Lyric's "Light up the Sky": Ham on Wry

The Cast of "Light Up the Sky"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Lyric Stage Company's current production is “Light Up the Sky”, the 1948 comedy written (and originally directed) by Moss Hart. It's a madcap behind-the-scenes story typical of its time, especially notable for local theatergoers for the fact that the action takes place in Boston. In real life, the play actually tried out in Boston, as well as Philadelphia and New Haven. Rumor had it that some of the characters were based on actual theatrical folk (such as actress Gertrude Lawrence and entrepreneur Billy Rose). On Broadway, it had a successful run of over two hundred performances. Now in the incredibly perfect hands of Director Scott Edmiston, it's once again on a roll, though, ironically, the original flopped in its Boston tryout.

As the music from the film “All about Eve” plays, we see the living room of a sumptuous suite in the Ritz-Carlton (now the Taj) Hotel in Boston where the entire timeline of the play (from 5:30pm to 3:30am the next morning) takes place. The suite is occupied by celebrated actress Irene Livingston (Paula Plum) on the opening night of the new play “The Time Is Now” by novice playwright and former truck driver Peter Sloan (Alejandro Simoes), at the Colonial Theatre. On hand for the pre-opening hysterics are Irene's entourage: her ghost-writer Miss Lowell (Jordan Clark), working on the actress' autobiography, her flamboyant director Carleton Fitzgerald (Will McGarrahan), constantly crying “I could cry”, her low-brow producer Sidney Black (Will LeBow) and his ice-skating-star and wife Frances (Kathy St. George). Also included are Owen Turner (Richard Snee), a playwright whose works have been performed by Irene in the past, her sarcastic gin-rummy-playing mother Stella (Bobbie Steinbach), Irene's husband Tyler Rayburn (Terrence O'Malley), and a Shriner named William H. Gallagher (Bob Mussett) who also turns out to be stage-struck. This troupe confirms the view of the story's novice playwright about the “humanity of these people”, as they to prove to be all too human. Oh, and there's also one caged parrot, frequently under wraps, perhaps lest it reveal too much, rather like a canary in a coal mine.

The success of a work that features such a corps of larger-than-life characters depends on the elusive ability to chew scenery without making it indigestible, and this cast does so artfully and hilariously on point, led by a quartet of divas. Those headliners would include the trio of madcap actresses, locally beloved, by the names of Plum, St. George and Steinbach, each with her singular opportunity to light up this particular sky. The fourth, and most surprisingly adept diva, is none other than McGarrahan, who adds to an amazingly varied roster of his roles, that of the hyperventilated director. And attention must be paid to the other luminaries in this milky way of star turns, including LeBow and Snee. It's the rare production in this day and age that provides such a cornucopia of corn, and exquisite corn this is. The technical contributions exceed the excellent standard typically set by the company, beginning with the absolutely smashing Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, stylish and over-the-top Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, superb Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and expert Sound Design by Samuel Hanson. The incidental Music Direction was by cast member McGarrahan, including a clever use of “There's No Business Like Show Business” from “Annie Get Your Gun”, which would have been heard just two seasons before the arrival of “Light Up the Sky”.

Any comedy written over six decades ago must of course have some references that have lost their meaning for contemporary audiences. How many, for example, will recognize the aside “I'm married to Mortimer Snerd”, or allusions to former Boston critics Elliott Norton and Elinor Hughes, or even the fact that back in the day there were no fewer than seven Boston critics in print, amicably skewered by Hart as “seven guys on the aisle who didn't like Mickey Mouse when they were kids”? Yet many of the lines are as on target today as they must have been then, such as the quip “old playwrights never die, they just go out of town”. And one player is devastatingly described as “human wreckage”. The old truism stands that a writer should write about what she or he knows, and Hart surely knew the theatre world well.

