New Rep's "Fully Committed": A Holiday Buffet, with No Reservations

“Fully Committed” by Becky Mode, New Rep’s latest offering, is a tour de farce for any actor/juggler with impeccable timing, impressive memory and impossible energy. Happily, Gabriel Kuttner, who plays Sam the reservation clerk at a four-star Manhattan restaurant, has mastered this role before, winning an IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) Best Solo Performance award in the process. Kuttner, familiar to New Rep audiences from past performances in “DollHouse” and “Speed the Plow” (for which he won another IRNE), hasn’t lost any of the stamina needed for this role (or, rather, roles, since he actually ends up playing three dozen or so of them). As acted by Kuttner and directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, Associate Artistic Director for New Rep (who also directed “DollHouse”), there’s something new on the uh, Verizon. It’s like another course in the holiday buffet (and definitely not leftovers), or finding yet another present under the tree you hadn’t noticed. And what an unexpected holiday gift this is. It’s a hilarious cure for the holidaze.

Sam, it turns out, is an aspiring actor who’s very good at his day job but is desperately trying to get home to his widowed father in South Bend, Indiana for the holidays, as he anxiously awaits a Lincoln Center call back for an acting role. Frustrating and delaying his travel plans and career hopes are the innumerable last-minute calls he gets from the likes of Naomi Campbell’s assistant, Sherry Lansing’s secretary at Paramount Pictures, East Side socialites, suspected members of the mafia, a Middle Eastern sheik, and a blacklisted chap by the name of Ned Finlay. All are blithely ignoring his insistence that the restaurant is “fully committed” for the evening/week/month/eternity. How he manages to keep all these juggled balls in the air is the source of all the fun in this work, as he turns the tables, literally, massages all those egos, accepts bribes and, as has been said elsewhere, “gives good table”. Depending on the skill, pacing, and, yes, the aforementioned mental skills of the sole actor in the play, this can be (and is, in this iteration) sheer theatrical joy mixed with utter amazement. Kuttner’s portrayal of so many different personalities, accents and attitudes is a wonder to behold, or be on hold for. This critic has seen the play in three separate versions, and this one is the most restrained, nuanced and enjoyable.

The play earned a spot on Time Magazine’s top ten list of the 2000 theater season, and justly so. It’s a fast-paced roller coaster ride requiring a great deal not only from the actor and director but from the technical crew as well. The Scenic and Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan and Sound Design by Bill Barclay are call-perfect, almost becoming Kuttner‘s co-stars. While this is hardly profound theater, (nor is it intended to be), it’s a terrific ride. However fully you’re committed this holiday season, you owe it to yourself to squeeze in another fabulously funny night at the theater. And whatever you do, don’t tell them Ned Finlay sent you.


Trinity Rep's "The How and the Why": Evolving the Q and the A

“The How and the Why”, by Sarah Treem, now being presented by Trinity Rep, is the story of an encounter between two female scientists, one an established respected professional, the other a graduate student on her way to her own potential renown. Both of them are evolutionary biologists and both are the creators of original, strongly feminist scientific ideas, the older having defended her “grandmother theory” for decades, the younger about to do the same with her “evolutionary menstruation theory”. How they meet, and why this is at the center of the story, is gradually revealed in the course of this brief but compelling play. The scientific theories, in fact, are secondary to the relationship between the two women, which is a good thing, since each of the theories wouldn’t hold up to close inspection or empirical research and observation, if one truly believes that human biology is an ongoing evolutionary reality. Fortunately for the play as well as for the playgoer, what interests Treem far more is the evolving questions and possible answers to how these women relate and why they were destined to encounter one another in their own microcosm.

As directed by Shana Gozansky and performed by Anne Scurria as Zelda, the acknowledged expert in evolutionary biology, and Barrie Kreinik as Rachel, the ambitious grad student, this becomes a very involving exploration of female evolution, family histories, and the roles of mentor and protégé. These two deliver their lines with very fine-tuned rhythm and well-timed pacing, making the characters truly believable representations of a world-weary mature realist who thinks she has seen it all, and the up-and-comer with an unmistakable chip on her inexperienced shoulder. They are complemented by dramatic Set Design by Tilly Grimes and Costume Design by Olivera Gajic, consisting of blacks and whites and fifty shades of grey. The Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz are effectively dramatic in their own right.

Several revelations in the course of the story are predictable and even telegraphed if one has been paying close attention to inflections, pauses, and unfinished thoughts. The play ultimately could be subject to the same criticism as the evolutionary theories espoused by the two scientists. Close scrutiny might expose some of the more questionable coincidences that wouldn’t provide ultimately satisfying answers to the more incredulous audience member. That said, the dialogue is sharp, clever and witty enough to make the work a fascinating exploration of several universal themes. In the hands of two highly competent performers and a wise and inventive director, the work evolves as a subtle celebration of the sublime contributions of the female of the species over the ages. They prove beyond reasonable doubt that thought provoking theater isn’t just evolutionary but revolutionary.


