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Lloyd Rose

e Concoction

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
January 15, 1997
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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I had no idea what was going on for long stretches in "Vampire," which the Potomac Theatre Project opened Monday at the Olney Theatre Center, but nonetheless I was content. English playwright Snoo Wilson's peculiar, personal and poetic satire is charmingly theatrical even when it makes no sense. It's like a difficult, irritating but lullingly pretty poem, with inserted rude limericks.

"Vampire's" story, such as it is, spans more than a century. Act 1 is set in the mid-19th century at a Shropshire parsonage, where a repressed minister (John Lescault) is having trouble dealing with his three teenage daughters. One of these, Joy (Naomi Jacobson), runs away and ends up working as a spiritualist in a whorehouse where, not surprisingly really, she has a very un-psychic close encounter with Dad.

Act 2 takes place during the First World War, and a descendant of Joy's named Sarah (Jacobson again) is a suffragist who, responding to the country's wartime dismissal of the fight for women's rights, sets fire to churches. She comes to a strange end that I think -- it's hard to be sure -- is also a bad end. In the present day of Act 3, still another Joy descendant (Jacobson, of course) is a dominatrix funeral director. An odd combination, you say, yet she makes it work for her. The high point of this act -- and it is in fact, inexplicably, rather beautiful -- is the leather-clad Jacobson's recitation of a long passage from Saint Teresa the Little Flower about snow. At the end of this act, Lescault, playing someone or other, gets out of a coffin and delivers a speech that takes him back to his Act 1 identity as the minister and us back to the beginning of the play. A mere synopsis of the plot does not really give an accurate idea of what sitting through the play is like. "Vampire" is sprightly, light on its feet, unconcerned with propriety or reason. In its skipping way, it's a feminist piece -- the successive incarnations of Joy seek to find their sexual and social place in the world, only to be defeated by the dead ideas (Wilson's vampires) of the past. This "meaning" is just barely discernible through the antic capers onstage, which include appearances by Freud, Jung, Dickens, a sex murderer, two bikers and-or leather queens, a hunchbacked pianist and a randy talking ox (part of a Nativity scene), plus a variety of inhibited English citizens. Richard Romagnoli has directed with sensitivity to the play's odd beauty and has scattered the action around the theater, into the aisles and among the seats, with an abandon that suits Wilson's anarchic spirit. (The beauty is realized in large part through the work of Daniel MacLean Wagner, who creates the whole world of the play from light and a few sticks of furniture.) The actors -- who include Helen Hedman and Jon Sherman -- throw themselves into the roles, not exactly the same thing as acting them, but I'm not sure the distinction matters here. Jacobson in particular has several wonderful moments in Act 3 -- she plays eccentricity with great insouciance. It's a shame that Wilson's critique of dead ideas stops with the usual suspects: sexual repression, war fever, jingoism, organized religion and so on. It would have been an act of real daring to examine as critically the ideas that Wilson takes for granted as "superior" to the ones he satirizes: sexual freedom as an unmitigated good, war as unnecessary, religion as imprisonment -- in short, all the familiar countercultural shibboleths that the educated, theatergoing classes hold sacred. Vampire, by Snoo Wilson. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Set and lights, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound, Ron Ursano/the Chroma Group, Ltd; costumes, Johannes Huseby. In rep with "Closet Land" and "Cigarettes and Chocolate" through Feb. 2. Produced by the Potomac Theatre Project at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts. Call 301-924-3400.

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Branagh's Inaction Flick

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
January 24, 1997
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Kenneth Branagh's four-hour film version of "Hamlet" is intelligent, well intentioned and honorable -- and there's not a single thrilling moment in it. Branagh is smart and extremely hard-working, but he's not an imaginative actor or director, and he's produced the film equivalent of a lushly illustrated coffee-table book.

Of course, it's a book with a great text. Working from the uncut script, Branagh brings out the almost novelistic complexity of the play; it's worth every one of the 238 minutes plus intermission just to experience the sprawling power of Shakespeare's dramaturgy.

In particular, Claudius, the murderer of Hamlet's father and usurper of his throne, is revealed as almost as great a role as the Prince himself, and as the calculating killer who now wants only to enjoy his new life in peace, Derek Jacobi gives the movie's most interesting performance. The rest of the cast is generally strong without being particularly exciting. Julie Christie is a beautiful, sensual, shallow Queen Gertrude, whose character darkens as she realizes the corruption to which she's turned a willfully blind eye. Nicholas Farrell's Horatio is as simply loving and nobly selfless as a dog. Richard Briers makes Polonius a tough, seasoned political infighter (though this makes his rambling, fatuous speeches seem out of character), and Kate Winslet goes mad quite prettily as Ophelia. Branagh's celebrated, gimmicky casting of Big Stars in small roles yields mixed results. Billy Crystal is surprisingly effective as the First Gravedigger, a man who, for all his raw jokes, knows enough not to get in the way of the powerful when they're going mad. (The Second Gravedigger is Simon Russell Beale, a major English stage actor who has too little to do in this tiny part but does it well.) Charlton Heston takes to the role of the Player King with un-self-conscious dignity and rolls the phrases out of his mouth as if he'd been born speaking verse. Gerard Depardieu is a slouching, nasty, vaguely threatening Reynaldo, the courtier Polonius sends to spy on his son. (I didn't know what to make of Brian Blessed's Ghost, who is saddled with blue contact lenses to make him look unearthly and then, inexplicably, has the same weird eyes in flashbacks in which we see him alive.) On the other hand, though the audience laughs in happy expectation as soon as he appears, Robin Williams doesn't seem to know what to do with the role of the court fop Osric. Jack Lemmon is completely out of his depth, even in such a small role as the guard Marcellus. John Mills and John Gielgud make such tiny appearances as Old Norway and Priam (characters usually never seen) that they hardly register. (But in an equally short blip, Judi Dench's screaming grief as Hecuba is the most powerful moment in the film.) Elsinore Castle is played by Blenheim Palace, the ancestral estate of the dukes of Marlborough (and Winston Churchill's childhood home), and we're treated to several stately-home-tour views of the magnificent, snow-covered grounds. But the spacious, orderly palace isn't used either atmospherically or ironically, and it's awfully pretty for the story that unfolds. The interiors, designed by Tim Harvey, work a little better. When the brightly costumed court leaves the main hall, we realize how empty and cold its huge splendor is. Like Versailles or Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu, this Elsinore is filled with rows of mirrors: an ice palace, a maze of illusion. As Hamlet, Branagh is straightforward and heroic, and seems entirely too competent to put off revenge as long as he does. By the time he says, some time in Hour 3, "I do not know/ Why yet I live to say this thing's to do," the audience is wondering too. Branagh charges at the role fearlessly; it's not courage he lacks but complexity. There's something a little hearty and dull about him. In the recent movie version of "Othello," he played Iago to Laurence Fishburne's Moor -- and in this vicious role he had what he usually lacks: mystery, force and threat. But his Hamlet is a Boy Scout whose tragedy is that he finds himself in a situation not covered by the handbook. Audiences may wonder exactly what the "full script" of "Hamlet" consists of. The play exists in three early printings: the First Quarto (now dismissed as a patchwork put together from memory by actors), the Second Quarto (thought to be from Shakespeare's handwritten manuscript) and the First Folio. The Second Quarto has 230 lines that aren't in the Folio, and the Folio has 70 lines that aren't in the Second Quarto. Branagh has used the Second Quarto as his basic text, adding the lines from the Folio; it's quite possible that this complete a version has never been staged before. Audiences will see the following rarely staged sequences: all of Claudius's masterly manipulation of Laertes; all of the gravedigger scene, including not only the Second Gravedigger but Hamlet's meditation on at least three skulls prior to Yorick's; all of the conversation between Hamlet and his friends as they go to seek the Ghost, including the "vicious mole of nature" speech; the complete accounts of the military maneuverings of Prince Fortinbras (whom Branagh depicts, on slim textual evidence, as an invader); everything involving the visiting Players, including a conversation about companies of child actors, a contemporary issue that today means nothing to anyone but Shakespeare scholars; and sundry added ends of speeches and restored lines. The full play is itself so immense, labyrinthine, complicated, ambiguous -- such a sacred monster -- that this conventional production can't completely confine its power. It lurches about, confounding the tidy care with which it's treated. Still, Branagh's decorum keeps things from getting out of control and actually becoming disturbing or dangerous. When the Prince murders Polonius, the body lies in a huge, shiny pool of blood. As Branagh approaches the corpse to drag it from the room, his polished boots come dangerously close to treading in that blood, but at the last minute he swerves and keeps things neat and tasteful. This is not a Prince who means it when he swears, "Now I could drink hot blood!" at the Avalon II, is rated PG-

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Father Slime; In Drama, a Dark Heart Belongs to Daddy

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
January 26, 1997
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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For four centuries, audiences and scholars have wondered exactly what it is that makes Hamlet hesitate to revenge his father's murder. The father's ghost has appeared and instructed him to, the culprit is all too clearly the father's brother, Claudius -- yet Hamlet keeps not getting around to the deed. It is, in fact, finally forced on him, with the result that not only Claudius but the Queen, Laertes and Hamlet himself are left dead on the stage. If you count the earlier fatalities -- Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- Hamlet's dithering has caused seven unnecessary deaths.

Yet we still find him heroic: His mysterious uncertainty is mysteriously sympathetic. In Kenneth Branagh's new film of the play, in which Branagh plays the Prince, Hamlet Sr. is the warm, Santa Claus-ish Brian Blessed, and Claudius is the sleek and ratlike Derek Jacobi. There's no ambiguity about who the villain is, yet Branagh's Hamlet has as much trouble getting to the deadly point as any of his predecessors. The clue may lie in something I found myself thinking about as I watched the film: Though I'm sure this has been done at some time somewhere, I have yet to see a "Hamlet" in which the dead King and Claudius are played by the same actor, the Good Father-Bad Father dichotomy is confused, and we in the audience are forced to ask ourselves exactly who it is Hamlet is afraid to kill, and why.

Though most scholars believe there was an early, non-Shakespearean play about Hamlet (probably by Thomas Kyd), the great Renaissance playwrights by and large showed no particular interest in the tragedies of parents and children.These relationships were, however, in all their permutations, one of Shakespeare's major concerns: fathers who mistreat sons, fathers who mistreat daughters, sons who betray fathers, daughters who betray fathers, daughters who redeem fathers, and -- only once -- a son who saves a father. The Jacobean playwrights who came next abandoned the parent-child axis for the often incestuous tensions of brother-sister relationships. The monster of filial murder, which had also raged through Greek tragedy two millennia earlier, slunk off the stage and, with a few uninteresting exceptions, went to sleep for another 400 years. With the 19th-century rise of realistic drama about the bourgeois family, great dramatists began once more to illustrate the horrors family members can inflict on one another. Strindberg was particularly concerned with the warfare between husbands and wives. Chekhov, perhaps the least melodramatic great playwright who ever lived, regarded all the members of his stage families as equally pitiable and foolish. It was Ibsen -- in plays such as "Ghosts," "The Wild Duck," "Little Eyolf" and others -- who brought back to drama the figure of the powerful, sometimes destructive father. And it was Ibsen, along with Freud (not a playwright, though arguably a poet), who was to have the greatest influence on the major 20th-century American playwrights, men who made father-son conflict the staple of our drama. Though the judgment is still out on the last quarter of this century, by general agreement the three greatest American playwrights of the past 100 years are Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and their greatest plays are "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Death of a Salesman." O'Neill and Miller both brought the father center stage in these, their strongest works. Williams is remembered primarily for his great female roles, but his plays are as father-haunted as Miller's. In "Long Day's Journey Into Night," O'Neill established the prototype American Father of the stage, always presented as a figure whom the son has a right to hate but struggles mightily (and sometimes not very convincingly) to forgive. To be sure, the mother in "Long Day's Journey" is also a horror, but O'Neill blames the drug addiction that makes her one directly on her husband, James Tyrone. Both the sons are wounded -- Jamie is an alcoholic, and his younger brother, Edmund, is infected with tuberculosis, conditions for which the play also indicts Tyrone. The last act takes place during the night of the wretched day on which Edmund has discovered he has TB and the family realizes that Mary has returned to her morphine. The men sit around the parlor table and drink, and we see in excruciating, ruthless detail how the bombastic old miser and ex-actor has fattened his own psyche by emotionally starving his sons. I don't think there's anything more telling and terrible in American drama than the scene in which the stingy Tyrone, when he discovers Edmund may be dying, vows to change his ways and screws an extra light bulb into the parlor fixture -- only to unscrew it again, with an excuse, a few minutes later. Sons come and go, but those electricity bills add up. Miller's "Death of a Salesman" needs very little explication: Willy Loman, capitalist road kill, is an American icon. Here, too, the father has psychically wounded the son. Willy has overestimated the abilities of his elder son, Biff, the boy's whole life; poor Biff can never live up to the dream image his father has insisted on constructing in place of the real, fallible son. Miller dodges around the issue, though. He can't quite bring himself to let Biff turn on Willy because of what Willy has done to him. Instead, he drags in adultery (one of his dramatic obsessions) so that Biff can seem to rebel against the father in order to stand up for the mother, i.e., selflessly. So the situation that the play so vividly illustrates -- a weak but well-meaning son crippled by his father's unfair expectations -- is left dramatically unaddressed. When Biff finally confronts Willy, he accuses himself as well: "I'm a dime-a-dozen, Pop, and so are you!" Even this is too much: Willy runs away and kills himself by driving off the road. Biff doesn't exactly kill him any more than he exactly blames him for ruining his life, but the unspoken implications of the play are almost stronger than what passes for its story. Williams's most famous dreadful parent is a mother, the vain, overbearing, self-deluding Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie." Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," great character though he is, doesn't have nearly as much force. He's not onstage that much, and the big scene that you expect between him and his daughter-in-law, Maggie, never comes. He does have a scene with his son, Brick, who in recently restored versions of the play tries to broach the issue of his homosexuality, but nothing much really happens between the two. Williams's real father-monsters are kept mostly offstage. In both "Sweet Bird of Youth" and "Orpheus Descending," a young man forms a liaison with an older woman whose male partner then takes horrible revenge on the boy: castration in "Sweet Bird," death by blowtorch in "Orpheus." This is so textbook Freudian it's almost ludicrous, but Williams appears to have created these characters out of a genuine dramatic need -- they are the most extreme illustrations of his oft-repeated examination of the ways in which the strong destroy the weak. The father-son theme is by no means dead in recent American plays. August Wilson's "Fences" is a replay of "Death of a Salesman" set one class level down and in another culture. True to form, neither Wilson nor his son-hero can bring himself to condemn the destructive father who has, after all, suffered so much. Racism has been the torment of the father in "Fences," but the earlier writers also provide strong excuses for their fathers: Willy has worked himself almost to madness in pursuit of the lie of the American dream, and Tyrone had a harsh, poverty-ridden childhood. The authors always find a reason for these men to have destroyed their sons. The purest example of the Bad Father in the past 10 years shows up in a play that has as little as possible to do with the nuclear family: Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." The dark, destructive betrayer is Roy Cohn, who takes a paternal interest in the Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt until he discovers the young man is gay. Gay himself, Cohn nonetheless drives Joe away with contempt and disgust, refusing to acknowledge their sexual kinship. Perhaps the most brilliant treatment of the whole issue is found in John Guare's "Lydie Breeze." A son who has found success as an actor comes home to confront his father's murderer and is told, though not in so many words, to get lost. Guare stands the child-accusing-parent scene on its head, throwing his and the audience's sympathy to the murderer (who is in his own right the troubled father of two daughters). This long, almost breathtakingly bold scene includes a line in which Guare acknowledges his dramatic parentage: "I know why you're here," the murderer tells the actor-avenger. "You want to play Hamlet."

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Theater; `Strangers': The Echoes Of Horror

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
January 21, 1992
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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How does a theater approach the Holocaust, that subject that cracks the bowl of every artistic form it's poured into? At Horizons, artistic director Leslie B. Jacobson has adapted Peter Sichrovsky's book of interviews, "Strangers in Their Own Land," into a play of the same name that opened Friday night.

Sichrovsky takes a slightly oblique approach to his subject - his interviews are not with survivors but with the children of German Jews who, having survived, chose still to live in Germany. The interviews are about how the children (all fortyish or so now) have reacted to their parents' choice. And Sichrovsky provided characters - his interview subjects, all of whom have strong and differing responses to their situation. Jacobson has done some skillful editing and placed the characters onstage in front of us. The evening is organized around seven questions that, from "How did your parents survive?" through "Do you ever think about escape?," provide a rough chronological journey.

Naturalistic "scenes" would be impossible with such material. Jacobson has chosen a very stylized route - masks, music, an evocative backdrop of figures against a sundered sky. She's also indulged in the kind of theatrical gimmickry that involves actors hissing when someone mentions snakes, or miming throwing stones when someone tells a story about windows being broken by an antisemitic mob. Fortunately there isn't a lot of that. The interviews are so powerful that they burn through any "art" draped around them; they could stand, you feel, unadorned, without set or lights, and still harrow you.

There are eight characters onstage, and 6 million offstage. The dead rule the quick in "Strangers in Their Own Land"; they dictate the terms on which life can be lived. "Total assimilation can lead to a betrayal of the dead," insists one character. Says another, "Jews who pretend everything is over bless the murderers of their ancestors." Later, this same man adds, "Since the Holocaust, there's been no such thing as free choice!"

Free or not, choices have been made. Erika has returned with fierce pride to her religious roots. David insists he's just a regular guy who'd willingly assimilate to avoid trouble, and complains about young Zionists for whom "being Jewish isn't enough. ... They don't accept me as much as my non-Jewish friends." Martha describes her German lovers - leftists who saw themselves as fellow victims, rightists who wanted to discuss how much they hated Arabs, and the concerned who looked upon her as a cripple to be nurtured. As for her Jewish lovers - they all immediately took her home to Mom. "I don't think I'll ever marry," she concludes.

The cast is generally strong, particularly Alan Wade as Robert, the man who finds out he cannot bear being married to a non-Jew, and Mary Ellen Nester. Vasia Deliyianni's set is spare, elegant and evocative. Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting is always excellent; I should just devise a code (DMW - E!) to convey this in all future reviews. Roy Barber's original music is striking but sometimes used heavy-handedly.

"Strangers in Their Own Land" doesn't bludgeon you. It raises all the issues well-told history does: assimilation, ethnicity, the relationship of the individual to the culture, the infection of the present by the past. It's a history lesson in human terms.

Strangers in Their Own Land, adapted by Leslie B. Jacobson from the book by Peter Sichrovsky. Set by Vasia Deliyianni; lights, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Susan Chiang; music, Roy Barber. With Dariush Kashani, Jeremy Klavens, Carole Stover, Noel True, Mary Ellen Nester, Naomi Jacobson, Alan Wade and Alissa Rosen. By Horizons Theatre at George Washington University's Marvin Center Theatre through Feb. 9.

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`Crazy for You': Dancing Up a Storm

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
May 20, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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When "Crazy for You," the touring production of which opened Thursday night at Kennedy Center, is heavenly it reaches seventh heaven. The all-Gershwin score by itself is divine, and when director Mike Ockrent and choreographer Susan Stroman go to work on those fabulous songs, the result is dizzying bliss. But in this production, in contrast to the original at the National Theatre 3 1/2 years ago, the champagne has gone a little flat. It may be simply the rigors of touring, but this production seems a little tired.

The show is a construct: Gershwin songs from many sources have been linked together by a book by Ken Ludwig that tells the story of a young banker who helps a western gal put on a show in the old theater owned by her dad smack in the middle of the Nevada desert, thereby saving the theater from foreclosure by his own bank and winning the young lady's heart. The book is full of dull ideas and old jokes; every time there's an extended dialogue sequence, the production puts on the lead shoes. But the script was never designed to do much more than get the audience from one dazzling number to another, and Ockrent must be at least partly responsible for the placement of the numbers and the way the show flattens out in the second act.

"Crazy for You" is a musical about a group of folks who put on a musical, but you never get to see the show within the show. After jokey audition scenes and jokey rehearsal scenes and the whole thing almost failing and the big Broadway producer coming in to save the day -- after all that, just when you're ready for all heaven to break loose, the hero returns to New York for a dance interval and then it's back to Nevada for a romantic finale that is essentially a pas de deux. Both dance sequences are terrific. They're also a letdown.

The energy of the National production, which was pre-Broadway, bounced the show right over its problems. At the Kennedy Center, this doesn't quite happen. But even with a little fizz gone, "Crazy for You" is still one hell of a cocktail.

If you're the kind who tends to sit through musicals wishing there was lots more dancing, this is the one for you. The wit, beauty and high-spirited inventiveness of Stroman's choreography are breathtaking. From "I Can't Be Bothered Now," in which a flock of chorus beauties makes a surprise emergence from a Rolls, through "Slap That Bass," with its parody of/homage to Busby Berkeley, to "Stiff Upper Lip," with its Astaire and Rogersish tap-battle, the dancing is just one glorious number after another.

As our hero, Bobby Child, Kirby Ward is a dynamic clown-dancer, full of charm and athletic surprise. Beverly Ward is the heroine, Polly Baker, a role she performs spunkily and sings well. Most important, these two are great partners. In the final number, when he whirls her off in his arms in a series of moves that, along with her flowing gown, call up Fred and Ginger, the tribute doesn't seem arrogant or misplaced.

Above all, "Crazy for You" is a tribute to "la belle, la perfectly swell romance" of the American musical at its finest. It's loving, smart, essentially satisfying, and frothy with joy.

Crazy for You, songs by George and Ira Gershwin, book by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Mike Ockrent. Sets, Robin Wagner; lights, Paul Gallo; costumes, William Ivey Long; sound, Otts Munderloh; dance and incidental music arrangement, Peter Howard. With Cathy Susan Pyles, Paul Keith, Riette Burdick, Ann B. Davis, Raymond Thorne, Daren Kelly, John Curless. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through June 18.

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Doug Wager, Bowing Out With a Bang; At Arena, an Explosive `Can't Take It With You'

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
April 10, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"You Can't Take It With You," Douglas C. Wager's farewell production as artistic director of Arena Stage, is a sweetheart of a play. Wager has not so much cast Kaufman and Hart's classic comedy as he has stuffed it with every funny actor he could lay his hands on. And in case that weren't enough, he's thrown in an onstage fireworks display as well. Talk about going out with a bang.

The year is 1938 and the setting the middle-class household of the Sycamore family, a bohemian group that rejects the ethic of success and embraces indivdual self-fulfillment long before such things would become fashionable. Daughter Alice (Michelle O'Neill), like the daughter in "The Munsters" (a show I never before realized had its roots in the theater), is "the normal one." Her boss's son, Tony (Lee Mark Nelson), is in love with her, but she's afraid the two families will never get on. He assures her that at the supper she's giving for his folks to meet hers, everything will be hunky-dory, or '30s slang to that effect.