And what of that title? In the printed text (and original program), Hart quotes the purported source for the title as the lines: “Mad, sire? Ah, yes -mad indeed- but, observe how they do light up the sky”, as spoken by “Old Skroob” in “The Idle Jeste”. 'Twas a jest indeed on the part of Hart, as he entirely made up the reference; “Skroob” was, in fact, a real inside joke, as it's an anagram for the given name of then-New-York-Times-Critic Brooks Atkinson. Early in the play there's an apt reference to the fact that “the magic only happens out of town”. The play-within-a-play is referred to, by one critic who found it incomprehensible, as an allegory. No such fate awaits this “Light Up the Sky”, which is a production sure to split your sides, with a level of direction and acting rarely seen in these parts, or anywhere. It's achingly funny, memorably quotable, and astoundingly relevant. And utterly illuminating.


SpeakEasy Stage's "Mothers and Sons": It's Not Only a Play

Nancy E. Carroll & Michael Kaye in "Mothers and Sons"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

Fittingly, Mothers Day was the date of the official opening of SpeakEasy Stage Company's New England premiere of Terrence McNally's “Mothers and Sons”, a Tony nominee a year ago for Best Play. You know a play is the work of McNally when it opens and closes with an operatic aria (in this case, from Mozart's lesser-known opera “Shepherd King”, about being “constant in my love for him”). It's 2014, on the shortest day of the year, blustery cold outside, in an overheated upscale New York apartment overlooking Central Park, including the very spot where the memorial celebration had been held for gay man Cal's former lover, Andre, who died of AIDS twenty-odd years earlier. (That was the subject of McNally's earlier play in 1988, expanded for an Emmy-winning PBS adaptation in1990, “Andre's Mother”, in which Cal confronts the unnamed mother of the deceased). In the original version, the mother never speaks a word, perhaps a metaphor for all those parents of gay children who are incapable of confronting reality, never mind accepting, or even speaking about it. In this play, Andre's mother has arrived unannounced at the home of her son's former lover and his family, and at first steadfastly declines to remove her mink coat, despite the warmth of the apartment, as though it's her armor for the seemingly inevitable confrontation to come. As Cal said in the earlier play, “how many of us live in this city because we don't want to hurt our mothers and live in mortal terror of their disapproval?”.

Strictly speaking, “Mothers and Sons” isn't a sequel, though it features two characters from the earlier work, and the current play opens similarly to the previous one, with a lengthy monologue by Cal Porter (Michael Kaye), as Andre's mother Katherine Gerard (Nancy E. Carroll), stands in silence. This time, however, her silence is broken, even before the arrival home of Cal's husband Will Ogden (Nile Hawver) and their six-year-old son Bud Ogden-Porter (Liam Lurker). Like it or not, Cal is Katherine's last link to Andre, through whom she once hoped to live her life vicariously, perhaps expecting too much of him, and unable to let him go. She's concerned about her legacy disappearing when she dies, and denigrates the concept of love, lowering it to the level of mere comfort and concern. She opines that “people don't change”, but it becomes quite apparent that at least Cal has, and perhaps she has, too, given her long-overdue appearance. She ultimately declares that it is not closure she seeks, but revenge. Cal, on the other hand, has moved on from his initial bitterness at his loss, and made a new life for himself. He's even able to bemoan the marginalization of the AIDS epidemic as a chapter in history that will become in the future of society merely a paragraph, eventually a footnote. He's comfortable in describing his discomfort, at first, with the term “husband” as applied to Will, and in his implicit condemnation of bigotry in his stating that gay couples “weren't allowed the dignity of marriage; maybe that's why AIDS happened”.

As for Katherine, it eventually becomes clear that, while the ostensible reason she has suddenly materialized is to return something Cal had sent her, the true reason for her arrival is infinitely more complicated. Lies and secrets are revealed, not in a melodramatic manner, but in one that is integral to the story. Though the structure of the play is old-fashioned (having players exit for the bathroom, for example, in order to facilitate various confrontational scenes), make no mistake about it. This is a radical play, if for no other reason than the depiction of its core family in all its mundane normalcy. Yet Cal admits the discrepancy in his relationship is “generational...I never expected to be a father. (Will) never expected not to be one”. That, in a nutshell, is McNally's genius of observation of society's seismic shift, and no doubt why the title features plural nouns. In a mere ninety minutes, which seem to fly by, he has captured and encapsulated so much about longing and loneliness, dealing with our unresolved anger, and forgiveness (of others and ourselves) and even redemption. His stark depiction of the transformation in society's thoughts and feelings about family (and its diversity today), with same-gender couples being good parents, is so devastatingly brilliant that it might well take your breath away.

