this last remaining vestige of humanity. This small intrepid group is attempting to preserve what’s left of civilization, even as they notice one of them beginning to turn into one of “them”, the “others” who have developed an insatiable taste for the flesh of mankind.

The story begins, as all horror stories should, in the dark, as we first encounter the Joneses (Alexander Platt and D’Arcy Dersham) as they are attempting to start a generator. Keeping up with the Joneses are Mrs. Smith (Rebecca Gibel), Mr. Johnson (Timothy Crowe), Mrs. Wilson (Janice Duclos) and Mrs. Williams (Nance Williamson). If these are beginning to seem like pseudonyms to you, you’re on the right laugh track. Mr.Smith (Charlie Thurston) has gone missing. Mr. Brown (Darien Battle) arrives to complicate things, which are already rather complex, mostly due to some rigid agreed-upon rules. To divulge much more than that would be to spoil the fun. The cast of eight (surprising for a play these days) is superb, considering that a ninety-five minute running time doesn’t leave much time for the actors to (you should excuse the expression) flesh out their roles. But as directed by Trinity’s Artistic Director Curt Columbus, they’re a tight-knit ensemble. It would be difficult to determine who had the, uh, meatiest roles. The technical team are all contributive to the bizarre goings-on, from Set Designer Eugene Lee to Costume Designer Olivera Gajic to Lighting Designer Josh Epstein and Sound Designer Peter Sasha Hurowitz.

This short but not sweet comic tragedy, or “dramedy”, has some very creative elements concerning basic human nature and who the true monsters are in society. While struggling to maintain some semblance of order and normality, the characters have decided, among other regulations, not to use their real names until they find themselves able to be their old real selves. Two of them even wax nostalgically about their past lives (which itself is against their rules), revealing previous rather inconsequential roles as a plastics manager and a clay cat painter; they even share a vague feeling of “waiting for something to happen”. In this and other scenes, this novice playwright displays a sure ability for writing natural dialogue, as well as an inventive mind. Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, it’s an admirable early effort. Theatergoers’ appreciation of the play might well depend on their fondness for the drive-in B-movie zombie genre it both emulates and spoofs. That target niche will find this a thoughtful hoot, although a one-act play of such brevity doesn’t give an audience much to sink its teeth into.


Huntington's "Raisin": What Happens to a Direction Differed?

In the theater, groundbreaking efforts can be life-affirming and lasting. When the black playwright Lorraine Hansberry presented her first play “Raisin in the Sun” in 1959, she was the youngest American, and first African American (as well as only the fifth female) to win the Drama Critics’ Circle Award as author of the Best Play of the season. She entitled it after a Langston Hughes poem (“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”). Though it was the first play in Broadway history with a virtually all-black cast, it was hailed for its universality, as a play that happened to feature black characters but was applicable to all people. While this was in part true then, and remains so today, the true miracle of this work is its honest depiction of a particular class of people and how they faced crises that were peculiar to them. As Hansberry herself put it: “in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific”. While all of us may be able to identify with the its themes of retaining human values and integrity, obsession with material worth, maintaining self-respect, and difficult family relationships, there are some struggles, such as civil rights and racial awareness (and pride therein), that many of us initially encountered in our exposure to this play. Thanks to Huntington Theater Company, theatergoers could look forward to experiencing the power of Hansberry’s work once again.

But, sadly, not in this version. Theatergoers familiar with the central story from the filmed and televised versions, and perhaps even the 1974 Tony-winning Broadway musical, (all of which managed to produce profound effects on audiences of many hues), will have to look hard to find much of her insight here, primarily due to some problematic directorial choices by Leisl Tommy. Her bold decision to have the spectre of the late Walter Lee Sr. seated onstage as the play begins (thus this isn‘t a spoiler) and eventually to take on an active role, will strike audience members as either breaking brilliant new ground or a fundamentally wrong-headed and creepily distracting choice. While the memory of Walter Lee Sr. was always a profound presence, this is taking a metaphor way too literally. The main conflict was always that of the family’s move to a “white neighborhood”, Clybourne Park, and how this transforms Lena (Kimberly Scott), her son Walter Lee Jr. (LeRoy McClain), his wife Ruth (Ashley Everage), their son Travis (Cory Janvier) and Walter Lee’s sister Beneatha (Keona Welch). Things come to a head when they are visited by the (white) representative of the new neighborhood’s “Welcoming Committee”, Karl Lindner (the same character who appears in Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park”, being presented this month by SpeakEasy Stage Company, played here by Will McGarrahan). The saying that there is “no such thing as a ‘white folks’ neighborhood except to racists and those submitting to racism” was never truer. Making the crucial decision by Walter Lee Jr. (about Lindner’s visit) depend on the supernatural intervention by the ghost of his father destroys the inner growth that leads to the resolution of the main family crisis.