But of course if that were true, there would be no play. The Sycamores consist of Grandpa (Robert Prosky in his sly, lovable mode), who quit both working and paying income tax some years back; his daughter Penelope (Halo Wines), who took the coincidence of a typewriter's accidentally being delivered to the house as a sign to become a playwright; her husband, Paul (Ralph Cosham), an absent-minded fireworks designer who periodically blows up the basement; their daughter Essie (Sarah Marshall), who is under the delusion that she will someday be a ballerina; Essie's affable husband, Ed (Andrew Prosky), a xylophone player and printer; and Alice. There are also two happy servants on egalitarian terms with the family -- Rheba (Ida Elrod Eustis) and Donald (Frederick Strother) -- as well as acquaintances and hangers-on such as the Russian exile Kolenkhov (Andrew Weems), former deliveryman Mr. De Pinna (Hugh Nees) and an alcoholic actress Penelope brought home by mistake who spends most of her time unconscious (Brigid Cleary). Add to this mixture Tony's stuffy parents -- wonderfully played by Henry Strozier and Tana Hicken -- and an irate IRS man (Marty Lodge), and you can imagine what sort of combustion will ensue. One reason you can imagine is that "You Can't Take It With You" has been the model for dozens of plays, movies and TV shows in the past 60 years. Still, it has the strength of an original, and part of the fun is seeing exactly what shape our expectations will take when confirmed. The play is built to run, also to jump, dance, stumble and explode, and in Wager's hands it does all of these and does them beautifully. Thomas Lynch has built the first three-level set I've seen on a Washington stage, so there is an unusually long staircase for people to bound up. In addition, there is a kitchen door, a front door and a basement door, all three constantly flying open and banging shut. Actors don't enter in this kind of play, they pop in and out, and this is a bunch of superior poppers. Prosky, as always, is a graceful presence, a man who sees no sense in kicking a laugh out of a line when he can nudge it. Wines is serenely, indomitably out of it as the artistic Penelope, and Cosham is endearing as her tinkering spouse. As their opposite numbers, Strozier and Hicken are hilarious as Tony's stuffy prents, Strozier alternating between bluster and dumbfoundedness and Hicken expressing with satiric delicacy the varying shades of social embarrassment that cross Mrs. Kirby's well-bred face. Though Weems and Lodge get their wild moments and seize them, the male characters are mostly mild-mannered in their eccentricity. Andrew Prosky's Ed is amiable, Nees's De Pinna a bit dim, and Strother's Donald easygoing. The fireworks come from the women: the divinely daffy Marshall, the imperturbable Eustis (whose reaction to an explosion gets one of the evening's biggest laughs), the screeching Cleary, and Dana Krueger, who plays an exiled Russian grand duchess as if she had wandered in from a Marx Brothers show in which she had the Margaret Dumont role. As the darling young lovers, O'Neill and Nelson have the weakest roles. Still, O'Neill makes goody-goody Alice likable, and Nelson brings some grit to his male ingenue part. The play is a little creaky in spots, and you can feel Wager giving it a shove. But it always skips along, and at the beginning of Act 2 reaches some sort of comic nirvana in the dinner party scene. The Kirbys arrive on the wrong night, and to pass the time until dinner can be scrounged up, Penelope suggests a game. It has to do with writing down the first words that come into your head and revealing your inner self. The comic suspense as we await the deliciously anticipated disaster is almost dizzying. And Wager, with the help of former Arena technical director David M. Glenn, tops off the scene with an effervescence of fireworks. "You Can't Take It With You" shows its age. Most plays in which Kaufman had a hand contain a sardonic character who gives the sweetness a tart edge: Groucho, of course, but also characters like Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner." But "You Can't Take It With You" is pretty much all marshmallow. The Sycamores are less eccentric than willfully adorable, and the way the authors coddle them and show them off verges on the smug. This is nonconformity with no threat to it, nonconformity as childishness rather than dissent. If we'd all just loosen up, the play says, things will be fine. This is a dopey and complacent message today; considering that the play was written in 1936, it seems a little shortsighted for its time as well. You Can't Take It With You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Lights, Allen Lee Hughes; costumes, Patricia Zipprodt; sound, Scott W. Edwards, Timothy M. Thompson. With T.J. Edwards, Patrick Trainor, Craig Pearman. At Arena Stage through June 7. Call 202-488-3300.

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Moving Mountains; In Switzerland, Discovering the Awe That Inspired Poets & Madmen

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
April 19, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The Romantics had sex and drugs, but lacking rock-and-roll they made do with Switzerland. Mad, bad incestuous Byron, scandalous, free-living Shelley, personal-is-political Rous-seau and their Faustian-dreamer precursor Goethe all found inspiration and transcendence there. Before the Romantics, mountains had been merely a barrier and an encumbrance to agriculture; the old Swiss peasant name for the Alps is Geissbergen, literally "goat mountains," the land good only for pasturing those hardy little climbers who would eat anything.

But the Romantics worshiped sensation for its own sake. Never having had to spend their winter days wondering what to do if the mountain above decided to fall on them, the visiting poets and artists appreciated that fear could be a thrill. (It's no accident that the Frankenstein monster idea was conceived one night on the shores of Lake Geneva.) They embraced the idea of the "sublime," which combined beauty and danger for the ultimate aesthetic high.

After the Romantics, the Geissbergen were the Alps in all their modern connotations: majestic, dumbfounding, awe-inspiring, the site of grandeur and the soul of poetry. It was all because of the glaciers. I am standing in Lucerne looking into a hole. About eight feet deep and almost as wide, it's a damn scary hole. The curving, water-carved sides turn it into something like a sculpture of a whirlpool, with all a whirlpool's hypnotic pull. Staring down it is like looking into the whorls of a snail's shell, impossibly enlarged and re-created in stone. At the bottom of this helical pit rests a rounded boulder, like a drop of water turned to rock, a pearl in an oyster, an egg in the fallopian canal of some earth monster. The biological mimicry of this formation is what makes it so disturbing. Its sides glisten with moisture. They look as if they'd be soft to the touch. They wouldn't be, of course. They're sandstone, and the boulder that nestles at their base is granite. The boulder looks as if it just rolled down the spiral of the hole and came to rest. It would be reasonable to think that, under the pressure of melting glacier waters, the boulder and many like it were what carved the hole. In fact, the Victorians who uncovered the site in 1872, did think so, and they called the hole and others like it a "glacial mill." They were wrong. Such holes -- today inelegantly called "potholes" -- were scoured by billions of grains of sand whirling in the glacier melt that was draining into the underlying rock at a pressure of around 20 atmospheres (tap water pressure is five to eight atmospheres). The Alps are almost exactly the same age as the Rockies but they look older, and glaciation is the reason. The Rockies still have the sharp profile of youth. Physical hardship has worn the Alps. For every jutting mountaintop, there are a dozen humbly eroded ridges, and the enormous peaks themselves are scarred, as if a giant iron hand had raked its fingers along them. At the top of the great glacial passes, bare jagged stone stretches away to the horizon, peak behind peak behind peak, seemingly forever, and in its crevices ice sleeps. In high summer, without a fresh cover of snow, glaciers show more dull than bright, like a used cake of soap. The un-iced, barren rock below and around them is scarred and whorled and scratched and gouged -- what you might call "weathered," except that that implies the gentle effects of wind and rain, not being scraped by a few million tons of ice. In both cases, though, the erosion is gradual, and when I looked down into the pothole I envisioned a process that had taken thousands of millions of years. Wrong again. Sandblasting is an efficient carving method. A small pothole can form in a few weeks, and even the huge one I was contemplating was created in just a few years. This would have been some 200 centuries ago, when the Reuss glacier was retreating, leaving the moraine-filled valley that was to erode into Lake Lucerne. The potholes remained undiscovered for some 20,000 years, buried under moraine, and were only discovered when a wine merchant tried to excavate a storage cellar on land beside Lucerne's famous Lion Monument. He was persuaded by geologists to stop blasting, and a year later the Glacier Garden opened as a Victorian tourist attraction. A museum was created. Somewhat improbably, a hall of mirrors was installed -- a fantasy maze of manmade ice. The Glacier Garden remains today much as it was then. What difference is a century going to make to an attraction like this? A tent has been draped over the "garden" to protect it from the wear and tear of ordinary weather, but otherwise here it is, just as it was 126 and 20,000 years ago. Aside from the giant pothole, there are two smaller ones of equal eeriness. And here and there lie boulders patterned with fossil imprints of shelled water animals, or the prints of birds' feet, or, in one case, the outline of a palm frond from Switzerland's tropical past. In the United States, the Grand Canyon gives you a mind-boggling sense of the power of erosion, and the stretches of the Painted Desert are scattered with iridescent petrified logs. But the Glacier Garden is intimate, a human-scale wonder, an up-close look at the effects of monstrous, unimaginable force. Since you can't imagine it, best to go see it. The Lauterbrunnen Valley has long been famous not only as the gateway to the Jungfrau and the Schilthorn but for its waterfalls. Goethe wrote a poem about one of them, Staubbach Falls, which tumble nearly a thousand feet. A little farther along are the Murrenbach Falls, only 800 feet high, and more ghostly than the Staubbach, as if the water were dissolving into the air as it fell. (Byron wrote "Manfred" while staying in the village of Wengen, with its view of these falls.) They are glorious, as waterfalls always are, but not surprising. You may not have seen anything as grand, but you've seen something like them. But across the valley is, as the saying goes, something very much like nothing you've ever seen before. These are the falls of Truemmelbach, a series of 10 cascades that for most of its distance storm down inside a mountain. A lift takes you part of the way up and releases you into a cavern tunnel, chilly with the strangely still cool of caves, and a little dampish, but nothing compared with what is to come. With the help of stairs, walkways along outside ledges and unobtrusive interior lighting, you make your way up through the same space the water is crashing down. There being several falls, the shock of that unleashed power keeps happening. You round a corner, and there's water tumbling past, as if somewhere above an ocean were draining, then you round another corner and the water is below you, writhing downward, carving its way to the valley, then you turn another corner and the water is roaring past almost horizontally, bursting out of the rock as if it had just broken through. In what seems like the center of the mountain, a cascade below booms and spirals down, illuminated from above by a hole at the top of a spiraling chimney of stone, now waterless, ground into being thousands of years ago. You're in the Hall of the Mountain King. The carving out of an interior waterfall is not exactly the same as the formation of a pothole. The pothole-forming waters are under far greater pressure, and they form cavities around every irregularity they encounter, so that a pothole is at once symmetrical and not quite in balance, a monument in stone to the orderly, erratic movements of chaos theory. By contrast, the water in the Truemmelbach Falls -- glacier melt from the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau -- is relatively placid, seeking the well-known path of least resistence as it tunnels to the Lauterbrunnen plain. This is a fine distinction, though, when you're only a few feet from a fall that you know, were you stupid enough to reach into it, could rip your arm off. At the foot of the falls, the meltwater transforms into a lively but undramatic creek that runs a relatively horizonal course to the river in the center of the valley. The water in most Swiss lakes and rivers is green, an astonishing color to the American eye. But the meltwater near a glacier, like this creek, is a chalky gray color, probably from calcite deposits in the mountain. It looks unhealthy, and it is -- a sign beside the creek warns that to drink can be harmful to adults and fatal to children. Somehow it makes sense that the waters of the Truemmelbach, even in a tame creek, would not be kindly. The gray meltwater has its source in probably the most famous trio of mountains in the world: the Eiger (the Ogre), the Monch (the Monk) and the Jungfrau (the Maiden). Even in August, they shine with ice. No train will take you to the peak, but one will deliver you through a series of brilliantly engineered tunnels to the Jungfraujoch, 11,400 feet above sea level, just 2,000 feet or so short of the summit. There is snow and ice there at high summer, though if you're out of the wind, the strong Alpine sun keeps you comfortable. A restaurant provides okay food and great views, and you can also walk around a little on the snow-covered ridge. You can actually go inside a glacier at Jungfraujoch, the unimaginatively but accurately named Ice Palace. This is nothing more than a series of tunnels carved into the ice, but that's enough. The ice is a queer, cold blue, and the massiveness of the glacier around and above you is palpable.Forty minutes by train below the Jungfraujoch is the village of Kleine Scheidegg, a small ski resort in the winter and in the summer a good starting point for a leisurely downhill walk (about three hours) to Wengen. This is the summer side of the mountains, with gentle brown cows grazing in green meadows all pricked with color from the alpine flowers. I was walking with a friend, and we ignored the periodic thunder that rumbled under our conversation, until at one point he turned and pointed toward the mountain. Following his gesture, I saw what looked like a cloud of crystalline mist suspended against the rock face. At first I thought it must be a waterfall, but then the cloud plunged down as no waterfall would. It seemed to take on mass as it fell, and in a few seconds it was a narrow stream of roiling ice. We were watching an avalanche. The spectacle was completely silent -- the sound had already reached us a few seconds before, as what we had thought was thunder. The backs of the mountains past which we were walking were bare rock scoured with dozens of streamlets from the melting ice on top, some of which took steep drops and became waterfalls. Ice had slid down into one of these falls and been borne to the bottom of the mountain. Realizing that we had been hearing the avalanche-thunder noise all along, we continued our walk with one eye on the cliffs and were rewarded with these icefalls in three more places. At the last one, the flow went on for minutes, and the liquefied ice spread out like lava at the base of the falls. I sat down among the bluebells and heather to watch. There was always what looked like a cloud of mist, descending more rapidly than mist possibly could -- the spray and fine particles sent up by the collision of the ice with the water. As this subsided, the heavy, frigid flow itself could be seen churning along in the bed of the waterfall, but at a certain point this slowed considerably and became almost stable, easing the rest of the way down.After a while I raised my eyes to the source of the flows, the snow-covered mountaintop. It seemed featureless and still. Then, apparently out of nowhere, a spherical white boulder bounced across the ice, zigging and zagging until it found the waterfall ravine and fell into it, bursting into spray, and a few minutes later, almost sluggishly, it flowed away from the foot of the falls to form its frozen delta. Switzerland, so geologically ferocious, is often patronized as a "toy country." This has something to do with the small scale forced on the buildings and trains by the steep land, but mostly it's because the place reminds people of Disney. Not so much of the kitsch of the theme parks (though kitsch certainly has its place in Switzerland) as of the background of the early animated films "Snow White" and "Pinocchio." This is because Walt Disney hired European children's book illustrators to design the look of those movies -- and the result was an Alpine world: neat cottages; narrow, twisting, cobbled streets; mysterious forests; towering cliffs. The Disney cartoons domesticated this world, made it cutely suitable for children. But, in one of those neat return-of-the-repressed twists, the theme parks have tried to re-create -- beginning with the Matterhorn ride in 1959 -- the kind of excitement stimulated by surrendering to forces outside yourself that could, if they weren't the creation of snugly safe rides, destroy you. The sublime survives in the strangest forms. To visit the Lake Lucerne area, travelers should fly into Zurich, about an 1 hours by train from the Glacier Garden. Swissair offers nonstop service from Washington Dulles to Zurich and is quoting a round-trip fare of $614, with restrictions. For more information on travel to Switzerland, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 212-757-5944, www.switzerlandtourism.com.

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evelation Still; Round House's 20th-Anniversary Revival of Musical Is Refreshingly Up to Date

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Article date:
May 20, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Godspell," the musical celebration of Jesus's ministry and passion, is all hugging and all learning. The learning is from the Gospels -- things such as "The meek shall inherit the earth" -- and the hugs are from the '60s of "peace, love, freedom, happiness." In spite of this instructional, feel-good overtone, the Round House Theatre production -- a 20th anniversary revival of their very first show -- is emotionally full and unexpectedly affecting.

The revelation of the show is that Morgan Duncan, an enjoyable but rather quiet actor in realistic roles, is reborn when he becomes a musical comedy performer. The tall, elegant Duncan plays the dual role of John the Baptist/Judas with flair, grace and low-key charisma. He's well partnered by Rob McQuay, whose sweet, clear voice and stage presence suit him admirably for the role of Jesus. Duncan and McQuay played these roles opposite each other 15 years ago, but that was before McQuay had the accident that confined him to a wheelchair.

The Jesus of "Godspell" isn't the one who comes "not with peace but a sword" but rather, in C.S. Lewis's words, the "infinitely suffering, infinitely gentle" figure of the redeemer. The musical's Jesus offers himself as a willing sacrifice, a being beyond the need for threat. So, far from being a wince-inducing gimmick, McQuay's portrayal from his wheelchair seems dramatically appropriate. Only once is he misused -- when the rest of the cast lift him from his chair to hang from the cross and his frail legs are displayed. This is a powerful-as-hell moment, but it all comes from our empathy with McQuay -- the production hasn't earned it. "Godspell" was conceived as a non-slick, communal event: it's supposed to be a little amateurish. So it doesn't matter as much as it might that the vocal performances range from Marion Lorraine Scrutchings's knock-down-the-house rendition of "Bless the Lord" to musical director Stephen Randoy's uncertain wavering through "On the Willows." Some of the performers push too hard, but most of them are charming. Director Kathy Feininger fashions a complex, continually shifting stage picture on Robin Stapley's intricate, inventive set, and she certainly brings the emotion of the piece home. John-Michael Tebelak's script was designed to be periodically updated. So in the retellings of various parables we have allusions to Judge Judy, Court TV, the movie "Titanic," Johnnie Cochran and "Forrest Gump." The Clampetts and the Bundys face off on "Family Feud," failing to answer questions such as, "If a man of authority asks you to walk a mile with him, what should you do?" Morgan Duncan provides a surprisingly good Clinton imitation (he also does Robin Leach and Billy Bob Thornton). This is all entertaining, but extremely lightweight. All the power of "Godspell" comes from Stephen Schwartz's plaintively lovely songs. This must be one of the most lyrical musical comedy scores ever written -- gentle, sorrowful and wondering. Schwartz's contribution turns the show into a naive but genuine act of worship. Godspell, music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, originally conceived and directed by John-Michael Tebelak. Directed by Kathy Feininger. Choreography, Deborah Saady-Forrest; lights, Ayun Fedorcha; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; props, Contessa L. Riggs. With Daniel Britt, Beth Eunice, Pamela Sue Jackson, John J. Kaczynski, Linda Rose Payne, Kevin Reese, Elizabeth van den Berg. Musicians: Stephen Randoy (keyboards), Neil McFadden (guitar), Mary Scott (bass), Brian Gibson and Vin Novara (drums). At the Round House Theatre through June 21. Call 301-933-1644.)

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let' for Keegan

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Article date:
June 9, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Little Keegan Theatre valiantly took a run at "Hamlet" this past weekend, smashed headfirst into the great play and fell over. No theater should be faulted for overweening ambition -- one of the best "Hamlets" I've ever seen was by the equally small Washington Shakespeare Company. But the Keegan, which has had success with contemporary plays such as "On the Verge" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," doesn't seem to understand that Shakespeare is to modern plays what a marathon is to a 100-yard dash: You need to have developed your artistic muscles a whole different way.

The story is so strong that, once going, it rolls along under its own inertia, as Hamlet hesitates, Claudius plots, Ophelia goes mad, the gravedigger jokes and the corpses pile up. So the evening isn't exactly dull. It's just flat, mostly because Mark Rhea, in the title role, hasn't bothered to deal with the character's contradictions. He does one thing, then he does another, and though he does them all intensely, we have no idea to what purpose.

Andrew Thayer and Eric Lucas's idea of direction seems to be putting little twists on scenes. The gravedigger and his assistant are made man and wife; the soldier Hamlet queries about Fortinbras's troops turns out to be Fortinbras; and so on. These bits are momentarily diverting, but they don't add up to anything. The cast seems largely unfamiliar with the technique of building an arc for a character that carries him or her through the play. Only Richard Mancini, as a fussy, authoritarian Polonious, plays a character instead of individual emotional moments. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Andrew Thayer and Eric Lucas. Set, George Lucas; costumes, Jenifer Deal; lights, Dan Martin; fights, Michael Jerome Johnson; props, Kit Young. With Craig S. Hartley, Jenifer Deal, Geoff Wilner, Eric Lucas, Kara Jackson, Sheri S. Herren, William Randall Salisbury. At the Keegan Theatre through June 28. Call 703-757-1180.

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No Sex, Please, We're Married

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Article date:
June 9, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Benny Hill has died! Yes, the fat and naughty comedian is no more, and at a shockingly young age -- an excellent excuse for Richard (Bruce Nelson), the hero of "Dead Funny," not to make love to his desperate wife, Eleanor (Naomi Jacobson). This is the sort of thing women just don't understand: A bloke's got to mourn, hasn't he?

In Terry Johnson's grimly zany marital comedy, playing at Woolly Mammoth, Richard is only one of a group of men who center their lives on adulation of great, mostly departed comics. "Peter," when mentioned reverently, always means Sellers. Photos of Groucho, Harpo, Art Carney and John Cleese line Richard's living room wall, and a life-size cardboard cutout of Oliver Hardy shares space with a med school skeleton (Richard is a surgeon). Periodically, his mates -- Nerdy Brian (Nick Olcott) and tense unhappy Nick (Brian McMonagle) -- drop by to reminisce about great gags of the past.

Nick's dingbat-psychic wife, Lisa (Rhea Seehorn), newly delivered of a baby that she hauls around like an accessory, is a member of the men's comedy club, one of the boys. But Eleanor, whose husband has stopped sleeping with her, is left outside. The play demonstrates how the men use their obsession with comedy to keep their sexual problems "outside," away from the charmed circle of camaraderie and good-natured dirty jokes. Woolly plays often have a floating, feverish quality ("Quills") or a snappy, absurdist sheen ("Kvetch," "The Big Slam"). But "Dead Funny" is basically a rather conventional marital comedy and Grover Gardner has directed it with appropriate seriousness and attention to psychological detail. Though often excruciatingly funny, this is a play about limitation, less a satire than a somber picture of human foolishness and selfishness. Nelson's non-confrontational, elusive, slightly sad Richard is a real comic creation, and exactly the sort of fellow to drive Jacobson's straightforward Eleanor nuts. As written, Eleanor could be a drag, but Jacobson gives her a rueful sanity that keeps the audience on her side. We don't know exactly what went wrong with this marriage, but we see how Richard keeps it that way. The luminously daft Seehorn makes Lisa both a scream and a pain, mulishly impervious to any details that might upset her self-satisfaction. McMonagle's Nick is on edge and off balance; his pain has made him waspish. Only innocent, inhibited Brian seems to possess the good nature to survive life's humiliations, and by play's end he's been shown that a life of celibacy has much to recommend it. (In the role, Nick Olcott shows the fine, funny skill he's brought to so many shows he's directed.) For a British audience, "Dead Funny" must be a richer experience than for Americans, grounded as it is in nostalgia for the old music hall performers. Even the play's form is a parody of a lowbrow English cliche, the dumb sex farce like "No Sex, Please, We're British." Still, if you've seen a couple of episodes of "The Benny Hill Show," you know enough to get the jokes -- and the message. The men are very careful to distinguish between the kind of old-style bawdiness they adore and anything really lewd; one apostate is sneeringly referred to as someone who likes Lenny Bruce. They don't want their sex jokes any more disturbing than they want their sex lives. In the end, as its title suggests, "Dead Funny" is downbeat. Even comedy, traditionally seen as a liberating force, is shown here to be only another trap, a way to hide from reality. The play isn't a sick joke, exactly, but it's certainly a sad one. Dead Funny by Terry Johnson. Directed by Grover Gardner. Set, Anne Gibson; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Natasha Vuchurovich Djukic; sound, Scott Burgess; props, Linda Evans. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through June 28. Call 202-393-3939.