Huntington's "Our Town": You Can Go Home Again

If you have ever loved “Our Town” (and who hasn’t?), be prepared to fall in love all over again. Huntington Theater Company’s holiday gift is a stunning re-imagining of Thornton Wilder’s groundbreaking play. This January 25th will be the 75th anniversary of the out-of-town pre-Broadway tryout opening of “Our Town” at the Wilbur Theater in Boston, which went on to win Wilder his second of three Pulitzer Prizes, becoming a perennial classic and perhaps the most beloved American work for many a theatergoer, including this critic. Thus it was a courageous risk for Director David Cromer to revive it off-Broadway in 2009 with a startlingly different approach. That production not only ran for over six hundred performances (its longest run ever), it won an Obie for Best Direction by Cromer, as well as Lucille Lortel awards for Best Revival and Direction. It was generally regarded as a truly revolutionary re-thinking of an extraordinary play. In its original production, it was acclaimed for its return to the basics of drama, with virtually no scenery and few props to distract from the fundamental issues on view; Wilder felt that “the spectator restages it inside his own head”, and that he could more effectively present “the life of a village vs. the life of the stars”. By setting this iteration in about the smallest venue imaginable, with the audience on three sides of the playing space, with action that takes place all around them, the creators of this version have made the audience a real part of the story, with the emphasis on that word “imaginable”.

In this production, which preserves the three-act structure of the play as originally written, the cast consists of thirty-two actors, twenty-nine of whom are local performers. In the original, Wilder himself played the part of the narrator (Stage Manager) for a few weeks of its Broadway run; in this version, Cromer repeats that feat (until December 30th). Also repeating their contributions from the 2009 production are the technical crew of Scenic Designer Stephen Dobay, Costume Designer Alison Siple, and Lighting Designer Heather Gilbert. It remains the deceptively simple story of 1901 Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire (“just across the Massachusetts line”), and what happens between and among its residents, primarily next-door neighbors and sweethearts George Gibbs (Derrick Trumbly) and Emily Webb (Therese Plaehn), both totally natural and believable. Also featured in prominent roles are Mrs. Gibbs (Melinda Lopez) and Dr. Gibbs (Craig Mathers) and their other child Rebecca (Emily Skeggs), Mr. Webb (Christopher Tarjan) and Mrs. Webb (Stacy Fischer), and the Choirmaster Simon Stimson (Nael Nacer). There isn’t a clinker in the bunch. Other townfolk include Mrs. Soames (Marianna Bassham), Joe Stoddard (Dale Place), Professor Willard (Richard Arum), Sam Craig (Nicholas Carter), Constable Warren (Paul D. Farwell), Farmer McCarty (Douglas Griffin), Irma (Kathryn Lynch), Joe Crowell, Jr. (Jay Ben Markson), Howie Newsome (Alex Pollock), Wally Webb (Eliott Purcell), and Si Crowell (Ryan Wenke). It’s hard to picture a better cast or a more effective fresh approach to what might be considered an old chestnut; they prove you can indeed go home again, and rediscover what we all might’ve taken too much for granted. It’s a revelation.

Wilder stated that his play was “not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village, or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death”, but “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life”, having “set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place”. In the end, he believed that “each individual’s assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner” and that “our claim, our hope, our despair, are in the mind…not in things, not in ‘scenery’.” Cromer respects this view, although he jolts us with a third-act surprise that’s unforgettable. While honoring the source material, he manages, in his complex performance and his pitch-perfect direction, to reveal not only the sentimental side of the work but also its darker one, its personal impact as well as its universality.

The struggle between the commonplace and the universal dimensions of human experience is perhaps best expressed in the mini-logue of George’s younger sister Rebecca at the end of the first act when she refers to a letter send to her friend from her pastor: “On the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America…Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God”….“and the postman brought it just the same”. Right on. Or, perhaps, Amen.


New Rep's "Holiday Memories": 'Tis a Gift To Be Simple

Every year at the holidays there’s that dreaded moment when arriveth those banes of human existence: the holiday fruitcake, the overtly and overly sentimental stories, and regional theater productions involving elves, animals and urchins (preferably orphans) that threaten to put a sprig of holly straight through a cynical theatergoer’s heart. Amazingly, although it includes all of the above, New Rep’s offering this year is a happy exception, that surprise under the Douglas fir that delights one mostly because it was so unexpected. Based on two much beloved and largely autobiographical Truman Capote short stories based on his own Alabama childhood, “The Thanksgiving Visitor” (1967) and “A Christmas Memory” (1956), and televised several decades ago with an incandescent performance by Geraldine Page, the basic story is hardly an unfamiliar one. The current version is called “Holiday Memories”, as adapted for the stage by Russell Vandenbroucke, and, yes, there is fruitcake (consider yourselves aptly warned) and sentiment (but not sentimentality), an orphan of sorts (more or less “posited”, as Capote wrote, with non-adoring relatives), and a dog. (More about that dog later). But it has much more than that; in what might very accurately be described as the true spirit of the holidays, it’s about life in the country in the Depression of the 1930’s, friendship, and the joy of giving; what keeps it from curdling is that it’s also about loneliness and loss.