But “Raisin” is, or should be, about so much more than that. Consider Lena’s words about her son Walter Lee Jr. when he makes a critical mistake: “Have you cried for that boy today…what he’s been through and what it done to him…when do you think is the time to love somebody the most…it’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself…make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through”. Or pronouncements from condescending Beneatha (note the name), precursor to feminism, who, though not integral to the central plot, enables the author to comment on marriage, birth control, class barriers within the black community, the value of education and idealism vs. the upward mobility of one beau, George (Cory Allen), and the African roots and pride of her other beau, Asagai (Jason Bowen). Or the many instances where characters complain of being misunderstood, another recurring theme. Or the unforgettable iconic line from Lena: “Repeat after me, in my mother’s house there is still God.” This production also restores a poignant scene between Walter Lee Jr. and Travis that was cut from the original performances on Broadway. Unfortunately, though there are undeniably memorable moments of drama, there are several additional puzzling choices that distract from the playwright’s points. A revolving set sometimes requires that the actors awkwardly move from one room to another as they’re speaking; the lighting was occasionally harsh and strong (literally in one’s face); musical transitions were both gratingly dissonant and anachronistic; even some of the costuming (especially the loud argyles for George) was overly blatant. What this production sorely lacked was subtlety.

When first produced, this work by a young, gifted and black author both comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Its impact should continue to resonate with contemporary audiences as much as it did when it first burst onto the stage. To interject such a real life play with a heavy dose of magical realism is a fundamental mistake. Hughes’ poem ends: “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” While this production doesn’t sag like a heavy load from its ill-conceived direction, it doesn’t explode with theatrical force either.


SpeakEasy's "Clybourne Park": Razing in the Sun

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Clybourne Park”, by Bruce Norris, comes with quite a pedigree of much-deserved prizes: the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2012 Tony as Best Play and, in its London iteration, both the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards as Best Play. Norris has fashioned an ingenious work that takes place in 1959 in the first act with seven characters, and the second act in 2009 with eight other characters. Attention must be paid to such a scheme, in order to appreciate fully his complex motifs that keep recurring among these two casts of characters. A first-time viewer could profit from a scorecard.

In the first act, homeowners Bev (Paula Plum) and Russ (Thomas Derrah), with help from their maid Francine (Marvelyn McFarlane) and her husband Albert (DeLance Minefee), are packing up their belongings after having sold their house. We soon come to realize that it’s their house that the Younger family from Lorraine Hansberry‘s “Raisin in the Sun” have bought. Bev and Russ are visited by their clergyman Jim (Tim Spears) and a neighboring couple, Karl Lindner (the sole, and soulless, white character who also appears in “Raisin”, here played by Michael Kaye) and his pregnant wife Betsy (Philana Mia), who happens to be deaf. Karl reveals that the purchasing family is black, and that he has already visited the Youngers twice in a failed attempt to buy them off. What ensues is a heated argument, which on the surface is about property values, but on a more profound level is also, as Norris has described his own work, “about race, property and territory”. The act ends with Russ burying a trunk, and the sad memories it contains from a tragedy two and a half years prior.

In the second act, the racial tension fifty years later takes a while to surface, as it’s far subtler and more insidious, subliminal and insincere, as a new cluster of people (none of whom appeared in the first act, although some of those characters would only be in their seventies and eighties in 2009) are debating the other side of the coin. Now this neighborhood, predominantly black, is becoming gentrified. The prospective new white owners, Steve (Kaye) and Lindsey (Mia), intend to raze this house which the Youngers moved into and erect a taller and larger one. Their lawyer, Kathy (Plum) who happens to be the adult daughter of the Lindners seen in the first act, negotiates with a black couple who represent the current neighborhood association with its height and historical preservation concerns, Lena (McFarlane) and Kevin (Minefee); Lena is presumably named after her great aunt, Mama Younger of “Raisin”. The other character onstage as this act begins is Tom (Spears), a single man who is also a neighbor. These six people begin their discussion fairly civilly, until some politically incorrect jokes surface, laying bare some deep-seated biases lurking under the surface congeniality. Meanwhile, a workman, Dan (Derrah), has dug up an old trunk (the one Russ buried at the end of the first act), revealing a long-forgotten tragic incident.