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,' Touched By an Angel

Article from:
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Article date:
June 12, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Michael Mayer's direction of "Perestroika" -- the second part of "Angels in America," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center -- carries the audience on arcs of pure feeling up and over most of the problems of the text. More than George C. Wolfe's presentations on Broadway (and more than Mayer's Wolfe-overseen direction of "Millennium Approaches," which preceded "Perestroika" here), this production is about hope, yearning and loss, the pathetic poignancy of American idealism.

In "Perestroika," playwright Tony Kushner ties up all the stories he started in "Millennium." Louis Ironson (Peter Birkenhead) has to deal with his desertion of his AIDS-stricken lover, Prior Walter (Robert Sella). For his part, Prior has to come to grips with the fact that he's having visions of an angel (Carolyn Swift) who wants him to be a prophet.

It's a role he feels unsuited for, so he seeks guidance at the Mormon Visitors' Center. There he runs intoHarper Pitt (Kate Goehring) and her mother-in-law, Hannah (Barbara Robertson), both of whom are worried about Harper's husband, Joe (Philip Earl Johnson), who, unbeknownst to Prior, is having an affair with Louis. In the meantime, Roy Cohn (Jonathan Hadary) is dying of AIDS, cared for by the skeptical, compassionate male nurse Belize (Reg Flowers) and haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Robertson again). Many of these characters, not all of whom are dead, end up briefly in Heaven, where the angels are counseling that humanity abandon action for stasis: "Do not advance -- you only trample."

It's an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of script, and David Gallo's brilliant set uses this sense of chaotic abundance to unify the action. Immense shelves that tower up to dusty, broken skylights are crammed with the detritus of the American ages: a Coke cooler, a little red wagon, a toy car, a sled (Rosebud?), empty picture frames, a globe, a light-up Santa, a pay phone, TVs, a mailbox. It's our history and society piled in front of us, picked over for its usefulness, abandoned as broken or outmoded. On this set, the scatteredness of the script's ideas seems deliberate rather than shallow and fuzzy. Allusion triumphs over logic: You're pulled away from trying to follow the arguments, diverted by the patterned surface of Kushner's erudite associations of theory, joke and image. In previous incarnation, "Angels" looked like a failed Shaw play; here it's a fully successful acid trip.

The play still has a half-done feeling, as if Kushner hadn't finished thinking it through. When Louis finds out Joe is professionally associated with the archfiend Cohn, he returns to Prior, leaving us to assume that if Joe had only had a more respectable job, he and Louis would still be together. Poor Joe is condemned by the script for not accepting his homosexuality; then when he does accept it, he's condemned for leaving his wife. Cohn, the villain, remains the only character with any depth: "How tragic, how brutal and short, life is. How sinful people are." And it's amazing how, in a play that's supposed to be a political dissection of society, so many of the characters get by without working. Like heterosexual men, money doesn't really exist in this self-styled epic critique of America.

The cast, the same as in "Millennium," remains strong. Swift, whose angel appeared only in the last few seconds of the first play, gives a tough, funny, sad performance, and Robertson stretches out in the role of Hannah, making her in some ways the most touching and interesting character in the play. Birkenhead and Sella keep as much of the self-pity as they can out of Louis and Prior, Flowers's graceful performance as Belize just gets deeper and more affecting, and Jonathan Hadary delivers more junkyard-dog ferocity as Cohn.

If the liberal fallacy is that feeling is all, Kushner's feeling, as brought out by Mayer and the cast, is so pure that it redeems the fallacy, transforms it into something true. "Perestroika" is a play of loss -- loss of love, of life, of ideas to believe in -- and the biggest loss of all is the idea of America. This vacuum of meaning at their country's core tortures the characters just as surely as Godot's absence torments the two bums waiting for him.

Perestroika, Part 2 of "Angels in America" by Tony Kushner. Directed by Michael Mayer. Supervised by George C. Wolfe. Costumes, Michael Krass; lights, Brian MacDevitt; original music, Michael Ward; sound, Rob Milburn; hair and makeup, Randy Houston Mercer. At the Kennedy Center through July 9.

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'Plough': Fertile Ground On War's Barren Fields

Article from:
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Article date:
September 15, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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From "The Trojan Women" to "Mother Courage," the anti-war play has traditionally focused on the suffering of women and children. Sean O'Casey's "The Plough and the Stars" -- a strongly acted, deeply felt production of which opened Wednesday at Arena Stage -- is solidly in this tradition. When it premiered in Dublin in 1926, audiences rioted, enraged at the disrespectful way O'Casey depicted the famed Easter 1916 uprising against the English. Where Yeats had seen "a terrible beauty," O'Casey saw a passel of hotheaded fools biting off more than they could chew and then choking to death.

Hotheaded male fools. In this post-PC age, "The Plough and the Stars" courts criticism for its sardonic view of men and heroic images of women. As in O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock," the men of the play drink, boast, squabble, show off and haven't the sense of rabbits. The women trail behind them, weeping, pleading and cleaning up the mess.

Not surprisingly, "The Plough and the Stars" has great parts for women, and director Kyle Donnelly has assembled a cast more than up to the roles, led by the remarkable Tana Hicken as Mrs. Gogan, a morbid, gossiping busybody who, when confronted with a tragedy, has a hard time choosing between sorrow and delight. The doyenne of the tenement in which the play's characters live, dream and make mistakes, Mrs. Gogan is always in and out of people's chambers, snooping and giving unsought advice. Her rival as the most powerful and annoying woman in the house is the drunken, belligerent Mrs. Burgess (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), who sympathizes with the English and likes a scrap.

These mythic harridans upstage the uprising, a puny masculine affair of sound and fury. Jack Clitheroe (Bill Mondy) is all for military glory, despite the pleas of his wife, Nora (Ellen Karas). The Marxist Covey (T J Edwards), the vain, elderly Peter Flynn (Chris O'Neill) and the easygoing carpenter Fluther Good (Jarlath Conroy) have a more ambivalent attitude toward the conflict, which might be succinctly stated as "What's in it for me?" Layabouts, scavengers and looters when they're not patriotic idiots, the men of "The Plough and the Stars" join "the Troubles" as if they were a game, and are surprised and a little ashamed when things get out of hand and women and babies die. Oops. Still, as Clitheroe says, "Ireland is more than a wife."

Donnelly understands the lumbering, cumulative force of the play, and she brings the action along unhurriedly but with intensifying strength. Her cast is right with her. Conroy is wonderful as the charming survivor Fluther, whom it's impossible either to condemn or condone; as his companions in mischief, Edwards and O'Neill are boneheaded in very different styles. Mondy makes the hotblooded Clitheroe likable -- you understand why his poor wife is hysterical at the thought of losing him.

The versatile Karas -- the merry psychopath of "The Revengers' Comedies" -- is an affecting, disturbing Nora. As the tubercular Mollser, Holly Twyford has nothing to do but sit around and look wan. However, Pamela Nyberg has fun as a predatory prostitute. And Dorn, an actress with seemingly bottomless reserves of power, wipes up the stage with her bullying, miserable Mrs. Burgess. When she and Hicken square off in a bar, it's the most exciting moment in the production. Who knows what these two actresses and characters might be capable of?

"The Plough and the Stars" is old-fashioned: big, overstuffed with character and incident, sometimes corny. But O'Casey's theatrical clumsiness is offset by an emotional conviction that burns through an audience's defenses. He hated human waste and stupidity. He hated suffering. Though the two writers could hardly differ more in tone, he shares with Brecht what the latter called "the long anger."

The Plough and the Stars, by Sean O'Casey. Directed by Kyle Donnelly. Set by Michael Philippi. Lights, Rita Pietraszek; costumes, Lindsay W. Davis; sound, Ron Ursano. With David Marks, Wendell Wright, Michael W. Howell, Robert Sullivan. At Arena Stage through Oct. 15.

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t; The Camera Loved Young Evelyn Nesbit, and It Was Not Alone. But Time Was Less Kind After Her Husband Killed Her Lover. Now, She's a `Ragtime' Footnote.

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Article date:
July 5, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Audiences at "Ragtime" who get a brief glimpse of Evelyn Nesbit Thaw (Melissa Dye) in her number "The Girl on the Swing" probably don't realize they're seeing an American legend. For Evelyn was the original of the type the tabs would later dub "The Teen Temptress" and "Lolita."

Actually, Nabokov's Lolita was 12, whereas your typical Teen Temptress is at least 16 -- the age Evelyn was in 1901 when she became the lover of the most famous architect in the country, Stanford White. Five years later, in 1906, White was shot dead in the Roof Garden theater at the top of Madison Square Garden by Evelyn's madman millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw.

In 1900, Evelyn came to New York City with her mother from Pittsburgh, where they had lived a wretchedly poor existence, supported by Mrs. Nesbit's work as a seamstress. Even in Pittsburgh, Evelyn had attracted the attention of artists (she's the model for several church stained-glass windows in the area), and in New York she was an immediate hit with the artistic colony -- painted by Frederic Church, sculpted by George Grey Barnard (the statue, "Innocence," is now in the Met), and sketched by Charles Dana Gibson.

Quickly, she moved on to photographic modeling and became a celebrity. The World and the Journal did features on this new beauty, full of phrases such as "the most beautiful artist's model in America." Soon Evelyn had an agent and was appearing on Broadway as one of the members of the famously gorgeous "Floradora Sextet." She was all of 15 years old.

Seeing pictures of celebrated beauties, male or female, about whom you've only read, is often a disappointment. It's hard to discern what all the fuss was about, and you usually conclude that it was a matter of the taste of the times. This is most definitely not the case with Evelyn, surely one of the most gorgeous women ever photographed. She had a lush little blossom of a mouth, sleepy eyes, and thick magnificent dark hair. At her husband's murder trial, she was described by a reporter as having "the slim, quick grace of a fawn, a head that sat on her faultless throat as a lily on its stem, eyes that were the color of blue-brown pansies and the size of half-dollars, a mouth made of rumpled rose petals." And this, mind you, was when she was past her prime at 22.

When she smiled, she was stunning in a completely different way -- a sunny "American Girl." But it's when she smiles that you notice something in the marvelous eyes that's very, very hard. "Calmness was one of my traits," Evelyn wrote later in her autobiography. "I was not given to fainting or hysterics." No indeed. To return to "Lolita," there is a moment in the book when Humbert suffers a slight heart attack, and he notices that Lolita's expression is "more calculating than frightened." "Calculating" hardly does justice to the cool, unashamed ruthlessness of Evelyn's gaze in some of her photographs. "The face of an angel," said one of White's friends. "The soul of a snake."

Not that White scored high on the human decency scale. One of the deliciously entertaining things about Evelyn's story is that everyone involved was pretty horrible, so your delight in their misery isn't diluted with any sympathy. White was one of life's "doers." His architectural firm built the Washington Square arch, the original glass confection Madison Square Garden, and piles of resplendent Fifth Avenue mansions for the robber barons of the time. (The one house by McKim, Mead & White in Washington, the white marble at 1 Dupont Circle, gives a good idea of his ornate neo-classical style.) He himself was vital, virile, warm, brilliant, devouring: People who met him talked of an almost visible "corona of energy" around him.

He also liked young girls. Eighteen was a little long in the tooth for Stanny. He was married with a son, but left his family in far rural Long Island while he pursued his life as a man-about-town. White was at all the openings, all the exclusive recitals, all the best parties and, of course, at the theater. Wealthy men used backstages full of chorus girls as their personal pastures, cutting one out of the herd occasionally to take home to bed. At the time the 48-year-old White met the 16-year-old Evelyn, he was seeing another soubrette who eventually sued him, settling out of court for $5,000.

To give him credit, as long as his interest lasted, White took a rather fatherly attitude toward his young mistresses. He was given to having their teeth fixed, for example. He also provided money for abortions, even if the child was not his. He put Evelyn and her terribly impressed mother up in a series of hotels (including the Algonquin) and bought his adolescent inamorata exquisite, expensive jewels. In his deeply curtained love nest high above Fifth Avenue, she sat naked in a red velvet swing and he pushed her high enough to kick holes in a paper parasol hung from the ceiling.

How do we know all this? Well, the trial. We haven't gotten to the trial yet, but of course there was one, even though Harry Thaw was as mad as a hatter and as rich as Croesus. After all, he had blown out the brains of one of the most famous men in New York City in front of hundreds of witnesses. So there was a trial, two actually. Evelyn came every day, first in a modest blue suit and a velvet hat trimmed with violets that became an instant fashion sensation, and later in an equally attractive pinstriped frock and an enormous-brimmed black hat boasting a lavender silk rose.

All sorts of interesting things came out at the trial. White's licentiousness was categorized in intimate detail. Since Evelyn had given these details to her husband, apparently driving him to murder, they were deemed admissible. And the district attorney, in whom Evelyn's placid demeanor periodically provoked fits of frustrated rage, managed to get on the record the story of her premarital trip to Europe with Thaw -- the one where he rented an isolated castle for them then tied her to the bed and whipped her till she bled.

It's at this point that one feels a tinge of pity for Evelyn. She was beautiful, she was conscienceless, she was calculating -- and she was a teeny bit dumb. Loads and loads of pretty young chorines made advantageous, sometimes even socially brilliant marriages. Evelyn first got involved with a man who was already married, then chose to cast her fate with a psychopath. She didn't have to marry Thaw after that disastrous European trip. She still had her looks and was, by the standards of her world, reasonably unsullied. Perhaps she was kinky. Perhaps she was desperate.

(In a memoir, Stanford White's great-granddaughter, Suzannah Lessard, makes the intriguing suggestion that Evelyn married the unstable Thaw in the hopes that one day he would kill White.)

In any event, she made the wrong choice, as she quickly discovered after Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and Mama Thaw engineered a divorce for him from Evelyn that left her penniless. At 22, her life was pretty much over. She never performed the kind of vulgar trapeze act depicted in "Ragtime," but she did go on the stage, capitalizing on her infamous name, as half of a dance couple.

Eventually, she slid downhill. Heroin entered the picture. She opened and then had to close one second-rate night spot after another. (When the reporter in "Citizen Kane" visits the over-the-hill Susan Alexander Kane in her deserted nightclub, the scene is based on the later career of Evelyn Nesbit Thaw.) Eventually, appropriately enough, she ended up in Hollywood. Not in the movies, in a boardinghouse, where she lived with her son by Thaw, Richard, who was in the merchant marine. After what must have seemed a long, long time, she died at the age of 81. It was 1966, the Beatles had arrived, pot perfumed the air, sex was everywhere, and she wasn't even a memory.

She deserves more than just a walk-on in "Ragtime."

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The GreekTragedy: Doom Is Booming ; The Tales Are Brutal. Is It Our Fate to Watch?

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Article date:
December 20, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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In the "Electra" that opened recently on Broadway, Zoe Wanamaker gives a strong, heroically eccentric performance. It's reason enough to see the show, though the rest of the production is slow going. Except for the welcome, no-nonsense presence of Pat Carroll as the Chorus, the acting tends toward the weepy and overly expressive. And there are odd design gaffes: As Electra's mother, Clytemnestra, Claire Bloom is forced to stagger unsteadily around the dirt-covered stage in high heels. Her whole performance is about not falling over. Why director David Leveaux allowed this is anyone's guess.

He did right by Wanamaker, though. She's a fierce, half-mad Electra. Her mother murdered her father, and Electra's been waiting decades for her brother, Orestes, to return from exile and take revenge. In the meantime, she's been making a royal pain of herself, ambushing Clytemnestra with questions such as, "Why are you bedding the man who killed your husband?" Sophocles' play opens on the day Orestes finally comes back.

"Electra" is hardly the only ancient Greek story being staged these days. Diana Rigg opens soon at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Racine's Greek-myth play "Phaedre," two years after she last played New York with Euripides' "Medea." Jo Anne Akalaitis is rehearsing Sophocles' two-play "Iphigenia" cycle for Theater for the New City and is casting "The Trojan Women" for a production at the Shakespeare Theatre here in the spring. All of these stories are 2,400 years old. Why are people still going to see them? The extant Greek tragedies (most of them were lost in the 4th-century fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria) are not only more than two millennia old, they were written in a dead language and performed in a formal choral style that has no relationship to modern, psychologically based acting. Additionally, the plays were unknown to the writers of the Renaissance, who got their ideas about tragedy from the cruder, later works of the Roman dramatist Seneca, and so have had almost no direct literary influence on our drama tradition. Yet any time a series of dreadful events befalls a modern family, people say, and accurately, "It's like a Greek tragedy." The Greek tragedy champs of this country are, of course, the Kennedys. The father's ambition, so this reading goes, curses the sons. One dies young, two are murdered, a third causes an innocent's death. There are many Greek tragedies, of course. Medea kills her children when her husband deserts her. The great general Ajax goes bloodily, pathetically mad. The Trojan women are taken into slavery. Phaedre is cursed with a tormenting lust for her stepson. But by and large Oedipus and the House of Atreus dominate our contemporary imagination. Oedipus is the one who killed his father and married his mother. The house of Atreus is Agememnon, Clytemnestra and company: child murder, husband murder, matricide. Just summarizing the stories illustrates the difference between Greek tragedy and the Renaissance dramas from which our contemporary theater derives. The plot of "Oedipus Rex" can be encapsulated as neatly as a Hollywood pitch: Man unknowingly kills father and marries mother, discovers the truth and blinds himself. You can't do this with Shakespeare. Nobody sums up the plot of "King Lear" as, "A man makes a bad decision and is mistreated by his children." Try to describe "Hamlet" by listing what the hero does: The whole play is about what he doesn't do. Character is action in Greek drama. In the Renaissance tragedies, character is fate. Our modern Western concept of human character is strongly influenced by the Christian idea that how a person acts influences his fate. Though theology maintains that man's actions cannot affect God, the idea persists that being good is better for the fate of your soul than being wicked. This would simply have made no sense to the ancient Greeks, whose gods were not the source of human ethics but mercurial, selfish and spiteful. People pray to the Christian God for succor and comfort. In ancient Greece, once you'd made the necessary animal sacrifices, you just tried to stay out of the gods' way. The thing they did best was get offended. The idea of a human being's having some control over his or her fate has no meaning in Greek drama. A terrible situation comes about and is suffered through. There is an awful emotional resolution when Othello kills Desdemona; there isn't when Medea slaughters her children -- it's just unrelievedly horrible. Next to the Greeks, whose tragic heroes stare helplessly into the abyss, the Renaissance dramatists' striving characters look sentimental and rather melodramatic. In the sense that Greek tragedy is about being caught in some awful trap that slowly closes in on you, it would seem to be dramatically static. "Oedipus Rex" depends on the audience's knowing the play's secret almost from the beginning -- knowing before the hero knows, watching him plunge ignorantly toward his doom. Similarly, we watch Electra rage and mourn while aware, as she is not, that Orestes is alive and coming home. The central question that powers modern drama -- "What happens next?" -- is irrelevant. What Greek tragedy asks instead, in the most terrible way possible, is, "What is happening now?" Though formal and nonrealistic in style, Greek tragedy is more psychologically penetrating than any of the more "realistic" drama that follows. With Shakespeare, we begin to get the modern sense of the individual, of psychology in action with or against the world. In Greek tragedy, murderous movement can occur but meaningful action is impossible. Where modern drama shows us how people act when they suffer, Greek drama just shows us suffering. Trapped in his fate, the Greek tragic hero can move only inward, descending into the whirlpool of his psyche. The emotional states in Greek drama are as pure as those in dreams, where emotion is experienced unmitigated by the distractions of consciousness. We are in the fury and tempest of human existence, the cyclone of the soul. Freud knew what he was doing when, choosing metaphors for psychological disorders, he turned to the Greeks. His deterministic and essentially static view of the human personality is based on the idea that the present-day life we think we're living is merely some sort of shadow play cast by our past. In the Greek tragedies, the past is the only thing that is truly active. It writhes up into the present and strangles every character it touches. Everything that could possibly matter has already happened. That's what doom is.

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Nimble `Limbaugh'; At Woolly, a One-Man Adrenaline Rush

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Article date:
November 11, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Rush Limbaugh in Night School," the one-man show that opened Wednesday at Woolly Mammoth, is a lot better than the knee-jerk liberal-laugh title might suggest. In fact, Charlie Varon's fantasia about Limbaugh's pilgrimage through Lefty Land -- which includes a stint as Othello opposite Garrison Keillor as a very soft-voiced Iago -- is a delight. Varon has written humor for the New Yorker, and he has that magazine's classic comic style -- the sophisticated, parodic shaggy dog story -- down pat. He's also a zany student-practitioner of Jewish comedy, and "Limbaugh" goes as blissfully, absurdistly nuts as one of those Marx Brothers movie climaxes where the boys all play banjos while Margaret Dumont is fired from a cannon.

Varon, an uncannily gifted mimic, plays a cast of 24, including, besides Limbaugh, his agent, his (uh-oh) libber girlfriend, several New School for Social Research faculty members (one of whom lectures unforgettably on the metastructure that produces a pear), a gay performance artist, a rival talk radio star and assorted "real" people, including Keillor, Spalding Gray and Jackie Mason. It's quite a party.

Limbaugh's misadventures begin when his agent, Barry, points out that his ratings are ominously "Cavettlike," and Spanish-speaking J. Neil Rodriguez is gaining new radio listeners by the day. Limbaugh dutifully dons the disguise of beard, mustache and Ben & Jerry's T- shirt and enrolls in a Spanish class at the New School, where he spies the comely Nina Eggly -- unbeknownst to him, a former Weather Underground member. In addition, he agrees to perform for Shakespeare in the Park under the neurotic direction of Gray, even though Limbaugh initially balks at playing Othello, bewilderedly asking Barry, "You want me to be the next Ted Danson?"