As Director Paul Daigneault, the company's Producing Artistic Director, writes in the program notes, this was the first Broadway play to feature as its protagonists a legally married gay couple. It profits from the passion and compassion of its author. While it's partly about AIDS, it's from the perspective, not of the disease itself, but that of the people that it affected, their personal grief, and the degrees of individual and social change, and sometimes lack thereof, that has occurred in the last two decades. In the playwright's words, it's about “those left behind...about what AIDS is doing to human relationships”. It features four generations, each with a specific view towards the disease. McNally, who has had a lengthy and prolific career (with four Tony Awards, and another nomination for this season's Best Book of a Musical, “The Visit”, as well as a current Broadway revival of his “It's Only a Play”), has an uncanny ear for truth. In “Andre's Mother”, Cal expressed his desire: “I've always had it in my mind that one day we would be friends, you and me” yet admitted that “the only thing that frightened (Andre) was you”. By the final scene, your heart and soul may well be sung “by flights of angels to your rest”. While “Mothers and Sons” is at one and the same time old-fashioned, as noted above, and groundbreaking, it's worth is in its truth.

Daigneault has firmly recognized this in his wonderful direction of this remarkable cast. None of this foursome ever hits a wrong note, including the very believable Hawver (who manages in just a few nuanced lines to reveal that his character is a tad controlling, not a plaster saint) and the utterly natural support of young Lurker. But it's the work of Kaye and Carroll that commands our attention, and rightly so. Kaye's Cal is complex and heartbreakingly real in a very difficult role to inhabit, yet he does so supremely well. Carroll's Katherine may well be her finest work to date (and that's saying a whole lot, given her many unforgettable appearances in a remarkably varied career). Whether admiring her deadpan delivery of some of McNally's best lines, or her continual reacting in character, you simply can't take your eyes off of her. On the technical side, the Scenic Design by Erik D. Diaz and Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker perfectly capture the naturalness of the normal life of the family, and the Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg and Sound Design by David Remedios are equally right for the work.

In the end, this is a play that shouldn't fail to move even the most jaded theatergoer to the point of tears, and beyond. Its honesty is that astonishing. It's not only a play, it's a truly moving shared experience. One might ask, in the end, is this play manipulative? Of course it is, but in a very positive sense...the way all theater can and should be, especially great theater such as this.


Zeitgeist's "Submission": What's In a Name?

Matthew Fagerberg, Aina Adler, Victor Shopov & Diego Buscaglia in "The Submission"
(photo: Joel W. Benjamin)

What's in a name? Just ask Shaleeha G'ntamobi. If you can find her. And that might be a problem, considering that she doesn't exist. In Zeitgeist Stage Company's production of “The Submission” by Jeff Talbott, she's the nom de plume for gay white playwright Danny (Victor Shopov), who wants so desperately for his play to be accepted for inclusion in a festival that he invents a pseudonym that not coincidentally sounds like the name of a black woman. His deception escalates when he must produce the female playwright, so he hires a black actress, Emilie (Aina Adler), to impersonate her/him. Even Danny's loyal lover Pete (Diego Buscaglia) and best straight friend Trevor (Matthew Fagerberg) are drawn into the complications that ensue. “The Submission”, written in 2011, is a hybrid, a tragedy that frequently erupts into comedy. It's about name-calling at a different level from any familiar norm, and it begins and ends with an f-bomb, with quite a few more of them in between. With Direction and Scenic Design by David Miller, the company's Artistic Director, at about a hundred and five intermission-less minutes, the play is as topical and provocative as contemporary theater gets, being about race, gender, sexuality and politics, which are, as Miller notes in the program, the cornerstones of theater today.