There will not be a quiz. A theatergoer who’s paying close attention might pick a nit about Karl’s described (second) visit to the Youngers’, when they reject his offer, which in “Raisin” occurs the day their movers have come; in this play, subsequent to Karl’s visit, Bev and Russ aren’t moving for two days. Still, it’s a clever, nay brilliant, idea that allows Norris to compare and contrast racism then and now. It’s also of interest to note that Hansberry’s original ending showed the Youngers waiting with guns for whites to attack them once they moved in. She never used that ending but chose an open-ended yet much more hopeful one, when Mama at the very last minute took her precious but pathetic plant along with her, soon to be replanted in their new home.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara magnificently helms a cast who are all, except for Derrah and Plum (both at the top of their form), making their debuts at Speakeasy. Kaye, McFarlane, Mia, Minefee and Spears are wonderful. In the first more tragic act, it is Derrah who anchors the action, mesmerizing us with his pain and bringing us to tears, and Plum whose desperation breaks our hearts. In the second hilarious act, it is Mia who bursts the hypocritical bubble of superficial harmony, making us laugh at our own prejudices and shortcomings. It should be noted here how vitally important the setting is in grasping who’s who in act two. A recent regional production with a vast open set left its audience initially clueless as to who all these people were. Fortunately, Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco’s set helps focus one’s attention on the various antagonists and their inter-relationships, immediately clarifying them. The other technical credits are all perfect, from the Costume Design by Mary Lauve to the Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus.

Much of the brilliance of the play lies in its parallels between the play’s acts (the same church bells, the references to a “retarded” person, a crepe myrtle tree). The point may be that some things, and some people, never change; even racism, albeit sublimated, endures. Near the end of the play, in a flashback, Bev naively sighs: “I really believe things are about to change for the better. I firmly believe that”. Unfortunately, it is clear to us that this won’t be true. What is abundantly clear, however, is that just as Hansberry gave us insight into many defects in the American dream for her era, Norris has given us another mirror reflecting the unfulfilled promise of our own time. Fifty years from now, perhaps yet another playwright will define that dream as finally attained, the dream no longer deferred. Or not. In the interim, we should cherish this incredibly wise play, performed by a pluperfect cast, for its blazing truth and honesty.


Bridge Rep's "The Lover": Curtain Raiser Gives Pause

Harold Pinter’s short play “The Lover”, written some fifty years ago, has often been presented as a curtain raiser in tandem with another brief play, so it’s entirely appropriate that it is being presented as the premiere production of a brand new theatrical entity, Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston, as the “curtain raiser” for this promising company, now at the Calderwood Pavilion. In the space of just under an hour, including many instances of that famous Pinter “pausality”, the author offers one of his pithiest commentaries on such issues as love, communication (or lack thereof), intimacy and connection. This makes the play doubly apt, as the company’s stated mission encompasses connection, not just performing a story but causing our “hearts to pound, tears to fall, breath to catch”. Based on this initial outing, this will be a bridge worth taking again and again.

Bridge Rep’s Founding Artistic Associates further describe themselves as part of an actor-driven aesthetic, as demonstrated by the fact that three of its founders are the actors on stage in “The Lover”: Joe Short (as Richard), McCaela Donovan (as Sarah), and Juan C. Rodriguez (as John). Its other founders are Esme Allen, M.J. Halberstadt and Producer Olivia D’Ambrosio. Their aims also include being alive, real and accessible, and this early Pinter work allows them to be all of these goals and more. On a simple but versatile unit set with striking lighting (both Scenic and Lighting Design are by Luke Sutherland), with eerily effective Sound Design by Ed Young, we’re treated to a painfully funny (but ultimately just painful) journey in the lives of Richard and Sarah and John (the milkman, who might be suspect, given the play’s title). As tightly directed by Shana Gozansky, (including some Stage Combat by Angie Jepson), it’s a wild ride. It’s difficult to convey what to expect without prematurely divulging a few “reveals”; Sarah and Richard are a rural couple whose ten-year marriage has become rote and remote, passionless and pointless. What happens is best left for audience members to discover for themselves, but suffice it to say that they stray into territory that wouldn’t be at all unfamiliar to Albee’s George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.

All three actors are perfect embodiments of vintage Pinter people, at ease with those challenging pauses, an attractive trio fine-tuned by Gozansky. Rodriguez is hilariously horny, Donovan can be tuned out or turned on at a moment’s notice, and Short, in the most demanding and multi-layered role, handles the humor and the horror (of what can happen when you don’t abide by the rules of the game) with equal dabs of charm and insincerity. They, along with Gozansky, have set a very high bar with this initial effort. It’s a tantalizing, even sublime beginning that portends great things for an exciting future. By all means, do yourself a favor and cross this bridge with your spouse and your lover. You’ll all be glad you did.