Though Limbaugh is the obvious target, members of the left-wing educated elite take most of the skewering. Basically, Varon is an equal-opportunity scamp: Whenever he gets his hands on a subject, he has to make fun of it. His faculty lecturers are a classic bunch of goofs, his Spalding Gray a wicked caricature (at one point Limbaugh quits the production, agreeing to return only if Gray tells "no more stories!"). Just in passing, he invents an asteroid called Bob-17 that almost hits the Earth, a Bill Moyers TV special titled "Healing From the Loss of an Area Code," and "a nonprofit, socially responsible shopping network" that bills itself as "Shopping for Change."

Like Alice in Wonderland, Limbaugh often seems the sanest one in this world. Varon must nurse a sneaking admiration for this fellow satirist, because he ends up making him something of a sweetheart, albeit a baffled one. Limbaugh becomes the audience's stand-in, struggling against the hyper Rodriguez ("Don't bore me, America!"), trying earnestly to understand that pear and its metastructure, making his Candide's way through the treacherous territory of American celebrity, politics and what passes for ideas, gamely trying to make sense of everything and pronounce it all correctly.

Some of Varon's best moments come when he just can't resist going down a side road. I don't really know quite why Jackie Mason is in this show, except that when Varon is doing Mason doing Keillor, the audience is knocked into show biz heaven. Reason enough. If I have any quibble with the evening, it's that the audience doesn't get to see nearly enough of that "Othello," clearly a masterwork fiasco in the making. This is a cheerful evening, and a sweet one and a gentle one, and also, fortunately, quite, quite mad.

Rush Limbaugh in Night School, written and performed by Charlie Varon. Design, Daniel Schrader. At Woolly Mammoth, 202-393-3939, through Nov. 28.

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Psychic Ghost: A Rare Medium

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Article date:
May 13, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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In the converted space of a building where a Gypsy fortune teller once plied her cons, the Psychic Ghost Theatre has materialized. There, Barry Taylor and partner Susan Kang levitate, float glasses and dice, pull a scarf through a pole, make a pigeon turn into confetti -- all within 15 feet of the audience. The opportunity to see magic done this close -- as compared with David Copperfield at the cavernous Patriot Center -- is more than a treat, it's almost a luxury.

Unlike the Fox network's series of TV specials revealing how magic effects are done, Taylor and Kang aren't really giving anything away. There is one trick performed in slow motion (with the amusing assistance of Stephen C. LaPointe), but though it's something you can re-create at home, there wouldn't be much point. (To say more would be to give away the Startling Secret.)

Psychic Ghost Theatre's show is in three parts. The first is a more or less straightforward exhibition of conjuring. The second is the re-creation of a 19th-century "spirit cabinet." The third is a seance, complete with Ouija board and maleficent spirit. It's two swift hours; this isn't a show where your attention wanders. Historically, the spirit cabinet was a portable cabinet or, as in this case, a set of curtained screens behind which an entranced spiritualist medium, tied firmly to a chair, called forth psychic manifestations. Phenomena ensued. Tambourines rattled. Trumpets blew. Odd, unidentifiable things floated. This was taken by 19th-century spiritualists as proof of the Life Beyond. In Psychic Ghost's presentation, the medium is Kang, tied to a chair alone in the curtained "cabinet," and the manifestations include the traditional tambourine, a whole bunch of aluminum pie plates that fly from behind the curtain, and a trash can that ends up upside down on a volunteer's head. Yet every time the curtain is opened, she's still tied to her chair and apparently in a trance. Her swiftest move, in more ways than one, is when a jacket from an audience member is tossed over the closed curtain, and a few seconds later that curtain is drawn to reveal her still tied as before but wearing the jacket. Arms through the sleeves and everything. And finally -- the seance. The tiny audience (the theater, in Wheaton, only holds 18) sits in two rows, holding hands, while Kang, at a table, explains the identity of her "spirit guide" and expresses the hope that no evil spirits will manifest. Fat chance. Next thing you know, doors are slamming, blood is running down a mirror, the lights go out -- and something is slithering among the audience's feet! Yikes! Plus, there's the haunted doll . . . but some horrors are better left unspoken. Taylor and Kang have decades of magic performance between them, but they're not slick. Taylor has a guy-next-door quality, and Kang is courteous and sweet. They're down-home entertainers, but there's nothing ordinary about their skills. Close as you're sitting, you can't catch any of the tricks. It all looks like . . . well, like magic. Psychic Ghost Theatre, conceived and performed by Barry Taylor and Susan Kang. Script and design, Joe Zabel; special effects, Stephen C. LaPointe; music and sound effects, T.J. Osbourne. At Psychic Ghost Theatre, 11234 Georgia Ave. in Wheaton, every Friday and Saturday night, indefinitely. Tickets are $40. Call 301-946-2882.

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`Ballyhoo': Discriminating Tastes

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Article date:
January 12, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Like A.R. Gurney's theatrical portraits of WASPs, Alfred Uhry's depiction of upper-class Jewish life in the South is anthropologically impressive. In "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," which opened last night at the Studio Theatre, the Southern details are perfect: the thoughtless racism toward the maid, the way social life centers on the country club, the use of the words "tacky" and "asinine," the mother's mantra "I have never been so embarrassed in my life!"

Dramatically, "Ballyhoo" is a different matter, a mild and overlong comedy that has the political tone of a socially aware sitcom such as "All in the Family." Between the jokes, we learn stern lessons about how to behave. The message here is: Prejudice is bad.

The twist is that the prejudice is, so to speak, within the family. The well-off Freitags are of German descent and have a casual, dismissive contempt for "the other kind," i.e., the Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia who came to this country somewhat later. Into the Freitags' insular life comes Joe Farkas (Jason Nuzzo), one of the "other kind" who has come to work for Adolph Freitag (Arthur Laupus) in the family bedding business. The goofy Lala (Makela Spielman) sets her cap for him, but he falls for her more genteel cousin Sunny (Carolyn Pasquantonio). The plot revolves around Sunny's making the mistake of taking Joe to the "Ballyhoo" dance at her country club, which doesn't admit his "type" as members. Though Uhry attempts to inject relevance by setting his play in 1939, its dramatic crux is still no more than who gets into what country club. "Ballyhoo" feels like a period piece, and it also feels a little cowardly: This kind of tension still exists in the American Jewish community, yet Uhry has avoided dealing with it, preferring a distanced nostalgia. Uhry's chief talent as a writer is charm, and in a first-rate production "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" might get by on jokes and sweetness. But the Studio show is crudely directed by Serge Seiden, who appears to have urged the actors to play types rather than people and to play them very, very broadly. The worst offender is Spielman, who mugs her way through the role of Lala, but no one comes off very well, with the occasional exception of Irene Ziegler as Lala's snappish mother, Boo. The play ends with everyone together celebrating the Sabbath -- possibly, in the case of the Freitags, for the first time in decades. Clearly the problem was simple enough to solve with just a little understanding. Uhry dodges any difficulties inherent in his subject in various ways. The outsider Joe is a prince among men, so as to show up those snooty rich people. The implication is that if Joe had been a jerk, there might have been some excuse for their attitude. And Adolph is presented as the unruffled masculine voice of reason, even though he's a past president of the country club with the discriminatory policy. Uhry doesn't deal with this contradiction, he just ignores it. The rough-and-tumble working-class Joe may be his hero, but the play feels as if it were written by one of the sweep- the-problem-under-the-rug Freitags. The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry. Directed by Serge Seiden. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Helen Q. Huang; lights, Marianne Meadows; sound, Gil Thompson; props, Contessa Riggs. With Kate Davis and Ben Hulan. At the Studio Theatre through Feb. 14. Call 202-332-3300.

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`Lee Atwater': Red Hot And Politics

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Article date:
October 31, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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A terrific subject, a terrific actor and a terrific presentation come combustibly together in "Fixin' to Die: A Visit to the Mind of Lee Atwater," playing a limited run at the Church Street Theater. Bruce McIntosh gives a live-wire performance as the self-described "Grand Old Party Animal" in Robert Myers's play -- really a series of lit-by-lightning flashes of Atwater's impressive, depressing, very American career -- and George Furth has directed with unobtrusive intelligence and crack timing.

The show starts with Atwater zipping up his fly at a fraternity party featuring a stag film, and there's a lot of the smug frat boy in McIntosh's characterization (not accidentally, he occasionally made me think of another example of the type, David Letterman). This Atwater is proud of his shallow jerkiness, smirking as he delivers lines such as "The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you got it made." The most repellent thing about him is his slick expediency -- he gives a sense of not caring what master he serves as long as he can have fun. Politically brilliant, he's morally opaque. When the Willie Horton affair has a backlash he didn't foresee, his response isn't an awakening of racial sympathy but the nauseatingly practical "Looking back, we should have used a white guy."

Yet Myers gives credit to the boy wonder's political genius. Born in Atlanta, Atwater knows that though the conventional '80s wisdom is that the South is becoming more like the rest of the country, the truth is that "The rest of the country was becoming more like the South." About his sense that the white working class was waiting to fall into Republican hands, he says, "This was all just a hunch," and you believe it -- Atwater didn't slog through research and analysis, he surfed on instinct.

Myers and McIntosh bring out all the charisma and seductiveness of Atwater's breezy brilliance. The guy's vital, he's fun, he ups the ante in a gathering just by entering the room. And he has his virtues. He isn't a snob, for example. His sense of the needs of the white working class, ignored and despised by the educated elites that ran the Democratic Party, came from being a part of it and proud of the fact. The Atwater of "Fixin' to Die" is respectful of his ruling- class boss, Bush, but he isn't really impressed by him, and he's driven nuts by the vacuous, overprivileged Dan Quayle, "living proof that the term `bimbo' is not gender-specific."

He also had a strange, rather alarming innocence. Cynical as his use of Horton as a symbol for criminality run amok was, he seems never quite to have "gotten it" on the sensitivities of race. In the play, as in life, he bewilderingly cites his admiration of black musicians as proof he isn't a racist, and the scary thing is that he's not being cynical -- he truly doesn't understand how far off the mark he is. Myers shows the label haunting Atwater's career: At the end of his life, looking over his mistakes, he is still protesting his lack of racism.

As Atwater sickens (he died at 40 of a brain tumor), McIntosh subtly lowers his performance energy. His progression toward death is a growing stillness. (Furth's only directorial slip is the image of a luridly green-lit Atwater convulsing; it's as if a moment from a cheap horror film had intruded into this austere production.)

McIntosh not only brings Atwater to crackling life, he also plays a variety of working-class people black and white, as well as David Duke, whom he depicts as a disturbingly bland, buttoned-up Nazi. Reagan, Bush, Dukakis and other notables are played -- oh, how appropriately -- by cardboard cutouts, whom McIntosh handles with the grace of Fred Astaire dancing with a coat rack. Michael Stepowany has designed a minimalist set -- a white chair, lectern and counter against a black background. McIntosh provides all the color.

It would have been very easy either to sentimentalize Atwater or to take cheap shots at him. But "Fixin' to Die" is cool and detached about -- though fascinated by -- its subject and willing just to let him roll; any moral judgments are strictly up to the audience. The result is an exhilarating, appalling look at the game of politics as played by a man with a killer instinct.

Fixin' to Die: A Visit to the Mind of Lee Atwater, by Robert Myers. Directed by George Furth. Set and lights, Michael Stepowany. With the voices of Donna Sponsler and Kevin McCarthy. At the Church Street Theater through Nov. 5.

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Lloyd Rose. "`Lee Atwater': Red Hot And Politics." The Washington Post. Washington Post Newsweek Interactive Co. 1995. HighBeam Research. 8 Jan. 2009 .

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A `Wolf' That Sneaks Up On You

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October 31, 1995
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Lloyd Rose
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The Washington Stage Guild specializes in literate, over- civilized scripts by European playwrights, and its latest production, Ferenc Molnar's "A Tale of the Wolf," is a return to high form for this company. Molnar provides qualities long gone from contemporary theater: world-weariness, irony, style, sorrow.

Director John MacDonald has assembled a strong cast, with Conrad Feininger in the lead, giving an accomplished, witty performance as the pathologically jealous Eugen Kelemen, who cannot believe his wife truly loves him: He's just too mediocre. The opening scene, set in a restaurant, where he first berates her for her (imagined) indifference and then runs himself down with loquacious self- satisfaction, is a classic. He's a winner at being a loser.

His wife, Vilma, is played by Sarah Ripard, a sophisticated beauty with the right light, dry touch for this sort of role. Vilma is a complicated woman -- patient, exasperated, hurt and lonely, yet secretly nursing subversive desires -- but Ripard gets to the heart of her. Company stalwart Bill Largess is given the whole play to frolic in -- he plays five different roles in merrily contrasting styles and seems to be having the time of his life as he shifts effortlessly from pompous diplomat to gum-chewing dope to straight- arrow soldier to romantic opera star to nebbishy clerk.

MacDonald draws weaker performances from some of the minor characters, and though he has a keen sense of the comic possibilities in the script, he doesn't always time his physical jokes right -- you understand that they're meant to be funny rather than actually laughing at them. But his direction is high-spirited and amusing. Costumer William Pucilowsky and set designer Carl F. Gudenius have combined forces to create out of practically nothing a 19th-century ambiance of over-furnished luxury.

Molnar isn't a simple or obvious writer. At play's beginning, the audience can't help being on Vilma's side as she's comically bullied by the hapless Eugen. Her behavior has been beyond reproach. But her dreams, we discover, are not: Eugen's paranoia is, on one level, a response to something real. Molnar keeps undercutting our certainties and sympathies while at the same time drawing a complex picture of the relations between the sexes. Although "A Tale of the Wolf" is one of his minor plays, in it he's often at his best. And at his best Molnar suggests what Strindberg might have been like if he'd had a sense of humor.

A Tale of the Wolf, by Ferenc Molnar. Directed by John MacDonald. Lights, Marianne Meadows; sound, Mark Silver. With Jewell Robinson, Paul Takacs, Mueen J. Ahmad, Stephanie Mumford and Kathryn Barnhardt. At the Washington Stage Guild through Nov. 26.

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Whither Woolly?; At 20, the Troupe Is on the Brink of a Whole New Stage

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
August 29, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
More results for:
"lloyd rose"

Images from Woolly Mammoth Theatre:

Roger Guenveur Smith writhes in a silent, inward-focused dance, conjuring up the character of Huey P. Newton.

Nancy Robinette stands forlornly in a heap of shoes, like a statue in some improbable fountain of footwear.

Rhea Seehorn sucks and sucks and sucks another actor's finger.

Hugh Nees appears in diapers.

Howard Shalwitz digs into a bowl of granola.

Not very dramatic, that last image, but vital. Shalwitz, who is submitting to a breakfast interview, is the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth, which for 20 years now--it was founded in the summer of 1979--has been the theater you could rely on not to be nice. A place where you could count on the politics to be radical, the sexuality to be frank (and not exclusively hetero-) and the tone to be weird. The place to see plays by Wallace Shawn ("Aunt Dan and Lemon"), Harry Kondoleon ("Christmas on Mars"), Nicky Silver ("Fat Men in Skirts"), to see plays about the Marquis de Sade, castration, baby-hatred, schizophrenia, salvation through rape, and many many varieties of gender confusion. Woolly is marking its two decades with a revival of its 1989 hit "The Dead Monkey," a play about a marriage with an unusual third member, which begins performances Wednesday. (Original star Sarah Marshall will reprise her role as the wife.)

Shalwitz, 47, has run Woolly Mammoth from the beginning, from its days performing in a space at the Washington School for Social Sciences and holding auditions outdoors in Glover Park through the years its stage was the parish hall at the Church of the Epiphany at 13th and G, to the present 132-seat theater near the corner of 14th and Church streets, where it's been since 1986.

Now Woolly Mammoth is planning a move to a slightly larger (maybe 200 seats), marginally less funky (better bathrooms) venue. Woolly is one of four applicants for a downtown space at Seventh and D streets, across from the Shakespeare Theatre. In case that doesn't work out, other locations are being investigated, and a move seems certain within two to three years. The exact whereabouts isn't of paramount importance to Shalwitz. His concern is how the new theater, wherever it is, "can have middle-class amenities but a counterculture atmosphere."

With its cramped auditorium and small stage--from which the actors sometimes have to exit into the lobby--the present space is perfumed with counterculture atmosphere, as if some attitudinal incense has been burning there all these years. The building was previously home to Studio Theatre (now a block away). Before that it was a warehouse for hot dog carts, and before that, like Studio's present building and some of the restaurants on 14th Street, an automobile showroom and repair shop. A bar on the corner occupies what was the showroom. Woolly is jammed into the former repair shop.

The limitations of the space, its casual shabbiness, have always suited Woolly. Most theater companies start in this kind of down-at- heels style; Woolly has held onto it, somewhat self-consciously. From the beginning, the theater was about not being a lot of things, and one of the things it was not was slick. The rough ambiance prepares the audience for the roughness on the stage--of subject, of play (many of the new works have a not-quite-finished feel to them), sometimes of artistry. The famous "freedom to fail" that theaters claim for themselves is easier for playgoers to take if they're not paying top price for cushy seats--tickets at Woolly range from $10 to $29--if the carpet is worn and the lobby modest, if it looks as if everyone involved is trying very hard.

Shalwitz's office is a small cubicle he shares with Managing Director Kevin Moore, who oversees the financial management of the theater. His desk is jammed up against a large window. Among other detritus--a framed postage stamp of a woolly mammoth, a pink plastic water pistol--it holds three of the 16 Helen Hayes Awards the theater has won.

The head of the most confrontational theater in town looks mild enough: slender, balding, short beard, nondescript clothes. If he wore glasses, he'd suggest an academic. His manner is cordial, non- histrionic. In short, he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd defend Hitler to his mother.

Shalwitz is ruefully embarrassed at this memory. He grew up in Buffalo in a family that followed Conservative Judaism. His parents were children of immigrants, in a position to appreciate personally exactly how much damage Hitler had done. Then one day in the mid- '60s, in a scene out of Philip Roth, in walks Howard, philosophy book under his arm, idealism in his youthful heart, and ready to smash a taboo.

"As a teenager, I went a little crazy with the idea of determinism. I remember arguing with my mother that Hitler wasn't evil, just monumentally screwed up. At one point I decided that the answer to all the world's problems was some form of mass psychiatry, and for some years after, I wanted to be a psychiatrist."

This was before he wanted to be a philosophy teacher (his BA from Wesleyan University is in philosophy, his MA from Brown in teaching). Which was before he wanted to start a theater. Which a few years later he did, along with colleagues Roger Brady and Linda Reinish.

When Woolly Mammoth got started, there was only a fledgling small- theater scene in Washington. A number of little non-Equity companies were producing whenever and wherever they could. Studio Theatre was just beginning, and Source was digging itself into its small space not far away on 14th Street. Horizons Theatre was at its most vital, and the present-day Church Street Theater housed the five-year-old New Playwrights' Theatre, now defunct. Local television personality Davey Marlin Jones ran the Washington Theatre Club. The Shakespeare Theatre, very much pre-Michael Kahn, was still using the museum-of- the-Globe stage at the Folger Library, and Arena, then as now one of the country's flagship regional theaters, towered over everyone from its two-stage complex in Southwest.

From the beginning, Woolly came out swinging. The theater's first manifesto declared it was dedicated to "resolving the contradiction between advance of the art form and appeal to an audience."

Actually, despite an early all-improvised production ("a disaster," says Shalwitz), Woolly quickly became known for the content of its plays rather than its style of presentation. The ideal Woolly Mammoth play is uncompromising but hilarious, critical of mainstream American values, particularly those of the family, unafraid of sensitive subjects, and not stylistically confined by realism. In short, exactly like Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive."

Which was produced at Arena. This year.

Shalwitz nods when an interviewer makes this point.

He acknowledges that "Hot 'n' Throbbing"--another play by Vogel, to be done at Arena next month--is the sort of play he might have done. So is "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," which was produced last season at Studio.

Twenty years after Woolly was founded, when the culture has moved to embrace the outre, how does an outre theater retain its critical edge?

"Our big challenge," he says, "is holding on to our edge when other theaters are now doing what would once have been categorized as 'Woolly plays.' "

Woolly hasn't exactly stood still these past two decades. In the mid- to late '80s, the theater's energy came from a company of actors that included Robinette, Grover Gardner, the late Grainne Cassidy, TJ Edwards and Michael Willis. And sometimes Shalwitz himself, an excellent actor who in the opinion of many doesn't work onstage enough. This was the period of the hilarious emotional implosions of "Christmas on Mars," the scathing moral criticism of "Aunt Dan and Lemon," the mad sanity of Don DeLillo's "The Day Room."

Then about 10 years ago, the emphasis began to shift from the actors to the scripts, as "plays I found very exciting didn't have roles for the company." Yet at the same time, it was also becoming harder for Woolly to get the rights to the plays it wanted, a change from the early days when "there was nothing we wanted to produce that anybody else was interested in."

This was the shift that led to the discovery and national launching of the uproarious and outlandish Nicky Silver, whose "Fat Men in Skirts" premiered at Woolly in 1991, the first of four Silver productions over the next six years. That introduced Washington audiences to the creepy world of Doug Wright, whose "Watbanaland" dramatized father-infant competition, while his "Quills" gave audiences a sympathetic look at the Marquis de Sade.

The shift led to "The Psychic Life of Savages," Amy Freed's smart, ruthless take on the lives of four famous American poets, as well as to her less fully developed "Freedomland." To the new plays of African Americans Regina Porter ("Man, Woman, Dinosaur") and Robert Alexander ("The Last Orbit of Billy Mars"), playwrights working in a different area than the dominant political realism of August Wilson.

And it led to what Shalwitz calls "Woolly lite," less abrasive Woolly productions, such as Bill Corbett's yuppie-satire "The Big Slam" and Christi Stewart -Brown's soft and upbeat "The Gene Pool," in which it was demonstrated that lesbians too could have a sitcom life.

In the process, Woolly has become an important transition point in a national network of new play production, often producing plays from lesser-known theaters that then move on around the country. "We try to find the most exciting new writers," says Shalwitz, "produce them, then promote their work to other theaters. Our role in the national theater community is to help a writer in the early stages of his or her career."

For anyone who has attempted to produce new plays, Shalwitz's record of turning novice scripts into full-blooded theater experiences is mind-boggling. His audiences, unaware of the backstage rigors of the task, simply appreciate that they usually come out of a new play at Woolly feeling they've seen something rather than that they've been subjected to an intriguing but unsatisfying experiment.