The story is a simple one wherein two social outcasts, seven year old Buddy (played convincingly and uncloyingly by New Rep newcomer Michael John Ciszewski) and his older cousin and best friend Miss Sook (warmly enacted by frequent New Rep contributor Adrianne Krstansky) prepare a turkey-centric dinner for the immediate world, collect fallen pecans and buy whiskey for said fruitcake, and make one another their annual favorite Christmas gifts, kites. As directed by Michael Hammond in this production, also featuring a narrator named Truman (Marc Carver) and two actors playing multiple roles identified as Man (Jesse Hinson) and Woman (Elizabeth Anne Rimar), one couldn’t ask for a more effective and less pretentious cast, most certainly including the aforementioned canine Queenie (per the program, played by Queenie herself). Attention must be paid to such a dog; rarely is an animal actor so well-trained, so well-behaved, so unobtrusively present.

The technical crew deserves very special mention. The Scenic Design as imagined by Jon Savage, is what would be worthy of Louise Nevelson if she’d grown up in Alabama, not only amazingly functional but visually stunning (with what fittingly appears to be pecan wood in flooring, walls and furniture). The Costume Design by Molly Trainer (appropriately based on the Depression era world of the South), and the Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg and Sound Design by Edward Young all coalesce into a smooth telling of Capote’s tale, managing to cover a number of brief episodic scenes fluidly, also utilizing evocative projections. One scene will indelibly remain in this theatergoer’s memory: the nightlong vigil spent by Queenie guarding the Christmas tree with her gift, a huge five cent bone wrapped in the comics, sitting near the very top of the tree. (Queenie later buries her present where, as the narrator notes, she too will be “buried one year hence”). This team doesn’t strike a single false note, or bark, in telling Capote’s story.

What sets Capote‘s storytelling apart is its poignancy, its universality, and above all, its simplicity. Its morals are also true, usually as expressed by the also simple (in several meanings of the term) Miss Sook, (shy except in the company of complete strangers) such as “the only unpardonable sin is deliberate cruelty” and “I’ll always be here in your memories” and the disappointment of not being “able to give someone else what they want to have”. She also opines that “there’s never two of anything”, and her life surely perpetuated that theme. The way Capote expressed the moment of her death says it all: “When that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing me from an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven”. What could be more moving and seasonably warming than an evening spent with two such unforgettable kite runners?


Lyric Stage's "Chinglish": Ancient Chinese Joke Only Funny Virgin

That might qualify as a “Chinglish” mistranslation of the phrase “oft-repeated Chinese jokes are only funny the first time”. The 2011 play by David Henry Hwang (“M Butterfy”, “Golden Child”), now presented by Lyric Stage Company, is full of such malapropisms, arguably too full of them. The incongruent phrases are projected via surtitles, a device that’s clever if not particularly original; the same gimmick was used quite a few years ago in another play about Pidgin Chinese being mangled by a group of well-meaning missionaries (the name of which is lost to memory). This play concerns more mercenary ends, namely how an American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson) aims to get in on the growth potential of a Chinese province, hiring a cultural consultant and a translator to transmit his message. Sometimes hilarious phrases lost in the translation provide truly comic moments as the unworldly businessman attempts to make the sale. The first act consists mostly of these misfires, with pretty much all of the humor confined to the surtitles; the script may well read funnier than it plays.

The second act has fewer comedic lines but a little more dramatic interest in some of the players. The role of Xi Yan (extremely well performed by Celeste Oliva), the only well developed character in the play, turns out be more complex than first thought. It seems that there is more agenda at work here and that she, as several others, is not quite what she appeared to be. Ironically, too, it’s only when the occidental salesman is found to have been deeply involved in the Enron scandal that the potential oriental customers express enthusiasm for his project, which involves producing various forms of commercial signage (not a very subtle point). In that scene, Hwang comes perilously close to more than mere political incorrectness, as the Chinese characters become caricatures. Even more egregious is the portrayal of a minor Chinese sycophant as an offensive homosexual stereotype (a misstep Hwang was also guilty of in his re-writing of the book for a 2002 revival of “Flower Drum Song”). In any case, as directed by Larry Coen, the rest of the cast performs admirably in roles that, given the audience’s need to read above their heads first, require a special kind of timing. Included in the cast are Alexander Platt, Tiffany Chen, Michael Tow, Chen Tang and Liz Eng (some doubling roles). The Scenic Design by Dahlia Al-Habieli, Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue, Lighting Design by Matthew Whiton and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus are all first-rate, managing quite well without duplicating the rotating stage device of the Broadway version.

Time Magazine called that version one of 2011’s ten best Broadway plays, and the reviews, while not unanimous, were generally pretty favorable. One’s enjoyment of the work might well depend on your tolerance for the repetitious and the constant need to keep your extra set of eyes on the surtitles, as it is there that, as previously noted, most of the comedy takes place, and there’s not much real drama happening on stage. Having digested this version of the play, this critic had a subsequent craving, a few hours later, for more theater.