The initial deceit is unsavory enough, but it's not long into the piece that we begin to suspect that, to paraphrase Danny's work, it's important to know what he's capable of. He creates this quagmire of quicksand that slowly but surely exposes society's underbelly with its inherent bias and baggage camouflaged under a superficial veneer of tolerance. It also becomes a sort of one-upsmanship about which societal group, African-Americans or homosexuals, is the more oppressed. Disagreement about whether the gay community is, as Danny posits, “the new underclass”, and whether this white playwright can even begin to understand his own story about a black alcoholic mother and her card shark son in the projects, are only the first in a series of verbal brickbats. Danny accuses Emilie of a conspiratorial passing of the baton as being the object of prejudice, and her growing relationship with Trevor as reminiscent of an Oreo cookie; she retorts with a homophobic slur about being “the last on the bench for dodge ball”. He further declaims that “hating is hating”, that they share oppression, which she denounces, adding that his fabrication was “never about the play” but his own ego. The fights get way worse until a final exchange of epithets that's excruciating to hear. It's Emilie's opinion that their ultimate contretemps about revealing the true author was “not about the timing but the telling”. By the time she baits him in front of the others, revealing his true feelings (and Talbott's play itself is devoid of sentiment), the audience sits stunned at the sheer audacity of it all.

Miller's helming is, as usual, masterful, and the actors respond in kind. Shopov's bravura performance is yet another example of this actor's versatility, and Adler is every bit his equal. Buscaglia and Fagerberg do what they can with their basically underwritten roles, though each has his moment (notably the former's offstage anti-theater-people rant). The technical contributions, in addition to Miller's clever set depicting a New York apartment, a desk area and several intentionally indistinguishable Starbucks, include Costume Design by Shopov (with meticulous detail, right down to Pete's two pairs of turtle socks and mushroom socks, and Danny's lily white formal hoodie), intriguing Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson and crucial Sound Design by J. Jumbelic, providing a penultimate scene of ringing phones that perhaps should have been where Talbott ended the work, rather than a somewhat tacked-on epilogue that makes explicit outcomes the audience might have preferred to infer.

At the beginning of the “The Submission”, in a sort of inside joke, Danny's work is pronounced very “produceable”, given that it has only four characters and a minimalist set. Though we don't really get to know much about Talbott's quartet of characters, even the two main protagonists, we do get some insight into our supposedly “post-racial” times. We may not totally identify with any of the individuals portrayed on stage, but there's likely to be a lot that seems not entirely unfamiliar. It may not be perfect, especially with respect to fleshing out this foursome, but it's a challenging, discomforting and unique in-your-face confrontation. Irony of ironies, “The Submission” was itself a finalist in playwriting competitions. It's a compelling finale to Zeitgeist's impressive current season.


New Rep's "Adultery": Truth Stranger Than Friction

Ciaran Crawford & Leda Uberbacher in "Scenes from an Adultery"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

New Rep Theatre's last production of its regular season, the world premiere of “Scenes from an Adultery” by Ronan Noone (whose play “Second Girl” was produced this past season by Huntington Theatre Company) is all about secrets and keeping them. Or not. Having to keep them can be the beginning of the end for a relationship, either within or outside marriage. It's not a novel story, adultery and its consequences. Noone takes a new spin on the age-old custom of circulating rumors true and untrue (or, as one neighborhood gossip used to put it, “tillage”, as in digging up dirt). Over the course of a scant seventy minutes, the playwright gradually reveals some of the inherent pitfalls in spreading the word. Or not. The consequences of keeping secrets or revealing them may be treacherous.
Where virtually nothing happened in “Second Girl”, a great deal happens in this play, though most of it occurs offstage, a problematic approach in theater. In a neighborhood pub, Gasper (Ciaran Crawford) reveals to his mate Tony (Peter Stray) that he suspects a mutual friend has been, well, naughty, in so many words (a goodly number of them naughty as well). Tony's wife Lisa (Leda Uberbacher) becomes involved in their subsequent discussions, eventually discovering what a tangled web they all have woven. There is a great deal of dialogue about Dean and Corrine, whom we never meet. Suffice it to say that, by the time their respective diatribes are over, much previously interred info has been unearthed, and psyches somewhat shattered. Truth when outed can be stranger than repressed friction.