Shalwitz credits his success as a producer of new work to his "traditional approach on the directing side. One of the most important things a director of new plays has to do is analyze a script's strengths and weaknesses, and then emphasize the strengths and hide the weaknesses. And a producer, knowing the script may not be quite finished, has to cover every other base--acting, directing, designing--perfectly."

Of course, when he directs a play himself, he has an added advantage: "I can make myself believe that whatever I'm working on is one of the greatest plays ever written."

A new space will bring a certain liberation, new artistic opportunities. At 12 feet, the present Woolly stage ceiling is too low for anything particularly impressive in the way of lighting. Narrative through the use of images rather than words hasn't been an option for Woolly. "I'd like to work with a stronger visual aesthetic than we can do in our present space, one that supports non-narrative, imagistic plays."

Shalwitz has other ambitions. A little more money, for starters (the theater's annual budget is approximately $1.1 million, on the higher end for small local theaters). Still, at present, "we can rarely afford to do a play with more than six actors." And with more money and a better space, there might be the chance "to work with first-rank directors and designers who would come in and shake up our world." Directors, for example, such as JoAnne Akalaitis, who has worked at the Shakespeare Theatre and Arena.

Over the past 20 years, Shalwitz has also noticed a psychological shift in Woolly: "We're looking into the wider varieties of approaches to off-centeredness." Which means fewer "neurotic" plays and a "more poetic" direction: "You can have rugged family dissections along with the grace and beauty of poetic diction."

But though the weapon may change, the target remains the same. The Big Lie. The lie that all families are happy. That everything America does is right. That materialism is the route to happiness. At its best, Woolly attacks the biggest lie of all, the one the audience tells itself, that we, living our middle-class lives, are justified in thinking of ourselves as "good" people.

Because if there's one thing I learned from Aunt Dan, I suppose you could say it was a kind of honesty. It's easy to say we should all be loving and sweet, but meanwhile we're enjoying a certain way of life--and we're actually living--due to the existence of certain other people who are willing to take the job of killing on their own backs, and it's not a bad thing every once in a while to admit that that's the way we're living.

--From "Aunt Dan and Lemon," by Wallace Shawn

Howard Shalwitz is still attacking the most sacred taboos he can find.

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Lloyd Rose. "Whither Woolly?; At 20, the Troupe Is on the Brink of a Whole New Stage." The Washington Post. Washington Post Newsweek Interactive Co. 1999. HighBeam Research. 8 Jan. 2009 .

Lloyd Rose. "Whither Woolly?; At 20, the Troupe Is on the Brink of a Whole New Stage." The Washington Post. Washington Post Newsweek Interactive Co. 1999. HighBeam Research. (January 8, 2009). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-602698.html

Lloyd Rose. "Whither Woolly?; At 20, the Troupe Is on the Brink of a Whole New Stage." The Washington Post. Washington Post Newsweek Interactive Co. 1999. Retrieved January 08, 2009 from HighBeam Research: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-602698.html

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Critic's View; Arthur Miller: In the Shame of the Father

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
February 13, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
More results for:
"lloyd rose"

Of all Arthur Miller's plays that turn on a father-son axis - "All My Sons," "Death of a Salesman" and "The Price" - I've found "The Price," which is the least highly regarded of the three, by far the most affecting. It's true that the current production at Arena is terrific - a passionate, full-blooded show in which director Joe Dowling and actors Robert Prosky, Stanley Anderson and James B. Sikking are riding their powers at the flood. But Miller's script is the cup that holds their rich, winey artistry.

In "All My Sons," which was first produced in 1947, the father is Joe Keller, the head of an aircraft plant who allows damaged engine parts to be shipped out, resulting in the deaths of a number of young pilots, including that of his eldest son - who commits suicide when he learns of the old man's guilt. Two years later, in "Salesman," Willy Loman is the maddening father, teaching his boys lessons in life that lead to failure and then wondering what went wrong. By 1968 and "The Price," there are two fathers - Franz Sr., dead lo these many years, whose spirit is still crippling his sons Victor (played by Anderson in the Arena production) and Walter (Sikking); as well as the old junkman Gregory Solomon (Prosky), who provides for the stunted younger men an image of masculine vitality, of a life fully lived.

Though presented naturalistically, Solomon is, in dramatic terms, a ghost haunting the Franz sons, a vision of life as they can never live it. He's more rebuke than comfort, and, almost alone of all Miller's characters, he's funny. He lends a mystical and also slightly cruel edge to this play by one of our most realistic and sentimental playwrights, as if the dead father were mocking his boys even from beyond the grave.

There's a lot wrong with "The Price." It has a first act that's almost all exposition, the character of the wife doesn't work (Miller's women never do), the coming conflict is obvious, the sons don't "get anywhere" dramatically, there is no resolution. But it has audiences at Arena standing, applauding and shouting bravo - the same enthusiastic reaction the play received when it premiered on Broadway: "At the Morosco Theatre last night the cheers for Arthur Miller's new play `The Price' seemed more than an idle tribute," wrote Clive Barnes, then critic for the New York Times. "Behind them was the sincerity of an audience that had been deeply moved."

Not that Barnes thought very much of "The Price": "It is ... good theater. It is not, however, very serious theater." He went on to lament its patness, its predictability and clumsiness, its stagey dialogue. "Go expecting to see a great play," Barnes concluded, "and perhaps `The Price' might disappoint you. ... The author of `Death of a Salesman' is still waiting unfulfilled in the wings ..."

Poor Arthur Miller. For 45 years everyone's been expecting him to "fulfill" the promise of "Death of a Salesman," whatever that was supposed to be. Elia Kazan, the play's original director, has written "Arthur Miller did {it} all - that one time and never again."

But did what, exactly? Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, is presented by Miller as a victim of that old lie, the American Dream. "He had the wrong dreams," his son Biff mourns at his grave after Willy has committed suicide, whereupon the Lomans' neighbor Charley announces in stilted Millerese, "Nobody dast blame this man. ... A salesman is got to dream, boy; it comes with the territory." We are meant to understand that this victim-of-society stuff is what the play is about.

But is it? Cooler heads in the audience may notice that Willy brings up his sons with moral laxness, finding it cute when they steal and unimportant when they cheat; that he commits adultery, which shatters Biff, and then keeps hypocritically - or stupidly - asking what went wrong with the boy; that he lets Charley give him money but won't take a job he offers. In short, Willy pretty much earns the misfortunes of his life, something that everyone in the play - particularly his boys - seems almost hysterically bent on denying. "He had a good dream," cries the second son, Happy, "it's the only dream you can have. To come out number one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I'm gonna win it for him." It's not America that has a stranglehold on Willy Loman; it's Willy, who, even dead, has his hands locked around the throats of his sons.

Kazan, no pushover - indeed, a man many might characterize as an SOB of the first order - wept when he first read "Death of a Salesman." "I suppose the play revives the memory, long at rest, of my father, a salesman of another product," he writes in his 1990 autobiography "A Life," "of his hopes for his sons in this new country. ... Like Willy, my father considered his eldest son a special failure and oh, God, this hurt him! And me! But how could I blame him for what he expected of me and didn't get? Obviously what his wife had produced for him, this silent, secretive, mysteriously sullen son, was not going to rally to his side and sell rugs, not any to anyone, ever. ... But just as Willy did, George Kazan kept pumping up hope, and the burden of that hope was on my back."

Kazan's response had nothing to do with Miller's rather thin ideas and everything to do with being a son. And from this visceral connection with the play, he directed one of the most legendary of all American theater productions.

Miller has often been mentioned as a disciple of Ibsen, but Ibsen wasn't sentimental. His work has a Jehovan moral harshness: He writes as a father. But Miller writes as a son: anguished, guilt-ridden, uncertain, full of unresolved blame and anger. "Pop, I'm nothing, I'm nothing, Pop!" Biff yells at his obtuse dad, whose response is to turn to his wife and ask, "Why is he crying?" At this point in the play, Biff is usually not alone in his tears: "It was the only play I ever directed," Kazan observes, "where men in the audience cried."

Miller had toured this father-son territory just two years earlier in "All My Sons," which Kazan, who was everywhere in those days, also directed. Though it beat out Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" for the 1947 Drama Critics prize, its reviews were not sterling: "More indignation than craft," one critic sniffed. As the action unfolds, Keller's younger son, Chris, discovers the old man's guilt, and in the end indicts his parents. When his mother asks, "What more can we be?" he has a lecture all ready: "You can be better! Once and for all you can know there's a universe of people outside and you're responsible to it, and unless you know that you threw away your son because that's why he died."

But it's another speech, by the father, that goes to the heart of Miller's writing: "I'm his father and he's my son, and if there's something bigger than that I'll put a bullet in my head!" And of course he does put a bullet in his head, because he's committed the most horrible father-crime possible, killing those young pilots who, he comes to realize, were "all my sons."

Kazan thought that "since the guilt was that of a businessman, ergo that of our business community, the play made a social statement." But a little icing of social consciousness doesn't hide the to-hell-with-you-Dad ingredients of this cake, any more than it does in "Death of a Salesman." In both plays, the pain, the power and the theatricality swell from that central, unhealable parent-child wound. Kazan knew that in his gut when he first read "Salesman," when he loved it not because it made him think but because it made him weep.

In "The Price," as in "Salesman," Miller drags in social commentary in an attempt to exonerate the hateful father. The long-dead patriarch, we are told, behaved horribly because he was destroyed by the Depression. He's scarred his sons beyond recovery, but it was all America's fault; in a non-capitalist society, presumably, there wouldn't be these kinds of family problems. This nonsense is so unconvincing that the first reviews don't even mention it, and it certainly doesn't make much impact in the Arena production. This may be one reason the play has so much force. Miller's flimsy screen of political criticism can't mask his pain; he's writing in full view about what hurts him. For the third time in his career, he's dealing with a destructive father and his damaged sons, but here, 19 years after "Salesman," he's messier, more at risk, less of a craftsman and arguably more of an artist.

"The Price" isn't as "good" as "Salesman," and it isn't as tightly crafted as "All My Sons" (which is almost ludicrously well built), but it's more emotionally honest. Walter Kerr sensed this, writing in the Sunday New York Times in 1968: "Mr. Miller has come down from that mountaintop he has sometimes seemed to inhabit and got into the ring. ... And the necessity of slugging it out, without a clear moral planned beforehand, brings the playwright just a shade closer to us as a person." And even the underwhelmed Barnes found that " `The Price' is one of the most engrossing and entertaining plays that Miller has ever written."

In the end, "The Price" succeeds precisely to the extent that Miller, as a dramatist of ideas, "fails." In "All My Sons," the guilty father is a powerful figure, a factory head, whose sin is the sin of capitalism and whose remaining son becomes a pure avenger. Two years later, in "Salesman," Willy Loman isn't a boss but an employee - a "small man," according to Miller's original stage directions - and he is presented as a victim of the system, not an enforcer of it; when this man maims his sons, they are driven to find excuses for him. For the father in "The Price," the Depression is supposedly the excuse for his rotten behavior - but by play's end it's clear that he used the Depression as his excuse to devour his children. And unlike the condemning Chris of "All My Sons" or the excuse-making Biff and Happy in "Salesman," the brothers in "The Price" are left with an awful, unresolvable realization: Their father destroyed them for no good reason.

This is inadequate as social criticism. And it's not as satisfying, narratively, as the lessons we normally get from Miller's neatly tied-up plots. But it's a vision that brings Miller nearer to tragedy than before or since - to Oedipus and his legendary problems with his father; to Hamlet, who somehow just can't get as excited as he should about avenging Pop's death.

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Eye of the Needler; Jackie Mason's Stinging Humor

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
March 3, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Some of Jackie Mason's most effective moments are when he's silent. In "Politically Incorrect" (which opened last night at the Kennedy Center), as in the comic's earlier one-man shows, he often pauses and stares broodingly down at the first few rows of the audience. His heavy-lidded eyes express an irony beyond articulation, an irony almost as rich and acid as contempt. He looks as if he's figuring out where next to stick the needle, where it might hurt most.

What could possibly come out of his mouth to match those eyes? When he speaks after such a pause, his voice is often caressingly soft. "Nazi," he murmurs at someone who hasn't gotten the joke. Among other targets, Mason hits hard at Jewish fears of persecution. Yet, quick as a snake's tongue, there's a flicker of rage in there at the goyim too. As a performer, Mason is most definitely Not Safe. Self-mocking and quick to smile, he seems to undercut any malice with affability, but there's always a little chill in those blue eyes.

Still, "Politically Incorrect" isn't Mason at his best. The title itself is tired, a putdown that's been around long enough to turn into a cliche. And having been burned by some frank remarks he made during the Dinkins-Giuliani mayoral race, Mason has learned caution. He establishes his credentials: "Whoever is a bigot should drop dead." He expresses optimism, an unconvincing position for a satirist. And when he comes to his first "dangerous" remarks, they don't amount to much more than a condemnation of "reverse discrimination." The point isn't that what he's saying is untrue or irrelevant, it's that it's not new.

For a comic of Mason's age, being "politically incorrect" about women is simply a matter of going back to jokes you told 30 years ago. Mason's cracks about parasitical wives who bleed their husbands through divorce seem to have come out of a can - the world has changed, and women have whole new styles of driving men nuts. He does some funny takes on old slurs: "By the time a woman is 35, she'll marry a chair." And there's certainly something impolite in the way he characterizes Tonya Harding as "a common pig yenta." But, please, talk about the world's easiest target.

This familiarity holds true for his political jokes. He can be boldly blunt, as when he flatly says of President Clinton, "This man is a liar, period." Then he goes on, "I never thought I'd live to see a man who makes Nixon look honest." Nixon jokes already. Mason's fans look to him for more than that. He's predictable on Hillary Rodham Clinton too when he says that he was sure she was really Jewish because "she runs everything." Then, suddenly, just when you're wondering what's weighing his humor down, he's off and flying with a routine about how nobody understands the proposed health plan. He mocks, he mugs, he goes so fast he seems to be whirling - jokes fly off and smack the audience. He's so fast, and he has the timing of a dancer. Possessed by the demon of humor, he threatens to speak the unspeakable.

He never quite does, though he has moments where he gets into sensitive territory. "If you have AIDS right now you can get into this country. If you have fruit, you can't." Talking of black Americans he observes: "Until they made fires, they never had equality. They were right. ... Trouble is they were always burning down their own buildings ... Jews know how to make a fire: Every fire turns a profit." It's hard to say whom this slashes most deeply - African Americans, the white society that responded to riots better than it ever did to reason, or those famously moneymaking Jews.

There's something a little queasy about laughing at this string of jokes - you can use the attack on whichever group you belong to as an excuse to sneer at others. It's when he puts the audience in a position like this that Mason is at his most brilliant, which is not to say his funniest but his most disturbing: He sees into our nasty hearts.

Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect, at the Kennedy Center through Saturday.

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Street, New Directions

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
March 11, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
More results for:
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Goodwill can purify a surprising number of cliches, as the Source production of "Get to Tomorrow," which opened last night, illustrates. Roy Barber's musical about a former Lorton inmate trying to reclaim his family has an all-too-familiar African American urban setting, complete with drug dealing, guns, a pimp and a whore, and basketball as a way out of the ghetto. But the dilemma of Cal Sr. is moving, and Harry Richard Tate plays the role with affecting strength and dignity.

There's a thin line between stereotyping and simple lack of imagination. Barber's problem appears to be the latter, and he was probably motivated too by a desire not to sugarcoat his milieu, or take urban social harshness lightly. In any case, even though there's nothing new here, "Get to Tomorrow" has freshness and life. Barber cares a lot about his characters, and so do the actors who play them.

Cal Sr. faces a lot of problems when he returns from prison. His wife, Florie (Caron Tate), is living with another man and doesn't want anything to do with him. His son, Cal Jr. (David Lamont Wilson), is having trouble in school and believes the only way he might be a success is as a petty criminal (the poor kid proves inept even at that). The daughter, Renee (Michelle Fizer), is too sensitively intelligent and strong-willed to fit easily into any environment, much less the one she finds herself in. All Cal Jr. seems to want from his father is criminal instruction, and all Renee wants is for him to go away. The old man faces an uphill fight.

Barber understands the complexity of such a man's situation. The script demonstrates the ways Cal Sr. is torn between his desire to protect his children from the dangers of the street and his determination to "go straight." After a particularly hideous humiliation, his son comes to him begging for help to kill the offender, and Tate and Wilson convey how, by preaching rule of law, the father to some degree lets his son down.

Barber can't quite keep this unsettling honesty going, and "Get to Tomorrow" has an unconvincing upbeat resolution. Yet even as you may react cynically to the happy ending, you can't help feeling the characters deserve it.

The story is excessively melodramatic. Rape is threatened twice, and the villain of the piece, J.T. (Scott Leonard Fortune, in a fun I'm-evil-and-I-love-it turn), turns out to be such a thoroughgoing bad guy that any societal reasons for the family's problems sort of fall by the wayside. J.T. could turn Utopia into squalor.

The score is pleasant, a little derivative, on the whole well sung. Director Lisa Rose Middleton makes inventive, busy use of the Source's difficult playing area and finds the simple emotional reality in each scene. Of the cast, Harry Tate, Caron Tate, Fortune and Fizer are particularly strong. Fizer, especially, is a wonderfully natural young actress with a gift for spontaneity.

"Get to Tomorrow" is a small piece, and it's hardly a great piece. But in the Source's intimate theater, its modesty is appealing. And the moral passion behind the production is so great that it seems like a quibble to ask for more in the way of refined talent or slick professionalism.

Get to Tomorrow, written and composed by Roy Barber. Directed by Lisa Rose Middleton. Set, Mims Mattair; lights, William A. Price III; costumes, Joan A.S. Lada; choreography, John Monnett; musical director, Rory Chalcraft. At the Source through April 3.

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Lloyd Rose. "`Get to Tomorrow': Same Street, New Directions." The Washington Post. Washington Post Newsweek Interactive Co. 1994. HighBeam Research. 8 Jan. 2009 .

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'Absence': Crash Course in Talking

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Article date:
November 22, 2000
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"In the Absence of Spring," which opened at Signature Theatre last night, is a fable about life and death set in modern-day Manhattan. A group of urbanites talk and talk and talk, in restaurant booths, on the phone, in bed, about the doom they sense is coming. Every single one of them is over-articulate in a self-consciously poetic way, except for a street person, who is over-articulate in a psychotic poetic way.

Winter has lasted for six months and now, in April, there are snowstorms attended by thunder and lightning. Elaine (Minda Harden), chattering over lunch to her pal Jason (Erik Sorensen), thinks it's a sign that she should leave Manhattan. Jason doesn't pay a lot of attention, being more interested in picking up the waiter, Marty (Timothy Getman). In the park, Tina (Vanessa Lock) is accosted by a prophecy-spouting street person, Mama (Susannah Berryman), but nothing can spoil Tina's day because she's finally finished the documentary she's been working on for five years. Little does she know that her husband and cameraman, Larry (Michael Glenn), has just left the only negative and print of the film in the back seat of a taxi--i.e., lost it forever.

At this point, the audience might be forgiven for wanting to know exactly what's gone wrong between Tina and Larry that made him able to "forget" the project that has occupied five years of their lives. However, this isn't a question playwright and director Joe Calarco is interested in. Larry and Tina's sex life isn't any good and hasn't been for a while; that's about all you find out. The play is interested in weightier issues, like survival guilt and precognition of disaster.

Tina, Jason, Mama and a waitress named Georgia (Susan Lynskey) are all linked by a past disaster. The play takes place on the fifth anniversary of a terrible airplane explosion somewhere over the British Isles. Jason, who was booked on the flight but warned away by a dream, lost many friends and a lover; Tina's twin sister may or may not have died (though she's missing, no physical evidence that she was on the plane has ever been found); Georgia is Mama's daughter, and they both lost Georgia's father.

The explosion blasted the lives of these survivors as surely as it killed their loved ones. It's what drove Mama crazy, what wrecked Tina's marriage, what made Jason unable to connect with a lover. Now a new calamity seems to be looming. Who will be saved and who will not?

Why should we care? As he's shown in such productions as "Nijinsky's Last Dance" and "Side Show" (both at Signature), Calarco has an amazing talent for staging a story. But here at least, he's not so good at writing one. The characters in "In the Absence of Spring" are self-absorbed and uninteresting, and the scenes in which they discuss their intimations of mortality are turgid. At the end of Act 1, some action takes place and the evening momentarily perks up. And in Act 2 there's a swell staging of a catastrophe (courtesy of set designer James Kronzer and lighting designer Chris Lee). Other than this, the most interesting element of the production is Brian Keating's percussive, chiming, apocalyptic sound.

"In the Absence of Spring" is the latest in a series of contemporary plays in which the characters are either people who can afford to eat in chic restaurants or people who work in them, plus one requisite street person. Possibly this sameness arises because the people who work in the theater and write these plays usually don't know any other sorts of folk.

In the Absence of Spring, written and directed by Joe Calarco. Costumes, Anne Kennedy; props, Tommy Wang. At Signature Theatre through Dec. 17. Call 703-218-6500.

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Article date:
December 12, 2000
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It needs to be said upfront that the sexy "Chesapeake" promo of a revealingly flag-draped Holly Twyford is a tease, not to say a total lie. Her entrance onto the Source Theatre stage is preceded by bump- and-grind music, but she is chastely clad in a rust-colored, long- sleeved top and green corduroy slacks. True, she's playing the role of a performance artist named Kerr, and Kerr has performed naked, but that's not what "Chesapeake" is about. It's a little hard to say what it actually is about.

Whatever it's about, "Chesapeake" is mostly pretty entertaining. Playing five roles, Twyford is in top form, which is very good form indeed, and Lee Blessing's script is loopily inventive. Except when it's didactic, when it's tiresome and familiar. A didactic note to American playwrights and theater producers: As a relevant political target, Jesse Helms is way, way over. Get another whipping boy.

Kerr, who tastefully disrobes before small, select audiences while reciting the Song of Solomon, is targeted by right-wing Southern senator Thurm Pooley--a satirical name worthy of Dickens--as someone who wastes the public's tax dollars on filth. (Kerr's stuff doesn't sound filthy, though it does sound as if it might be a waste of money.)

Kerr, naturally, doesn't see it that way. Incensed at having her artistic life ruined, she plans to kidnap Pooley's beloved dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Lucky (or sometimes Rat), retrain the animal so that he metamorphoses from pet to hunting dog, and then return the new, improved version. All this, of course, will be immortalized on videotape.

Things don't exactly work out as planned.

About halfway through, "Chesapeake" takes a delightfully nutso turn that deserves to remain as secret as the punch line in "The Crying Game." Suffice it to say that we spend most of Act 2 with a Chesapeake Bay retriever, also played by Twyford, and that a lot of what happens is extremely funny.

Blessing's take on Kerr is sometimes hard to read. You hope he's being satirical about her when, describing her stripping, she spouts lines such as: "It was not Las Vegas or some Times Square peep show. It was Art." And he certainly presents her as an idiot when she bumbles Lucky's dognapping. On the other hand, he gets all self- righteous about the importance of artists in our society, comparing them, in a speech clearly meant seriously, to Lewis and Clark.

The best parts of this odd little play are those about dogs. Blessing is obviously a dog lover, and he writes about the owner-pet relationship with affection and wit. If his characterization of Kerr is a bit shaky, his creation of Lucky is superb.

Joe Banno directs with mischievous high energy, abetted by Brian Keating's witty sound, and he guides Twyford with an obvious appreciation of her gifts. She plays not only Kerr and Lucky but Pooley, Mrs. P and Pooley's perky young aide. She brings sympathy and depth to Pooley; icy, snappish authority to his wife; and a smart, mocking edge to the shallow but lethal aide. Plus she's one of those rare actors who can actually do a convincing Southern accent. And her dog is terrific: not at all condescended to or cuted up, but imagined and entered. This is a one-woman show, but there's not just one person up on the stage.

Chesapeake, by Lee Blessing. Directed by Joe Banno. Set, Greg Mitchell; lights, Dan Covey; costume, Justine Light; sound, Brian Keating; props, Aaron Sneary. At Source Theatre in repertory with "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" through Jan. 7. Call 202-462- 1073.

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'Stories': Creeping In the Writer's Shadow

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Article date:
July 15, 2000
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Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories," which opened last night at Theater J, deals with a familiar real-life subject that hasn't been much dramatized: the relationship between a famous artist and his or her worshipful, talented, ambitious disciple. J.D. Salinger and Joyce Maynard, V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux, David Leavitt and Stephen Spender--to this list Margulies adds the fictional short-story writer Ruth Steiner (Halo Wines) and her student Lisa Morrison (Carolyn Pasquantonio).

The dramatic situation is fascinating even though neither the script nor this skillful, enjoyable production fully probes its complexities.

Steiner and Morrison's friendship grows over a period of six years, from Morrison's first arrival at her hero's door for a tutorial to the publication of her first novel, a book that turns out to be remarkably similar to certain parts of Steiner's life. She grows from a shy girl in a lilac dress and a frilly white sweater to a svelte woman in bare-shouldered form-clinging black, while Steiner shrinks from a vibrant figure in a man's silk shirt to a sick old woman whose lilac pajamas and sagging sweater morbidly evoke Morrison's entrance into her life. (The terrific costumes are by Traci Holcombe.)

Margulies writes well, and the individual scenes are invariably engaging, if a little long.

It's fun to settle in with these two intelligent, literate characters in Steiner's marvelously writer-ish Greenwich Village apartment (the set, with tall open-backed bookshelves through which one can see a backdrop of huge printed lines from a poem, is another of James Kronzer's beauties). Even the inevitable discussions of writing are more interesting than one might expect, and there are smart, funny lines ("Life is too short for the New Yorker," Steiner decrees when asked if she's read something in a recent issue).

But as the evening progresses, the playwright's setup begins to seem more and more artificial. The two women are awfully isolated. Morrison's offstage boyfriend has no noticeable effect on her (he's mentioned once), and Steiner, at age 65, has apparently had only one love affair in her life.

Morrison has parents she dislikes, but otherwise there are no ex- lovers, ex-husbands, children, friends, enemies. It's as if this friendship is the only emotional experience either woman has ever had. In her final scene, betrayed and enraged, Wines carries things into darker, messier territory than the script has provided so far. Steiner here is scarily mean, vicious as only the truly hopeless can be.

But Pasquantonio's Morrison is rather pat. Though the character is written as an elusive blend of manipulative climber and genuine friend, Pasquantonio emphasizes her shallowness, making her rather lopsided and less interesting than she could be. At times, you can't figure out why Steiner doesn't see through this girl, and Wines doesn't show us the mixture of need and egotism that might lead the older woman to want to fool herself. When the two finally square off and accusations fly, Morrison's defense of herself feels unconvincing and hypocritical because nothing in Pasquantonio's earlier performance has led us to believe she has any real feeling for her mentor.

When a script has this kind of attractive veneer but is fundamentally a bit hollow, it's up to the director and cast to provide some emotional reality. But director Jim Petosa just sends his two actors skating along its smoothly entertaining surface. He has a sure touch--there's nothing sloppy here. But there's not much depth either.

Collected Stories by Donald Margulies. Directed by Jim Petosa. Assistant director, Randy Baker; lights, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound, Mark K. Anduss; props, Elsie Jones. A Potomac Theatre Festival/ Theater J co-production, at Theater J through Aug. 13. Call 800-494- 8497.

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Yankee Doodle Dabbling; Pols Strut Their Stuff At Arena Stage Benefit

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Article date:
March 15, 1994
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They weren't all actors but they certainly were hams last night at the Arena Stage benefit for the Living Stage: a reading of the 1937 musical "I'd Rather Be Right." Treading the boards for charity were Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala; Capitol Hill's Fred Grandy, Constance Morella, Kweisi Mfume, Louise Slaughter, Alan Simpson, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, John H. Chafee, Amory Houghton and Carrie Meek; and lawyer James Symington. Most of them should keep their day jobs, but who cared? The spectacle of politicians playing politicians on a stage rather than in front of television cameras was delicious.

If you're at all familiar with "I'd Rather Be Right" at all, it's probably through the movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy," in which James Cagney playing George M. Cohan playing FDR performed "Strictly Off the Record." Last night FDR was Edward Herrmann, carrying his career of playing Roosevelt from the televison miniseries over to the theater, at least for this one time. Kitty Carlisle Hart - whose late husband, Moss Hart, was one of the musical's creators - fussed at him as his mother: Prices keep going up! And that nice young couple he met in the park, Phil and Peggy - professionals David Garrison and Lauren Mitchell - are too poor to get married. Darn it, he just has to balance the budget.

HisCabinet wasn't much help, perhaps because it consisted of Symington as secretary of state, Shalala, in a little flat red hat, as secretary of labor, and Mfume as postmaster general. These characters didn't seem to have any idea of how to reduce the deficit. They talked about selling Baltimore or creating $100 postage stamps (what a far-fetched notion!) or putting the bite on the government itself: "Let's just tax the Dickens out of them," Shalala cried with what, considering her day job, might be seen as sinister enthusiasm. (Shalala was the only cast member bold enough to ad-lib. As Herrmann's FDR prepared to address the nation on the radio she chirped, "Go get 'em, Boss!")

As if FDR didn't have enough problems, Sen. Simpson was skulking about as Alf Landon, now reduced to serving as the Roosevelt butler. White-gloved and bearing a cake, Simpson refused to tell the president how he had balanced the Kansas budget when he was governor: "Try that on your old ukulele!" he sneered, the vicious jerk! The Supreme Court was lurking in the bushes, and the chief justice (lawyer John Barnum, sporting quite an out-of-season tan) kept popping out to prick Roosevelt's balloons.

Literally pricking balloons was Grandy, in a dour, feisty turn as a tax-hating balloon vendor. Funny and assured, Grandy, who played "Gopher" on the TV series "The Love Boat," was obviously a former pro. Among the other politicians, Mfume seemed almost more at home onstage than the real actors, and Barney Frank, all shrugs, gestures and Chico Marx vowels, was a hilariously dissatisfied Italian worker.

How sweet it all was a mere 57 years ago. Along with Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart produced this innocent fluff, in which a satiric exchange runs like this:

SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY (whinily): I need more money!

PRESIDENT: What happened to that money I gave you last week?

SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY: I spent it.

And this was a hit, mind you. A laugh riot. Good clean fun. The script is almost unbelievably sweet and corny viewed from the post-WWII, post-McCarthy, post-Kennedy assassination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-oh-hell-you-name-it vantage point of 1994. Putting on this mild satire with a bunch of present-day politicians was a brilliant idea on a lot of levels, some not so good and not so clean, but all of them fun.

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A Riff on Shakespeare; Arena's 'Play On!' Gives the Bard an Ellingtonian Beat

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Article date:
November 13, 2000
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"If music be the food of love, play on," Duke Orsino commands in "Twelfth Night"--and director Sheldon Epps has obeyed, splicing Shakespeare's story to another Duke--Ellington--to create the boisterous hybrid "Play On!," now rollicking at Arena Stage. Though Ellington is one of the greatest 20th-century composers, "Play On!" isn't exactly a case of the modern genius embracing the Renaissance one in joyous partnership.

Only the sketchiest elements of Shakespeare's plot remain in Cheryl L. West's adaptation. Shipwrecked Viola, marooned on the coast of Illyria, becomes songwriting country girl Vy (Alexandra Foucard), come to 1940s Harlem to be a star. Vy's uncle, Jester (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), knowing that songwriting is a man's occupation, dresses Vy as a boy to help her career along. Soon she is a go- between for the lovesick Duke (David Jennings), who has lost his creative spark, and his scornful muse, Cotton Club diva Lady Liv (Nikki Crawford). While Vy pines for Duke, Liv falls for Vy. Plus, in a swerve from the play, the Malvolio figure, Rev (Richard Allen)-- Liv's uptight manager--secretly loves his haughty employer.

The evening's disjointed feel doesn't come from West's jettisoning Shakespeare. The screwball comedy she's made out of "Twelfth Night" has real sweetness. But the charmingly cliched love story, with its simple misunderstandings simply resolved, has little connection with the brilliant, multihued complexity of Ellington's music. His emotional sophistication and the plot's deliberate naivete bounce along uncomfortably side by side, never quite working together.

Sometimes the music and the story actively fight each other. To humiliate the priggish Rev, the other members of Lady Liv's entourage- -Jester, Sweets (Wayne W. Pretlow) and Miss Mary (Julia Lema)--tell him the way to win Liv's love is to get hip. In a number set to "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," the three plotters attempt to teach Rev to jive. It's obvious from Allen's skilled comic awkwardness that he's a real dancer, and you can't wait for him to cut loose.

At last he does, in a snappy tour de force rendition of "I'm Beginning to See the Light." Absurd yet splendid in a sharp yellow suit, Allen leads the chorus in a razzle-dazzle choreographed wooing.

He's terrific--and yet Liv's response to this marvelous reborn man is embarrassment. What can the audience think but "What's the matter with her?" (She doesn't fall for him till he goes all dour and dull again.)

The choreography by Mercedes Ellington (the Duke's granddaughter) is spirited but unimaginative. She makes references to jitterbug without ever capturing its rude energy. And some of her ideas--such as having the dancers imitate the movements of a train in "Take the 'A' Train"--are just clunky.

Happily, the singers--from the sweet-toned Jennings to the exuberant Lema--are another story. Crawford, who enters rising up through the stage floor singing "Mood Indigo," has a voice that can literally give you chills. You know immediately why Duke thinks she can restore his art to him. Foucard, so funny and sexy in "Guys and Dolls," isn't really a match for this diva. Crammed into a pinstripe suit that makes her look scrawny, she's been directed to overplay Vy's gawkiness. And she never gets a song that would unleash her wit and spirit.

The most successful number in the show is the least elaborate, a duet sung by Jester and Sweets, "Rocks in My Bed." Bemoaning their bad luck in love, the two become steadily drunker, and Derrick- Carroll and Pretlow make the song a graceful pas de deux of comic inebriation. For a few moments the evening is simply about two wonderful performers giving Ellington their best, and "Play On!," stripped of fuss and feathers, is transcendent.

Play On!, conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps. Book, Cheryl L. West. Music, Duke Ellington. Arrangements and orchestrations, Luther Henderson; musical direction, J. Leonard Oxley; set, James Leonard Joy; costumes, Marianna Elliott; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, Susan R. White. With Vincent T. Bingham, Ronald Brooks, Wendee Lee Curtis, Randy Davis, Jennifer Edmonds, Dexter Jones, Toni M. Lombre, Allyson Tucker, Gary E. Vincent, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson, Gabrielle Goyette. At Arena Stage's Fichandler Theater through Jan. 7. Call 202- 488-3300.

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Actor Jason Robards, A Life Between the Lines

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Article date:
December 28, 2000
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Lloyd Rose
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Playing Ben Bradlee in the 1976 movie "All the President's Men," Jason Robards Jr. (who died Tuesday at the age of 78) was a poster boy for Journalism as the Good Life. Everyone remembers his swagger through the newsroom when The Post scored a point against the Nixon White House: The scene made some of his obituaries. There was a gleam in his eye that said, "Got the bastards!"

Who knows how many luckless young souls saw the movie and went into journalism, having watched that triumphant one-man procession and thought, "I want to be like that." Fuhgeddabout it. They hadn't a prayer of being Ben Bradlee. Or, for that matter, Jason Robards Jr., a mega-swaggerer in his own field, in whose dust many a lesser talent panted.

Robards won an Oscar for "President's Men" and another for "Julia" (he played Dashiell Hammett), and was nominated for his crafty, comic performance as Howard Hughes in "Melvin and Howard." He was always sound and often inspired. But his greatness was on the stage.

The Irish American Robards performed in Eugene O'Neill's plays like a blood brother to that moody genius: quixotic, haunted, drink- and guilt-ridden, with a hint of self-destructive violence and a swift and changeable charm. To the good fortune of lovers of acting, his starmaking 1956 performance as Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh" is preserved on videotape (though only in archives at present) and he re- created his Jamie Tyrone (based on O'Neill's elder brother) in the film version of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (others in the amazing cast: Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn, Dean Stockwell).

An actor with a complex presence is blessed, and Robards had this blessing. It was, as the saying goes, a day's work to look into his eyes. They were untrustworthy, those eyes. At their most limpid, they were shadowed with a coming deceit. At their most lost, they held a gleam of possible redemption.

Robards indulged his paradoxes. The artist sometimes became the slob. Elia Kazan, who directed him in Arthur Miller's "After the Fall," considered him out-and-out lazy. Certainly, three of the four times I saw him onstage--a New York revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," rotating in repertory with "Ah, Wilderness!," and a pre- Broadway Baltimore production of the slight "Park the Car in Harvard Yard," all in the '80s--he defined that old cliche "phoning in his performance."

But I also saw his Hickey in the 1984 revival of "The Iceman Cometh" (which played at the Kennedy Center). Robards's shifty camaraderie in the role, the aristocratic disdain under his hail- fellow-well-met mask, the abominable and pathetic neediness, were lacerating. When the briefly reformed Hickey preaches to his former pals about the straight and narrow, you could sense the actor's ironic use of his own very public bouts with alcoholism and recovery. He strip-mined his own humiliation and misery. That's the kind of thing people are talking about when they make those sometimes improbable-sounding claims about the courage of artists.

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a Broad Canvas

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Article date:
March 15, 1994
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Lloyd Rose
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"Iam an American painter!" Jonathan Waxman (Paul Morella) declares to an interviewer in "Sight Unseen." "The adjective is American - not Jewish." Well, yes and no. Donald Margulies' play, which opened Sunday at the Olney Theatre, takes as its ostensible subject the careerism of artists. But on a deeper and sometimes peculiar level, it's about assimilation and self-hatred.

Waxman has become an international sensation - and fabulously wealthy - doing paintings that express "the emptiness and emotional aridity of middle-class American life." Yet he's aware, as successful artists tend to be in these sorts of plays, of a certain hollowness inside himself.

On a visit in England to an exhibition of his works, he meets two women. The first is an old lover, who represents to him innocence abandoned. The second is a young German journalist, who asks him some sticky, unsettling questions about his career and his identity.

James A. Petosa has directed a strong, energetic cast. Morella plays Jonathan's charming shallowness extremely well. As the ex-lover, Brigid Cleary is all vulnerability and regret. Lee Mikeska Gardner is polite yet disturbing as the long-legged journalist. And Lawrence Redmond, cast against type as an inexpressive Englishman, is truculent, funny and touching.

For the movement back and forth in time and space - from Brooklyn to London to Scotland, from Jonathan's student days to the present - James Kronzer has designed another of his wonderful sets, a series of sliding frames that suggest the opening of a multilevel box, in the depths of which Jonathan's soul might be found.

Margulies' satire of the artist as ambitious jerk is nicely done, if overly familiar. His satire of the art world is a little thin: There are no rapacious dealers here, no feuding critics, no scheming museum directors - in short, none of the real dramatis personnae who play out the farce of the modern American art market. What we get is Jonathan spouting off defensively and the mention of magazine articles with titles such as "Jonathan Waxman: Charlatan or Genius?" Margulies is less a satirist than an old-fashioned moralist: He condemns Jonathan for having betrayed his past, a time when he was more "honest" about his art.

The exact nature of what Jonathan has betrayed is unclear, and this is where the play gets confusing. On the one hand, he has left his lover largely because she is not Jewish. "Maybe it {assimilation} just shouldn't be," he once said to her. The play implies that this was "wrong" on Jonathan's part. Yet when Jonathan claims he is an American rather than a Jewish artist, he's presented as trying to deny his roots.

When the German journalist implies that Jonathan's angst is a pose and then connects that pose to his Jewishness, he more or less calls her a Nazi and stomps out. But since Margulies sets up Jonathan as a bit of a fraud, she appears to have a point. By implication, "Sight Unseen" equates the Jewish sense of being on the edge of America's gentile society with the wealthy, successful Jonathan's hypocritical anger at the system that made him a star.

Though rather right-wing and judgmental, this is a political position that could be dramatized. It isn't here. Margulies disapproves of his hero - that's clear enough - but the playwright condemns Jonathan for too many reasons. At times the play suggests that the heart of Jonathan's "dangerous" art is nothing more than loathing for his own middle-class Jewish upbringing. What does this mean: If he'd only liked his family, he'd be a well-adjusted guy instead of a rich malcontent? That only bad art springs from self-hatred? (Nobody told Philip Roth.) That violent, unpleasant art is never more than a childish tantrum? Or simply that Margulies is a philistine who has turned a complex question about art, society and self-definition into a cloudily argued moral tract?

Sight Unseen, By Donald Margulies. Directed by James A. Petosa. Set, James Kronzer; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; sound, Daniel Scheivert. At the Olney Theatre through March 27.

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Theater; `The Wash': Delicate Cycle

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Article date:
March 17, 1994
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Graceful, subtle and moving, "The Wash" is a quiet winner. Philip Kan Gotanda's play, which opened Sunday night at the Studio Theatre, tells the story of a disintegrating marriage and tells it with such tact and indirection that it's much more powerful than an evening of Strindbergian fireworks. At times you almost wish someone on the stage would scream - but the tension is destined to remain silent, unspoken.

Masi (Nobu McCarthy) and her husband, Nobu (Alberto Isaac), are living separately, but she continues to come by once a week and gather a brown paper grocery bag of his dirty clothes, returning ones from the previous week washed and pressed. This simple household chore symbolizes her guilt and his dependency. His wife's defection is only the last of what Nobu considers a series of blows that he has endured since leaving the Japanese American internment camps of World War II. Among other things, his youngest daughter has married an African American, and his neighborhood is no longer mostly Japanese (though he protests, "I don't mind Mexicans").

In addition to his prejudices, Nobu is withdrawn, rather sullen and emotionally inaccessible. He's a very difficult character to feel sympathy for, and it's a measure of Isaac's skill that he makes the stubborn old fellow heartbreaking. His Nobu is very still much of the time, as if movement itself were pain. When he finally finds the will to try to reclaim what he has lost, he tries to jam years of communication into a few minutes and makes a fool of himself. Watching him, McCarthy's Masi has an extraordinary, chilling expression on her face - as he comes apart, her features go hostilely blank. There's no sympathy there anymore, just self-protection.

Masi has moved in with an easygoing fellow named Sadao (Ben Lin), who is perhaps over -assimilated: His conversation is innocently and incessantly laced with brand names and sound bites: "Braun," "Sanka," "low cholesterol." But he's a good-hearted man and truly loves Masi, who warms in his presence and even gets a little girlish and silly. Her two daughters (Elizabeth H. Piccio and Mishi Ko) don't quite know what to make of their liberated Ma. She's so un-Japanese - except, of course, for her courtesy and reserve, which ensure that she performs socially explosive acts without making any fuss about it.

Nobu eats supper daily at a local cafe, where the outgoing owner (Virginia Wing) attempts to befriend him. So do her cook, Curley (Keenan Shimizu), and her party-girl friend, Chiyo (Carol A. Honda), but he refuses to be drawn out. Something in him dooms him to be an isolate. It may have been his experience in the camps, but if so, why has his wife, whom he met there, been able to find life?

Russell Metheny has provided a stylized set full of subtle details, such as the way the aqua appliances in Nobu's home are all left over from the '50s. The cheery little cafe is downstage; the two separate living rooms float behind it, islands that will never touch. Director Joy Zinoman has drawn fine ensemble work from her cast, with truly remarkable performances from McCarthy and Isaac. Understated in their suffering, they bring us a rare chapter from the emotional life of adults.

The Wash, by Philip Kan Gotanda. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Lights, Stuart Duke; costumes, Helen Q. Huang. At the Studio Theatre through April 10.

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Shakespeare Takes 5 Hayes Awards; Little Interact Theatre Makes A Big Showing With `Penzance'

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Article date:
May 10, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The Shakespeare Theatre won five Helen Hayes Awards for local productions last night, as Washington once again turned out for its version of Broadway's Tony Awards. Top honors went to Shakespeare director Michael Kahn and actress Pat Carroll, both for "Mother Courage and Her Children." Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Actor in a Musical were awarded to tiny Interact Theatre for "The Pirates of Penzance" and its male lead, Steve Cramer. Outstanding Play was given to Arena's production of "Dancing at Lughnasa."

Carroll reprised her role as mistress of ceremonies - and mother superior - at the 10th annual award ceremony at the Warner Theatre. Singing a number from "Nunsense II" in basic black-and-white, she brought the crowd of more than 2,000 friends, patrons and practitioners of Washington theater up to date with her own career before launching what has grown into a grand, yet somehow cozy, reunion of Washington's dramatic class.

Out of her habit and into a sequined coat of many colors, she told the audience, "It is the theater that lights up our neighborhoods, our city and our lives - every night of the year."

Kahn thanked Washington audiences for his award. "The German ambassador said to me, `I didn't think this play was funny,' " Kahn said, "but you did, and so did I."

"Mother Courage" also garnered an Outstanding Supporting Actress award for Mary Vreeland, who played the mute, martyred daughter. Vreeland's signed remarks were interpreted for the hearing audience. "Actors who are deaf have always had their hands full of gifts to offer," she said. "Producers like Mr. Kahn dry our tears and let our dreams come true."