For such a brief work, it's rather a slow set of reveals, and there's a lot of talk before some final onstage action. As ably directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, the actors struggle to hold our interest, even if their parts are unevenly written. Each character pretty much plays the same notes throughout almost a half dozen scenes over a ten week period. The creative team, notably Set Designer Janie E. Howland (who created three set pieces, a living room, a pub, and a dining room), Costume Designer Molly Trainer, Lighting Designer Christopher Brusberg and Sound Designer David Remedios, have all helped to establish the appropriate milieu for all the verbal gymnastics. Originally set in the U.S., the casting led to its relocation to the U.K., as Crawford is from Ireland, Stray from London, and Uberbacher from Edinburgh. While it illustrates the universality of the work, it sometimes makes for some difficult accents to absorb.

The roles these folks play make for somewhat unpleasant characters as the play evolves, and hardly the most mature acquaintances to acquire, but if realistic dialogue and intelligent conversation are your thing, this will be right up your alley. It's the product of New Rep's Next Voices Playwriting Fellowship program. Roone himself states that his play is about limits and boundaries: “the point wasn't always about what they read or saw, but how it made them feel about themselves...a pinch of guilt...once they questioned the trust, it had the potential to be very explosive... the effect infidelity may have on others, the ones not directly involved...causing a ripple, then creating a larger wave”. It's rather like watching someone inevitably sink into quicksand, reminiscent of the famous Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover about gossip coming back to haunt the first monger. While it's described in the program as a comedy, there's not much to elicit laughter (the audience at the performance attended was unusually unresponsive). In fact, the play deals with some serious issues such as complicity by silence, sinning by omission and when damaging information is better shared or withheld, but it stands as an incomplete play. While it flirts with such topics, they're never quite consummated.

ArtsEmerson's "Grand Parade": Passed By

The Cast of "Grand Parade"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century)” is the creation of a company from Ashfield, MA known as Double Edge Theatre, and this work is certainly that. It's a double-edged surreal collage of one hundred years of our common mythology, inspired by the art of Marc Chagall. It's quite a trip, encompassing memories and memorials of such elements as the first lunar landing, the escape artistry of Houdini, the discovery of the atomic bomb, and the JFK assassination. According to the company's Artistic Director Stacy Klein, the members of the troupe who created it viewed the past American Century as one of cataclysm and destruction; they tried to reflect this history through their own eyes as the sole means of speaking to their desires for the future. They attempted a dialogue with their future as being both simple and profound, “a choice between destruction and creation”. It ended up a bit of a mishmash of individual and collective memory of their experiences, said to be based on their investigation of Homer's Odyssey, though there wasn't any clear evidence as to this influence.

The co-creators and performers of this piece were Carlos Uriona, Matthew Glassman, Hayley Brown, Jeremy Luise Eaton, Adam Bright and Milena Dabova. It was Conceived, Designed and Directed by Klein, with Music Composition by Alexander Bakshi, Sound and Projection Design by Brian Fairley, Technical Design and Direction by Adam Bright, Music and Vocal Direction by Lyudmila Bakshi, and Lighting Design by John Peitso. The Wood Scenery Design was by Jeff Bird, Mask Design by Beckie Kravetz and Puppet Design by Carroll Durand, Sarah Cormier and Nancy Milliken. All were competently accomplished, but the only standout was the Costume Design by Amanda Miller. There was also a four piece band and, at the performance attended, a fine guest vocalist, Morgan Williams.