At 10 years old, the Helen Hayes Awards, established in the name ofthe Washington-born First Lady of the American Theater, who died last year at age 92, are evidentally all grown up. Last evening's show was elegant and streamlined, but the downside of maturity showed in its subdued and even stiff moments. Some of the staid acceptance speeches might have been more at home at a business convention. It took playwright Nicky Silver, who won the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play, to remind everyone that this was a recognition of theatrical excellence most of all.

Breathless, over the top, arms flapping, Silver stole the show. "I was so very moved by the opening slide montage tour of the District," he sarcastically gushed, dissing the show in the first of an escalating series of outrageous remarks.

"I wish to hell I had that kid's act," marveled Carroll after Silver whooshed off the stage.

Interact had been nominated for a whopping nine awards but took home only two. The remaining honors were distributed relatively evenly among the smaller theaters, with GALA's Hugo Medrano voted Outstanding Lead Actor for "Kiss of the Spider Woman"; Outstanding Actress in a Musical going to Lorraine Serabian for her performance in the Olney Theatre's "Show Me Where the Good Times Are"; and Studio Theatre winning Outstanding Costume Design for Reggie Ray's sumptuous, witty clothes for "Spunk."

The Shakespeare Theatre's other two awards went to Edward Gero for Outstanding Supporting Actor as the brooding Bolingbroke in "Richard II" and to Keith Thomas for Outstanding Sound Design for "Julius Caesar."

Three of the six new plays nominated were Woolly Mammoth productions, including Silver's comical-tragical-hysterical "Free Will and Wanton Lust."

In addition to being named Outstanding Resident Play, Arena's "Dancing at Lughnasa" won for Outstanding Set Design (to Linda Buchanan). Otherwise, it was one of those productions that mysteriously gain the top award without the director or any of the actors winning anything. What exactly, one wonders, are the elements that make a production "Outstanding"?

"3 Hotels" and "The Kentucky Cycle," both presented at the Kennedy Center, monopolized the awards for non-resident productions, with "3 Hotels" named Outstanding Play and Stacy Keach named Outstanding Actor for his multiple roles in "The Kentucky Cycle."

"Finally!" exalted Keach. "I was really beginning to think Helen {Hayes} didn't like me," said the much-nominated actor. "Then someone reminded me that Helen didn't even know me."

Past winners who didn't make a showing this year include Round House Theatre, which had three nominations; Source, which also had three; and Signature Theatre, Stephen Sondheim's local base, which had five. Altogether there were 105 nominations in 20 categories, with 20 awards. According to Elizabeth Brown, executive director of the Washington Theatre Awards Society, which produces the Helen Hayes Awards, Washington is now home to 44 professional theaters.

Talking about the longevity of the awards, Brown quipped, "Someone stopped me in the hall and said if we could run this show for 15 more performances, we'd be eligible for a Helen Hayes Award."

The American Express Tribute, which honors those who have made "profound and lasting contributions to the performing arts," went to National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Alexander.

Alexander, lovely in white lace and red ribbon, chuckled and nudged her husband throughout the graceful montage of childhood, yearbook and Playbill photos documenting her long career, much of which took place on Washington stages. She then used the podium to humorously settle an old score.

"I'd also like to thank Dick Coe - who for many years was theater critic for The Washington Post - for knocking nearly every performance I appeared in," she said. "Actually, Dick and I are friends, and he's much kinder to me lately. I think my work got better."

The end of the stately three-hour program was enlived by the inspired teaming of Eli Wallach and Mercedes Ruehl. Behind the lectern, Wallach gazed up at Ruehl, who towered over him. "I once was in a picture with Audrey Hepburn and the script required me to kiss her," Wallach said. "And she said, `Eli, I'll take my shoes off for you.' And I fell in love with her forever." With that, Ruehl slipped off her pumps and graced Wallach with a long smooch.

The show was followed, as always, by "the world's largest cast party," at the J.W. Marriott's Grand Ballroom.

The winners of the Helen Hayes Awards:

RESIDENT PRODUCTIONS

OUTSTANDING PLAY: "Dancing at Lughnasa," by Brian Friel

OUTSTANDING MUSICAL: "The Pirates of Penzance," by William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan

CHARLES MacARTHUR AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING NEW PLAY: "Free Will and Wanton Lust," by Nicky Silver

OUTSTANDING DIRECTOR, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Michael Kahn, "Mother Courage and Her Children"

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS, PLAY: Pat Carroll, "Mother Courage and Her Children"

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR, PLAY: Hugo Medrano, "El Beso de la Mujer Arana" ("Kiss of the Spider Woman")

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS, PLAY: Mary Vreeland, "Mother Courage and Her Children"

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR, PLAY: Edward Gero, "Richard II"

OUTSTANDING ACTRESS, MUSICAL: Lorraine Serabian, "Show Me Where the Good Times Are"

OUTSTANDING ACTOR, MUSICAL: Steve Cramer, "The Pirates of Penzance"

OUTSTANDING SET DESIGN, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Linda Buchanan, "Dancing at Lughnasa"

OUTSTANDING LIGHTING DESIGN, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Deirdre Kelly Lavrakas and Kim Peter Kovac, "El Beso de la Mujer Arana" ("Kiss of the Spider Woman")

OUTSTANDING COSTUME DESIGN, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Reggie Ray, "Spunk"

OUTSTANDING SOUND DESIGN, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Keith Thomas, "Julius Caesar"

OUTSTANDING CHOREOGRAPHY, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Mike Malone, "Spunk"

NON-RESIDENT PRODUCTIONS

OUTSTANDING PLAY OR MUSICAL: "3 Hotels," by Jon Robin Baitz

OUTSTANDING DIRECTOR, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Joe Mantello, "3 Hotels"

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Debra Monk, "3 Hotels"

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Stacy Keach, "The Kentucky Cycle"

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING PERFORMER, PLAY OR MUSICAL: Jacob "Tuck" Milligan, "The Kentucky Cycle"

AMERICAN EXPRESS TRIBUTE: Jane Alexander

KPMG PEAT MARWICK AWARD FOR DISTINGUISHED SERVICE TO THE WASHINGTON PROFESSIONAL THEATER: Lawrence A. Hough, president and CEO, Sallie Mae

THE WASHINGTON POST AWARD FOR DISTINGUISHED COMMUNITY SERVICE: Edward M. Felegy, superintendent of schools, Prince George's County

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Appreciation; For Nancy Marchand, a Final, Thunderous Round of Applause

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Article date:
June 21, 2000
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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She went out with a snarl.

As Mafia matriarch Livia Soprano, Nancy Marchand--hitherto best known as Mrs. Pynchon, the elegant newspaper owner on "Lou Grant"-- struck terror into her murderous son Tony and a mixture of fear and delight into the audience. What a grand unsympathetic monster she was!

Marchand, who died Sunday at the age of 71, achieved late-life fame with her performance as the unapologetically vicious Livia. In one of our last glimpses of her, this awful woman was laughing at Tony, who had tripped on the front steps and fallen flat on the sidewalk, gun sliding out of his shoulder holster, while running away from her. We've seen this guy strangle an informer up close and personal--and he's scared of his mother! But really, who can blame him? Marchand played the role with ruthless spiritual ugliness, turning the traditional weak womanly arsenal of complaint and long suffering into lethal weapons. Her son merely shot and throttled people; she eroded them, slowly, with the acid of her hatred and contempt.

Evil mothers are nothing new in American art and entertainment-- one might even say they're a theme--but generally their repulsiveness comes partly from their weakness. They trade hatefully on the fact that their victims are too decent to strike back: If Norman Bates had only smacked the old lady one, Marion Crane might be alive and clean today. Livia was another matter. She practically dared her children to challenge her. Her whine was not merely irritating, it was frightening, because you sensed that if anyone objected to the whining she was ready to follow it up with something worse. And you really didn't want to try to imagine what that would be.

An actor's art often expands and deepens as he or she ages out of the prison of good looks (Burt Lancaster is a good male example). As a young woman Marchand played a plain working-class girl in the original television "Marty." In middle age she was generally cast as the perfect WASP. In A.R. Gurney's play "The Cocktail Hour," she crossed her slender patrician ankles and put down her children with a murmured "Don't be unattractive." She was also rigidly upper class in Gurney's "Love Letters," Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," Shaw's "Man and Superman" and, on film, in the recent movie "Sabrina" (she was Harrison Ford's aristocratic mother), playing characters used to repressing what feelings they had. She could do a lot with a little. Who knew that in old age she'd also be able to do a lot with a lot-- to screech like a high, ill wind and hate without hiding it?

There were hints of the hurricane within. She'd played the control- freak nun who loses it in front of her class in Christopher Durang's naughty '80s stage hit "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You." What a descent that must have been, as that primmest and most mannerly of exteriors dissolved to reveal a shrieking maniac. That same decade she played husband-slaughtering, daughter-abusing Klytemnestra in Ezra Pound's adaptation of "Elektra," another foreshadowing. But no one could have predicted she'd have the actor's luck to find the perfect role in which to unleash her perfect storm.

As another Livia in the '70s BBC series "I, Claudius," Sian Phillips was amoral and deadly, but even in old-age makeup Phillips was a beauty, just another in a gallery of bad girls whose sexy villainy men find a turn-on. Brave and ferocious, Marchand unflinchingly gave the camera her cancer-ravaged, collapsing-toward- death face. If you ever wondered what the mythical Furies, who pursued and tormented the guilty, or the Harpies, who bespoiled men's food, looked like, here was the answer. Marchand's foul and mythic Livia was the Hag triumphant.

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Shepard's 'Fool for Love': a Hit Where It Hurts

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Article date:
July 6, 2000
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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In the unlikely space of a tiny black-box theater in an Arlington high school, the Keegan Theatre is putting on a "Fool for Love" that's pure celebration of playwright Sam Shepard's bumptious theatricality. An argument can be made that audiences should always see Shepard like this: up close and closed in, trapped in a small space with an explosive play.

For financial reasons, this almost never happens, so the Keegan production is something of a gift. It lets you go back in time and sense how Shepard must have struck audiences before he was a star, when he was basically still a small-theater treasure, unself- consciously exuberant and gifted.

"Fool for Love" is the emblematic dingy-motel-room play, a genre much exploited by contemporary playwrights. Set designer George Lucas's motel room is so run-down that you find yourself scanning its corners for roaches. The Venetian blinds are dirty and broken, the walls are stained from who knows how many drunken parties and fights, and at some point there seems to have existed a tacky bullfighting mural that has been inadequately painted over.

May (Amy McWilliams) has ended up here after being deserted for the umpteenth time by her lover, Eddie (Mark A. Rhea). As the play begins, the fool has just made the mistake of trying to come back to her.

Passionate, doomed lovers, May and Eddie fight like angry dogs. There's a lot of bouncing off the walls, the sort of thing that looks stagy in a large theater but can make you jump in a small one.

With choreographer Peggy McGrath, director Eric Lucas has staged some of the most convincing violent action I've ever seen onstage. Nothing seems set up or awkward, and the antagonists actually fight in character. They're acting, not performing acrobatics.

Into this volatile situation comes May's date for the evening, Martin (Todd S. Baldwin). Shepard twists our expectations by making Martin gentle and curious, more interested in understanding these strange lovers than in establishing his own turf.

He and Eddie find an odd comradeship in their shared affection for the troubled May. Meantime, out in the parking lot, a woman Eddie has run out on may or may not be lurking in her Mercedes ready to take revenge.

Amy McWilliams's emotionally raw performance as May generates the evening's major excitement. This isn't one of those cases of an actress straining to act tough--McWilliams is tough, with a strong, wiry, sexy body and dangerous reserves of tenderness and treachery. You believe her May could get under a man's skin and fester there, that months after he'd run from her he'd wake up at 4 in the morning unable to get her off his mind.

Mark Rhea's Eddie is a little overwhelmed by McWilliams in their initial scenes, but he comes into his own with Baldwin's Martin. Martin's slightly obtuse gentleness first brings out Eddie's contempt, then gradually his grudging respect and finally his pain. Baldwin plays a role that is essentially just a foil with integrity and charm.

The fourth character in the play is a vision or a ghost or a hallucination--it's not clear which. Whichever, the Old Man (David Cleverly) haunts Eddie and, to a lesser extent, May. Like most symbolic characters, he suffers from having no reason to be in the play except that the playwright wanted him there, but he's colorful, and Cleverly brings gusto to the role.

The overamplified noise of the slamming doors and blows against the wall are a bit much (they reverberate like thunder), but in general Lucas has focused the play's emotions so precisely that its absurdities pass unnoticed.

With its emphasis on doom and secrets, "Fool for Love" is rather literary--not only a play on Sartre's famous Hell-is-other-people "No Exit" but a weird reworking of "The Glass Menagerie."

It's stylized artifice, but Lucas and the actors make it all seem completely natural, even inevitable, and so release the script's spooky power.

Fool for Love, by Sam Shepard. Directed by Eric Lucas. Lights, Dan Martin; sound, Tony Angelini; costumes, Peggy McGrath. At the H-B Woodlawn Black Box, 4100 Vacation Lane, Arlington, through July 29. Call 703-757-1180.

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Theater; Sondheim's `Passion': Full-Scale Emotions

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Article date:
May 10, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Disturbing, musically brilliant and astonishingly adult, "Passion," the latest collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is ultimately unsatisfying. But "Passion," which opened last night at the Plymouth Theater, ventures into areas of emotional complexity that the American theater, let alone musical comedy, usually shuns to the point of panicky denial.

Based on the 1981 film "Passione d'Amore" by Ettore Scola and the 1869 novel "Fosca" by Igino Tarchetti, "Passion" tells the story of Giorgio (Jere Shea), a young officer in 1860s Italy who finds himself first revolted, then seduced by the clinging love of a homely, sickly young woman named Fosca (Donna Murphy).

Giorgio is already blissfully in love with ripe young matron Clara (Marin Mazzie), with whom he started a clandestine affair in Milan before being billeted to a remote military base in the arid mountains. Fosca is the sister of Giorgio's commanding officer, Col. Ricci (Gregg Edelman), who has assumed responsibility for her since their parents' deaths.

The only woman in this isolated male community, Fosca is hysterically "feminine": sickly, moody, sensitive, given to fainting fits when she isn't lying weakly on her bed. She's a joke to the officers at the base, who are as blandly, coarsely male as she is neurotically female. Giorgio is a more thoughtful type of man than she is used to meeting, and as he is handsome besides, Fosca soon falls in love with him. She proceeds to pursue him with a tenacity that is both frightening and repellent. Her shamelessness and raw need are embarrassing to Giorgio and the audience alike.

The woman who becomes not merely a fool but a psychotic for love isn't an unfamiliar subject. The pulp version is the Glenn Close character in the film "Fatal Attraction." A more complicated - and arguably scarier - portrait of the type is Isabelle Adjani's Adele Hugo in Truffaut's "The Story of Adele H." Adele was also a woman of the l9th century, and she also threw herself at an officer. Fans of the film may remember that her obsession with him becomes so complete that he is finally unnecessary - in the movie's final moments, Adele passes this man she adores in the street and doesn't recognize him.

Fosca, however, ends up neither dead in a bathtub nor wandering the streets mad, but in the arms of her chosen object of desire. For ultimately, Giorgio is so impressed by the immensity of this love he had earlier described as "implacable as stone" and "like a knife" that he comes to love her in return. His sunny sensual happiness with Clara appears to him as "Just another love story/ A temporary love story," while Fosca offers him "Love without reason, love without mercy, love without pride or shame."

This is a very romantic view of love, one with which modern audiences are likely to have a hard time. In the late 20th century, the all-for-love Fosca seems more like a clinical case than a heroine. The story might make sense as an examination of the perversity and self-destruction of love if we understood what egotism or weakness in Giorgio responded to Fosca, if it were clear that when he talks about feeling a "duty" to her he is fooling himself, that the willing, robust Clara is in fact a little too much for him.

But the Giorgio of Sondheim's songs and Lapine's book has no dark side. He's a decent young fellow whose basic innocence leads him into the web of Fosca's obsession, where he discovers he has been naive, that this consuming hunger is the "real" love. His conversion is made particularly unconvincing by the fact that he has no song to dramatize it. He undergoes the change of heart while Fosca sings to him of how she would die for his sake - that is, he has to have his big dramatic moment while the audience's attention is focused on her.

The ending is awfully sentimental - even in "The Little Mermaid," that classic fairy tale of masochism, the suffering mermaid who gave her very being for love is passed over by the prince. Yet Fosca wins, "true" love triumphs, Giorgio learns his lesson, and - almost unheard of for Sondheim - the music swells sweetly and happily when the two finally bed down.

In general, however, the score is rigorous and rich. Sondheim's themes speak back and forth throughout "Passion" - what expresses happiness in one context is a motif of sorrow in another. A mere shift of a few notes, or a change in orchestration, turns innocence into guilt, joy into disappointment, hope into loathing. I'm not sure that Sondheim has done so dazzlingly much with so deliberately few elements in any other score.

Lapine, who also directed, has worked with designer Santo Loquasto to stunning effect. Clara, in her cunning little hats and ruffled skirts, is all frills and femininity, while Fosca mostly wears drab, severe green. The show opens with Giorgio and Clara in bed, and Mazzie's bare skin appears to glow with health. She's like a Renoir nude, while the pinched Fosca is like a hag by Munch. The backdrop to the army camp looks like something Monet might have painted if he had used desert colors. In one scene, a staircase rises across this backdrop and out of sight: As Clara and Giorgio sing downstage of their love, the dark figure of Fosca creeps like an insect down those stairs and into their lives.

The cast members all have excellent voices, but only Mazzie really suits her role. Shea is a bit of a lunk as Giorgio (a difficult role in any case). And though Murphy gives a strong performance, she is perhaps miscast. As Fosca she is solid and depressed, rather like a widow, and there is no sensuality in her emotional abandon - she doesn't project that hideous combination of danger and seductiveness that craziness can sometimes assume and, for "Passion" to work, craziness almost has to assume. But this is only the first production of a fascinating piece that will undoubtedly see many, many interpretations in the years to come.

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Fresh Chestnuts; How Directors Update Plays For the '90s

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Article date:
August 7, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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When the new, highly touted British production of "Carousel" made its debut in New York lastyear, director Nicholas Hytner's nontraditional casting of the female second lead with an African American actress (Audra Ann McDonald) caused some stir: The strongest criticism was that unaffectedly placing a black character in the New England milltown where the musical is set makes America's past race relations look ludicrously sunny.

Opening up traditionally white roles to nonwhite actors is only one of the ways contemporary directors attempt to make period material more accessible to a modern audience. Sometimes - as for example, with productions of "The Taming of the Shrew" - the purpose is to make a play palatable to present-day sensibilities. But often the challenge is to take a script that seems stylistically outmoded - stuck in its time - and recreate it in a new idiom. Currently playing in New York are three examples of a director's having to fit a play corseted by its times into a smart new outfit, one that won't draw snickers or stares from the '90s theatergoer.

"Carousel," at Lincoln Center, is a '40s American musical reconceived by English director Hytner into an anti-capitalist working-class fable; "Damn Yankees," at the Marquis, is a '50s American musical transformed by American director Jack O'Brien from a sweet, smart entertainment with old jokes to a sweet, smart entertainment with new jokes, some of them about itself; and at the Royale, "An Inspector Calls," a '40s English play generally regarded as a chestnut, has been reshaped by English director Stephen Daldry into an apocalyptic vision of the end of the capitalist ruling class.

`Carousel' in the Real World

When at the beginning of "Carousel," Hytner and his set designer Bob Crowley place the mill girls at work at their machines under a gigantic clock that looms over the workplace like a baleful moon, they're letting us know that this isn't some escapist fantasy; this is a "Carousel" set in the real, capitalist world. "Liliom," the Molnar play upon which "Carousel" is based, is hardly an escapist fantasy, but it's not an examination of the lives of the working class either. That slant is Hytner's - possibly only an Englishman, from a society with a well-defined working-class tradition, could have brought such a point of view to a piece by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

"Liliom," which tells the story of the unhappy marriage between a carnival barker and a working girl, is set in the very urban Budapest. R&H moved the story to a coastal town in New England that, at least in economic terms, doesn't make a lot of sense. Not only is there fishing, there is also whaling - and somehow, along with both of these seaside professions, there is also a mill, even though mills need rushing or tumbling water to power them. This slightly comical mix of industries doesn't matter much in the musical's original fabled world, but it becomes more noticeable when Hytner tries to emphasize the hard lives of the workers, for whom the fair is a magical release from their daily drudgery.

The death of barker Billy Bigelow takes place in the grandest alley imaginable, a place of grim towering walls and bleak windows lit from deep within. Fog swirls eerily through this alley as Billy lies dying of a stab wound. Upstage, at the alley's mouth, the townspeople watching him seem far, far away. The effect is like something out of an opera about the crisis of the Industrial Revolution. The implication is that Billy's death is in part caused by the society in which he labors. Unfortunately for Hytner and the audience, this isn't borne out by the script, which is just about to deliver not a Brechtian song of political criticism but the syrupy, uplifting "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Something goes similarly out of whack with Hytner's treatment of the musical's second couple, the Snows. As written, they represent the good marriage that contrasts with Julie and Billy's doomed relationship. But because Mr. Snow actually has the temerity to make something of himself, Hytner mocks him as a smug bourgeois who turns Carrie into a nattering snob. At this point, his casting of McDonald as Carrie does seem kind of nuts: I can't imagine an American director directing a theater piece about class conflict and sticking the thankless role of the spoiled middle-class female dolt onto a black woman. It's historical lunacy.

`Damn Yankees': The Devil as Eddie Haskell

Cross-cultural tone-deafness is not a problem when you have an American working on American material. "Damn Yankees," which was first on Broadway in 1956, isn't a great musical, but it's awfully likable. With its white-bread hero and idealization of baseball, it's also very much of the '50s. The problem for director O'Brien was to stylize and distance that too-familiar period without condescending to it.

O'Brien's updating of the script is smart - he takes the original's joking attitude and turns it on targets we now associate with the '50s. Most of the new one-liners belong to the Devil, a k a Applegate (a name that has even more apt connotations now than it did 38 years ago). Played with lighthearted, light-footed hamminess by Victor Garber, this Applegate is likely to explain his lateness to a summons by claiming, "I was designing an Edsel." Lounging in his office in the basement of the Senate Office Building, he sighs, "You try having lunch every day with Joe McCarthy." Among the great damned lovers of history whom he points out to his employee, the temptress Lola (Bebe Neuwirth), are J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson.

Garber's performance was faulted by some critics, and it's true he doesn't come across as strongly as his work in the past has suggested he could. He slips though the production like quicksilver, delightful and swift but a little elusive, and certainly without any weight of evil. Yet in a sense this fits. Neither mean nor tantrummy, just snide, he's the perfect '50s devil: Really, he's Eddie Haskell.