One expected better and more immersive visual theater. Lamentably, this was not up the exacting standards of professionalism exhibited during this past season of ArtsEmerson productions. There were a few brief inspired moments (the quiet solemnity of the earliest days of the AIDS crisis, the toppling of the Berlin Wall) but by and large the effect was one of a somewhat superficial listing of unrelated events. It didn't help that the mimicry of such events was flat and amateurish. The company is to be commended for attempting to cover such a vast expanse in such a brief span of time. The program lasted just under an hour and was with us just over the weekend. One hoped to be inspired, as the song “Before the Parade Passes By” puts it, to feel one's heart coming alive again. Unfortunately, this “Grand Parade” merely passed by.


BLO's "Don Giovanni": Flagrantly Delectable Hell

Duncan Rock & Steven Humes in "Don Giovanni"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
For the final opera in its current season, Boston Lyric Opera has chosen a popular old favorite and given it a decidedly fresh and modern viewpoint. The opera is “Don Giovanni”, one of Mozart's finest works, first performed in 1787 in Prague, reaching American audiences about forty years later. The BLO has created a version that is true to the libretto by Lorenzo DaPonte yet simultaneously breaks new ground. As this production's program notes, the opera has had its champions over the years, from Tchaikovsky to George Bernard Shaw to Stendahl, blending as it does the comic and serious into what Mozart himself called a “dramma giocoso” or jocular drama. It's a story portraying the battle of the sexes and classes, obviously timeless, which Stage Director Emma Griffin has successfully transformed into a tale of a relevant rake hosting a costume party. Don Giovanni is still the narcissistic playboy, still the self-destructive sex symbol. How he meets his comeuppance, being hoisted by his own petard so to speak (the specifics of the finale will not be revealed here), puts the arc of his story in a new light.

In a recent issue of Opera News, the plot was summed up in a single sentence, paraphrased here: In Seville, the servant Leporello (Kevin Burdette) keeps watch as his master, the titular bed-hopper Don Giovanni (Duncan Rock, in his BLO debut) is pursued by a lover, Donna Elvira (Jennifer Johnson Cano), whom he spurned, a husband, Masetto (David Cushing), of a woman he assaulted, Zerlina (Chelsea Basler), a noblewoman, Donna Anna (Meredith Hansen), who spurned him and whose father, the Commendatore (Steven Humes), he killed, and her fiancé Don Ottavio (John Bellemer); but it's the murdered man's graveside statue that finally drags the unrepentant philanderer down to hell. That's it in a rather lengthy nutshell, with almost three hours of glorious music. In this case, however, the ending is tweaked a bit as noted above, (while still respecting the original libretto), to give it an ironic feminist twist that's both apt and ingenious. Let's just say he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.

As with virtually all of Mozart's twenty-two operas, however, it's not the plot that matters most; it's all about the music, both sung and played. The company excelled in both of these departments, with memorable contributions by the BLO Orchestra led by Conductor David Angus and the singing by the entire cast, a varied ensemble composed of several familiar performers (including participants in the Emerging Artists program) as well as a couple of singers making their company debuts. Every one of the principals gets a chance to shine in a solo aria or two, and none disappoint. Rock, who makes an unforgettably dashing sex symbol in the title role, almost manages to make us forgive the Don's excesses with his superb voice and believable acting. All three women are equally memorable, with Hansen, Cano and Basler each delivering lengthy arias in great displays of technique and sound. The same could be said for Cushing, Bellemer and Humes in their supporting roles. The hit of the evening has to have been Burdette, no stranger to the role of Leporello in his distinguished career. His every movement is virtually choreographed with never a wasted or overdone touch, all the while in perfect voice, a tribute to his own timing as well as to Griffin's meticulous direction.

The technical aspects of the production are suitably in harmony with Griffin's approach, from the unit Set Design by Laura Jellinek to the elegant Costume Design by Tilly Grimes, dramatic Lighting Design by Mark Barton, well-executed Fight Direction by Andrew Kenneth Moss, and varied Wig and Makeup Design by Jason Allen. There are a few curious touches (such as a mysterious metallic tiger statue that's prominent in the first act and disappears for the second), but overall the production is one of the company's best offerings in memory. With a score full of hit tunes and a cast that knows how to deliver them, this production is a triumph.