O'Brien's set and costume designers, Douglas W. Schmidt and David C. Woolard, work with the idea of '50s style as populuxe, emphasizing color and "late Deco" shapes. In the opening number - the wives' sports-widow lament "Six Months Out of Every Year" - the boxy armchairs come in chartreuse, pink, aqua, lilac. The bit of house exterior we see boasts aluminum siding and Perma-Stone. The men wear cardigans, and the women white-collared, floral-printed, full-skirted dresses with cute aprons and high heels. It's all a visual joke, but a colorful, pretty one - a sweet joke, almost a sad one. The most dated thing about "Damn Yankees" is its innocent good-heartedness.

`An Inspector Calls': After the Apocalypse

The most dated thing about "An Inspector Calls" is its clunkiness. J.B. Priestly's 1941 potboiler - set in 1912 as World War I loomed - concerns a mysterious police inspector who comes a-calling on the ultra-rich, ultra-guilty Birling family and demonstrates that they are all implicated in the suicide of a working girl. Priestly was a socialist writing during an anti-Fascist war; though his social criticism is heartfelt, it's also wooden and not very sophisticated. The play has remained in production over the decades largely because the part of the inspector offers opportunities for a great eccentric actor (Ralph Richardson originated the role).

With much brio and visual beauty, director Daldry has taken this very traditional play and set it in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Ian MacNeil's extraordinary set puts the Birling mansion above the desolate streets as if it were a floating doll's house. Way upstage, seemingly miles away, is another isolated house. The street looks bombed out, with a wrecked phone booth and violently broken pavement. Misty curtains of rain trail across the set. An urchin and an old servant shiver damply in the street, while up in their warm, well-lit toy box of a house the Birlings are having a dinner to celebrate their daughter's engagement.

In short, Daldry has solved the problems of period by taking "An Inspector Calls" out of period altogether. The surreal urban apocalypse of the set is at once the bombed-out city of London in 1940, the urban wastelands of today, and a metaphor for the collapse of capitalism. The audience is meant to find itself Everywhere. Unfortunately, the play is somewhere: not 1912 London but a Theatrical Land of smartly timed entrances and exits, long expository speeches and third-act revelations. Daldry and MacNeil's sky may threaten God's own wrath, but when the characters open their mouths, homilies fall out: "It's better to ask for the earth than to take it" and "We are all one family." Daldry hasn't reimagined the play, he's trampled it beneath his own "inspiration." You get the feeling that the actual text is a bit of a nuisance to him, that in an ideal world it would just wither away and leave him alone with his genius.

Whatever you think of the results, it's almost impossible not to admire these directors' attack: their boldness, their willingness to rethink the traditional, their sheer pleasure in theatrically dragging their shows - sometimes kicking and screaming - into the last decade of the 20th century. The life in their work may be arrogant, but it's still artistic life. The truly dispiriting thing is that directors have little choice but to reshape old material for our times - material that comes out of our times is sparse.

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Getting to the Heart of `Desire'; Is New Staging Closer to William's Vision?

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
April 26, 1992
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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When I was in New Orleans last autumn, I saw a bus named Desire. It was heading along on what I presume was the old streetcar route, the word DESIRE spelled out in electronic lettering above the windshield. You can still see the original Desire streetcar, minus its sign, sitting on blocks at the edge of the French Quarter, a rundown tourist attraction without even a placard to tell you what it is. But if you want to get to Stanley and Stella Kowalski's old neighborhood, where sister Blanche Dubois arrived that steamy summer evening 45 years ago, you take the bus.

The new Broadway production of Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," directed by Greg Mosher and starring Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin as Blanche and Stanley, has gotten the kinds of reviews that make you think every critic saw a different play. There has been praise for Baldwin, for rediscovering the humanity in the part, and criticism of him as totally inadequate. Lange has been raked over for her too stolid performance, and also admired for her intelligence and courage. Mosher has been equally praised and vilified.

What's going on here? Putting aside as an explanation the commonly held opinion that all critics are blind, deaf and dumb and don't know what they're talking about, it seems to me that what we have is the inevitable reaction to a new staging of an American classic. Theatergoers feel that "Streetcar" belongs to them, through the film with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh if from no other source. They feel that they know the play, its story and characters, its meaning, and that, therefore, there is a way not just to do "Streetcar" badly but to do it wrong. And critics are first of all theatergoers.

Elia Kazan directed both the film and the play's Broadway premiere, and his has become the interpretation against which subsequent productions have been measured. During rehearsals, he worked very closely with Williams; his ideas and the playwright's are as intertwined as a briar and a rose. In this "template" "Streetcar," the fragile Blanche comes to stay with her sister, Stella, and Stella's brutish husband, Stanley Kowalski, in a rundown section of New Orleans. Blanche is distressed by Stella's having come down in the world (the girls were raised on Belle Rive, a plantation), and she puts on ladylike airs, acting the part of a delicate flower though in fact she has been run out of town for seducing a 17-year-old boy. She's already half crazy, and is no match for Stanley, who sees through her and ruins her romance with his friend Mitch. In the end, Stanley rapes her - an act that Kazan underscored in the film with a shot of a breaking mirror. "I don't want realism," poor Blanche has cried, "I want magic!" And she has begged Stella, "Don't, don't hang back with the beasts!" But the beasts and realism carry the day.

Mosher's "Streetcar," while absolutely true to the text, tells quite a different story. I had the most positive response to it of anyone I've read or talked to. Part of the reason, I've had to conclude, is that I went in my civilian guise, and rather than being ushered to the seat from which the producers think the show looks best, I got put in the fourth row. From there, Lange's vocal problems, apparent in the back of the house, weren't noticeable, and her lack of the kind of technique you need to reach the balcony didn't matter. I thought she was stunning - weary and sensual, with a beaten-down strength. Blanche is traditionally played as a sort of cousin to Laura in Williams's "Glass Menagerie" - someone as delicate as spun glass, achingly breakable. In these interpretations, Blanche is mad when she enters, barely clinging to sanity, and Stanley's brutality violates and destroys what is left of her.

If this is what you want from Blanche, Lange is plain wrong. She's too solid and earthy, not neurasthenic enough. At the play's beginning, her Blanche is less mad than deeply weary, tired to the bone, tired to death. She's a prisoner of her sexual appetites, driven by them to behavior at odds with the Southern lady she is supposed to be, and she comes to her Stella as a battered sexual warrior looking for a place to heal. Her Blanche isn't a victim but a survivor who fails to pull off her last trick - a woman who, under other circumstances, might have been a match for Stanley, rather than a china figurine that the anvil of his masculinity falls on.

I've never been able to watch "Streetcar" - or listen to it, on record - without cringing a little at its masochism. Blanche is so clearly doomed from the start - you wince watching her put on airs because it's so clear she has nothing to back them up with. For my part, I've always found that Blanche begins to get on my nerves; I grow impatient with her inability to understand the situation she's in, the stupidity of the way she flaunts her pretensions in front of Stanley. She senses he's her enemy - why doesn't she behave more carefully around him? It's one thing to sympathize with Blanche's suffering and pain, and another to accept her acting like a not-very-bright spoiled brat. Almost any time you see the movie in a theater, the crowd has this reaction too - they start out on Stanley's side and pretty much stay there. And though this works with Brando and Leigh, very powerfully, it isn't at all what Williams had in mind, as Brenda Murphy documents in her new book, "Tennessee Williams & Elia Kazan: A Collaboration in the Theatre" (Cambridge University Press).

"Blanche must finally have the understanding and compassion of the audience," Williams wrote to Kazan. "This without creating a black-dyed villain in Stanley. It is a thing (Misunderstanding) not a person (Stanley) that destroys her. In the end you should feel - `If only they had all known about each other.' " Kazan too felt that the audience should end up on Blanche's side, and he watched with growing disturbance as audience after audience rallied to Stanley. Yet how could they not? In the first place, you had Brando in the role. And in the second, you had a gutter guy bringing down a snob, a surefire success with Americans, who like to think of themselves as an egalitarian people. The snooty and hypocritical Blanche drew to herself some of the automatic antipathy that flows to beribboned toy poodles.

As written, Williams's Blanche has a promiscuous sexual history, holding unofficial open house for young men from the nearby army camp, as well as seducing that 17-year-old boy. In the play, we see her come on suggestively to an adolescent newsboy. Kazan, presumably with a straight face, maintained that Blanche's sexuality was merely an attempt to find someone to "protect" her. The hearteningly honest thing about Lange's Blanche is that her sexuality is about sex - this is a woman driven by the need for physical pleasure trying to make her way through a world in which this sort of rampant female sexual activity is condemned. Autobiographically, this characterization probably strikes a lot nearer to Williams's social and sexual experience as a homosexual; and it certainly makes more human sense than the too-sensitive-to-live, refined Blanche who just happens to have this little problem of immense sexual appetite.

In spite of the feminist movement of the last 20 years, American society in general is still squeamish about female sexuality as a force (the female as sexual object is fine). Yet from her provocative Cora in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" to her full-blooded portrayal of Patsy Cline in "Sweet Dreams," Lange has always brought her fleshly reality into the center of her roles. In the original production of "Streetcar," Kazan cut lines such as Blanche's remark that maybe Stanley is "what we need to mix with our blood now that we've lost Belle Rive." Mosher put this line, and several other earthy ones, back. His and Lange's Blanche recognizes that Stanley will destroy her not simply because he knows she's a phony, but because he knows in his senses exactly the way in which she is most real.

Lange's sexual strength makes Baldwin's regular-guy interpretation of Stanley possible. In Kazan's analysis of Stanley, "Sex equals sadism." Neither Mosher nor Baldwin appears to find this notion of the least interest. Baldwin plays Stanley with the kind of simplicity only an actor of skill can muster (lesser talents show off their difficult emotional choices and how hard they're working). This Stanley isn't a brute, he's a working-class man whose household is invaded by a difficult in-law who he comes to believe has cheated him and his wife out of an inheritance. Baldwin plays Stanley as willing to try to deal with the situation; in the end he deals with Blanche in the only way both of them understand. When he sweeps her to the bed, she puts her arms around his neck. They really have had this date right from the beginning.

The bracing thing for me about this demythologized "Streetcar" is how the script not only survives but seems newly fulfilled. One of the definitions of a classic is that there isn't just one way to do it - that artistically it's capacious enough to absorb the new ideas it inspires. As a primal destructive-male/defeated-female myth, Mosher's "Streetcar" doesn't play. As a battle of the sexes in which the wounded, suffering Blanche nonetheless brings some strength and will to her fight with Stanley, it plays with a new kind of grim truth. Ultimately, what Mosher and Lange and Baldwin have done is show that there's more than one way to travel to Desire - and in the process shown anew how great Williams's drama really is.

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Theater; `White Money': Stale Bread

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
April 21, 1992
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The Source Theatre is one of the liveliest producing groups in town; you never know what it's going to give you next. With so much going on, it's bound every now and then to pick a dud, which, I'm afraid, is the only word for Julie Jensen's "White Money," which opened Saturday night.

Jensen is the author of "Stray Dogs," a kitchen-sink drama that was a small hit at Arena several years ago. In the interim, she's given up realism for a very sloppy, self-congratulatory absurdism. The satirical target of "White Money" is television - a subject shot so full of holes there's nothing left but shreds anyway. Jensen is just the most recent in a long line to figure out that it's bad for our brains.

Her heroine, Ella, lives in a trailer in Windover, Nev., with a slob of a truck-driver husband named Snakes. Snakes follows the same routine every time he comes home: He takes off his hat, takes off his shirt, puts his hat back on, gets a beer, drinks, burps, turns on the TV, removes his shoes, watches TV. The audience knows this is his routine because Jensen repeats it about four times, by which point it feels like about 40, and it wasn't funny or insightful to begin with. Throughout "White Money," the middle-class audience is invited to laugh at the grossness or vulgarity of the working-class characters - except for Ella, whom we're supposed to side with for some reason, though she's mostly just smug and self-satisfied.

Snakes has an ex-wife named Nervene, and when she enters you may perk up and hope something is going to happen. No. Nervene is just going to enter several times. And watch TV. Snakes's favorite TV star is a wrestler named "Killer Bovine," and Nervene adores a preacher who has a name that sounds like Winterose. In Act 2, after Nervene and Snakes have just sort of passed out of the play, Bovine puts in an appearance. By this time, Ella has left Windover, but she ends up trapped in a Motel 3 with Bovine and his wife, Seattle, who seem to do something weirdly sexual to or around her, before she ends up an exploited TV star herself.

If your favorite conspiracy theory is that professional wrestlers are going to take over America (or have already), this play is for you. Television brings out a lot of snobbery in people, as does American vulgarity in general - there are those who just feel too intelligent and refined for it. Well, I've seen funnier, meaner and more politically penetrating things than this play on TV, and things written with more discipline too.

As Nervene, Cam Magee is comic, tough and sexy, and she also has a couple of moments as Bovine's wrestler wife, Seattle. Everyone else acts in a twitchy, cutesy style that could be called shtick if there were any substance to it. The wheel of the play runs in the same rut over and over all evening; the whole production is an illustration of how dull the self-styled outrageous can be.

White Money, by Julie Jensen. Directed by Randye Hoeflich. Set, Michael Stepowany; lights, Ayun Fedorcha; costumes, Theresa Chevine; sound, Neil McFadden. With Signe Allen, Bill Delaney, Cam Magee and Pat Murphy Sheehy. At the Source Theatre through May 9.

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The Dark Side of Ireland

Article from:
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Article date:
December 19, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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There's no hatred like self-hatred. In his first produced play, the 1922 "The Shadow of a Gunman," Sean O'Casey slashed at his fellow Irish, artistic pretension, religion, politics and human nature in general. His story of a young poet who, to impress a woman, allows himself to be mistaken for an IRA gunman on the run has, despite its awkwardnesses, a snarling bite. If the O'Casey Theater Company doesn't bring out all the chill judgment of the play, which opened Tuesday in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, it still offers a strong and interesting production.

The last of 13 children, O'Casey spent most of the first 40 years of his life working as a stock boy, a railroad laborer or in other lowly jobs. And no writer is less sentimental about the poor. The garrulous residents of the rundown boardinghouse (blankets on the beds, but no sheets) of "Shadow" may seem charming at first, but before the evening's over they've all revealed their heartless selfishness. O'Casey's is a world without charity from either God or man.

O'Casey's hero, Donal Davoren, is bunking on a mattress on the floor in the room of another lodger, the odds-and-ends salesman Seumas Shields. Davoren worships the poet Shelley and is working on a long poem himself (how he makes a living is unclear). He doesn't get much done, though, as people keep popping in and out to interrupt him, mostly because of the rumor that he's an IRA assassin in hiding. Davoren at first indulges this error because it's too much trouble to dispel it; when he meets the fiery Irish Republican Minnie Powell, he decides there may be a good reason to pretend to be who he's not. The setup for tragedy is obvious, but O'Casey has some surprises up his sleeve (though a happy ending isn't one of them).

"The Shadow of a Gunman" is actually a long one-act, more talk than action. But with O'Casey, as with the Irish playwrights Shaw or John Guare, talk is action. "Shadow" has a melodramatic plot, but it's really a satire, and the characters are Irish types O'Casey sets up and shoots down. Shields is a fussy, religious man who hates his own: "Did anyone ever see the like of the Irish people," he laments, claiming they're incapable of self-government. The hothead Tommy Owens wants to know, "Why isn't every man in Ireland out with the IRA?"; his stupidity is what sets catastrophe in motion. Grigson is a blowhard Protestant drunk who is still proud to shake the hand of a murderer because "he's a man." Mrs. Grigson is much abused by him, but this doesn't make her exactly sympathetic: When Grigson comes home late, her major concern is, "Do the insurance companies pay if a man is shot after curfew?"

Davoren cares only for poetry, and has a cynical view of politics: "Shot in the back to save the British Empire. Shot in the breast to save the soul of Ireland." His interest in Minnie Powell has nothing to do with her nationalist politics: Too late he discovers exactly how serious about them she is.

At first, O'Casey seems to coddle Davoren, presenting him as a knowing skeptic amid self-deluding fools. Then at the end of the play, he jerks the character's smugness out from under him and exposes his moral cowardice. O'Casey spares no one, not even the "observing" artist who has earlier whined, "The people ever strive to destroy the poet."

Davoren would seem to be the author's stand-in, and there is a generic quality to him that makes him particularly bland next to the juicy, Hogarthian sketches of the other characters. Ian Fitzgibbon is a little bland in the role too: He plays the moments precisely, but you don't get much sense of the person out of whom those moments came. He even takes a while to get across that he's smitten with Minnie.

The roles in "Shadow" are the sorts actors can strut in, and the cast plays them full-out. Shivaun O'Casey, the playwright's daughter, has blocked the action somewhat geometrically: Brien Vahey's grungy tenement-room set has an upstage center entrance, which means that people have to come in and move quickly to the side; if there are several people onstage, they tend to line up from left to right. And there are places where the send-up talkiness slumps into just talky. But "Shadow of a Gunman" still emerges as a smart, satirical, furious play.

The Shadow of a Gunman, by Sean O'Casey. Directed by Shivaun O'Casey. Set, Brien Vahey; set decoration, Josie MacAvin; costumes, Jan Bee Brown; lights, Rory Dempster; sound, Paul Bull; music, Tommy Sands. With Niall Buggy, Risteard Cooper, Michelle Fairley, Ian Fitzgibbon, Pauline Flanagan, Stephen Gabis, Richard Holmes, Doreen Keogh, Shauna Rooney, Sean McCarthy, George Vogel. At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through Jan. 5.

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ley in Love With Gershwin; At the National, `Crazy' for the Music Alone

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
December 20, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful songs. Terrible book. This is less of a problem in "Crazy for You," which opened Wednesday at the National Theatre, than in most musicals, since the songs are by George and Ira Gershwin.

The songs include "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Slap That Bass," "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," "Shall We Dance?" The snappy and sophisticated direction is by Mike Ockrent (of the London revival of "Follies"). The playful, ingenious dancing was choreographed by Susan Stroman ("And the World Goes 'Round"). The razzle-dazzle sets, which seem choreographed too, are by Robin Wagner ("City of Angels," "A Chorus Line"). The lavish and amusing costumes were designed by William Ivey Long ("Six Degrees of Separation"). First-string talents all. The bench is Ken Ludwig, who on the basis of his one successful play, the farce "Lend Me a Tenor," was drafted to provide a script. On this team, he's the water boy.

Rich city boy meets poor but spunky Nevada girl, and everyone decides to put on a show!!! The boy, Bobby Child, is the rubber-bodied, joyous dancer Harry Groener. The girl, Polly Baker, is spunky Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel in "The Little Mermaid"). The supporting performers include such pros as Michele Pawk, John Hillner, Beth Leavel and Bruce Adler, plus a scrumptious, light-footed chorus line and a trio of male comic singer-dancers who in another life perform as the Manhattan Rhythm Kings. All of them seem pleased as punch to be singing and dancing to Gershwin.

The big production numbers are so seamlessly surprising that they give the impression Ockrent, Stroman and Wagner worked on them in equal measure, as one super-choreographer. The whole show dances, including the props, which have a way of building themselves into towers of chairs or suitcases for the actors to leap up and down on. Stroman's dances parody conventions (there's an absurdly delightful Busby Berkeley takeoff) while being witty and satisfying in themselves. Ockrent keeps the singers, dancers, sets and action up in the air with a juggler's impossible suspension. In "City of Angels," Wagner's extraordinary sets run the show; the performers dart among them. His sets are just as extraordinary here, but in service to the Gershwins' songs and to Ockrent and Stroman's exuberance, they buoy up rather than overwhelm the proceedings.

Does the script matter in a production like this, in which the music is so splendid and the talent so first-rate? Well, the script is what makes a musical comedy a musical comedy and not an all-dancing, all-singing, all-sets revue. There's a reason people want to see "Follies" and not just anthologies like "Side by Side by Sondheim" or mega-set Las Vegas spectacles. A book isn't just filler between the numbers, it's a setting and an enhancement.

The book of "Crazy for You" lumbers with "old-fashioned" wit. Some of the jokes may be from its source, "Girl Crazy." But whether Ludwig wrote the clunkers or merely failed to edit them, his ideas of humor are leaden. The producer, Zangler, invites a chorine for an "intimate snack." She: "What would Mrs. Zangler say?" He: "She don't eat snacks. She's on a diet." Later, when someone recognizes him (or maybe the hero, who's pretending to be him, I forget) and calls him "The Great Zangler," he rips back with "Great, medium, small." One of the jokes depends on the heroine's being so dumb she confuses Mickey Rooney and Mickey Mouse.

As to the plot, Ludwig appears to have only one arrow in his quiver, since he uses the mistaken-identity gag from "Lend Me a Tenor" as the central situation here. It's possible to ignore some of this ineptness, the way you tune out during the nonmusical parts of the earliest Astaire-Rogers films, but toward the end someone - Ludwig may by no means deserve all the blame - just throws the whole story overboard, so that the evening stops abruptly rather than ending. After nearly three hours of watching Bobby and Polly trying to put on their show, seeing rehearsals for the show, tensely (well, okay, medium-alertly) hoping that the show will be a success and will Save the Theater (more plot - never mind), we rudely discover that this is a musical about putting on a show in which you never see the show. Everything leads up to an event that never happens.

The discrepancy between the numbers listed in the program and the ones onstage indicates that "Crazy for You" is still being worked on (for one thing, Groener's reprise of "K-ra-zy for You" has been cut). But there doesn't ever seem to have been a number from the show-within-the-show, as the listed second-act setting "On Stage at the Gaiety Theatre, six days later" has no song attached to it. It's true that boy gets girl, but since the show is what the boy devises as a way to get the girl, not seeing it deflates the romance some too.

Still, what's there in "Crazy for You" is really there. This is a show biz tribute to men who brought genius to the show biz song. After years of shows that were about their sets, or about their directors, or (sometimes) about their stars, it's pretty wonderful to see a musical comedy that's about its music.

Crazy for You, songs by George and Ira Gershwin and Desmond Carter; book by Ken Ludwig. Conceived by Ken Ludwig and Mike Ockrent, inspired by material by Guy Bolton and John McGowan. Directed by Mike Ockrent. Choreography, Susan Stroman; sets, Robin Wagner; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Paul Gallo; orchestration, William D. Brohn; dance music arrangements, Peter Howard; musical direction, Paul Gemignani. With Harry Groener, Jodi Benson, John Hillner, Michele Pawk, Ronn Carroll, Jane Connell, Beth Leavel, the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, Bruce Adler. At the National Theatre through Jan. 18.

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