Fairy Tales from Afar: The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain come to New York

Both the National Theater of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company were present in New York this summer. I saw two of the RSC’s efforts as well as the National’s smash production of War Horse. All three plays have a fairytale atmosphere wherein humanism and magic work together. The productions captured this with varying degrees of success.

In the first RSC mounting I saw, a priest prepared to conduct the marriage ceremony by wielding a burning cross. A maid was tortured and beaten until she confessed where her mistress fled. In a brutal combat scene, blood was smeared on the stage floor and scenery. Which play of Shakespeare’s contains these atrocities? Titus Andronicus? Well, according to the Royal Shakespeare Company, it’s that well-known drama about the horrors of tyranny, As You Like It. Romance? Comedy? Forget it. That stuff’s secondary. Which is why this production’s Orlando (Jonjo O’Neill) and Rosalind (Katy Stephens) are such a charmless, unalluring pair. Director Michael Boyd (who is also, god help us, the artistic director of the RSC) stages an all out war against the script and the audience. Set and costume designer Tom Piper provides a floor and backdrop of whitewashed boards for both the court and the Forest of Arden scenes. We know it’s the Forest when lots of mud gets tracked on the stage. (The supposedly enticing Arden is here portrayed as charmless and filthy as the country cottage in Bruce Robinson’s’s 1987 movie Withnail and I.)

There is no joy in Mudville: Rosalind (Katy Stephens) and company try to manufacture some anyway. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Boyd allows only the clown Touchstone (Richard Katz, sporting a straitjacket and a Bozo-ish haircut) to attempt to be funny (he fails), and he keeps the clown’s big speeches intact for some reason, never a good idea. (The Act V monologs on the “seventh cause,” extremely tiresome and largely incomprehensible to an audience, are presented in their entirety. Yawn.)

Boyd’s choices throughout are unfathomable. Why the burning cross at Touchstone and Audrey’s first thwarted attempt at marriage? Because a burning swastika would have been in bad taste? In the performance I saw, the incredibly violent wrestling match between the Duke’s wrestler Charles (David Carr) and Orlando resulted in a genuine injury: When O’Neill smashed Carr’s head into the back wall, a smear of actual blood resulted and stayed there until intermission. In an ensuing scene, Carr had to appear with a bloody, bandaged forehead, even though he was no longer playing the wrestler.

There are moments when Shakespeare’s dialog shines through the miseries imposed by Boyd, and the first glimpse of Jaques is funny (Forbes Masson looks like a Goth version of the late comedian Sam Kinison), but then he starts singing in a dirge-like countertenor, and we’re back in Dullsville. As You Like It has never been so unlikeable.

The RSC visited New York this summer in an unprecedented five-week engagement. Co-presented by Lincoln Center and the Park Avenue Armory (in association with Ohio State University), the performances took place within a replica of the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon theater constructed entirely within the Armory’s drill hall. It sounds impressive, but the reality was that the seats were uncomfortable and fully half allowed only a partial view of the stage. This was possibly a boon to seeing As You Like It.

I thus dreaded seeing their take on The Winter’s Tale. Often considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, if taken in fairytale terms, there’s actually no problem at all. A horrifying curse of madness descends on the Sicilian court when King Leontes becomes convinced (against all evidence) that his pregnant wife Hermione is having an affair with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. The king’s desertion of rational thought causes him to plot Polixenes’ death, to imprison his wife, and to bring appalling destruction upon his kingdom. His wife dies soon after childbirth, he commands that the infant be abandoned to the wilds, and his older son and heir dies of grief over the chaos sown by the King’s madness. Leontes awakens to his senses, but too late, and the devastated court and kingdom essentially slumber in sorrowful stupor for 16 years.

The awakening occurs with the arrival of the abandoned infant, Perdita, now a young woman, raised in ignorance of her origins by a Bohemian shepherd and his family. Perdita has affianced herself to Polixenes’ son, Florizel. But Polixenes is appalled his son has become smitten with a lowly shepherdess, and the couple flees to Sicilia, where all is made right. That “all is made right” doesn’t begin to describe the miracles Shakespeare provides in this beautiful, wondrous play, one of the great humanistic works of art.

Hermione (Kelly Hunter) celebrates her friends and family before the cataclysm. (Photo: Alessandro Evangelista)

Director David Farr’s magnificent staging of the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale was a relief and a joy. Set and costume designer Jon Bausor created an opulent, Regency-era dining room, sumptuously set for a holiday feast, complete with shimmering Christmas crackers at each place setting. Flanking the table and dominating the set were two large and imposing bookcases stocked with innumerable volumes. A large chandelier, a clear hemisphere with wrought iron details, hung over the table.

The opening scene is one of happy and wealthy domesticity as the pregnant Hermione (Kelly Hunter) looks upon her family and guests. Things go horribly awry when Leontes (Greg Hicks) becomes struck with a jealous psychosis and commands his friend and subject Camillo (John Mackay) to kill Polixenes (Darrell D’Silva). Camillo, rather than obey his King’s mad commands, warns Polixenes and flees with him.

As Leontes, Hicks gives a towering performance, bringing a Lear-like intensity to the mad certainty that rules his actions. (In fact, Hicks also played Lear at this summer’s RSC New York residency, a performance I wish I’d been able to see.) Hicks emanates intelligence as an actor, which makes his raging passion even more horrific. He brooks no opposition to his mad conviction, however rationally spoken. Leontes is persuaded to have the Oracle of Apollo consulted, but he dismisses the Oracle’s judgment when it condemns him. The entire court looks on in horror as he pronounces Hermione, brought from her prison after giving birth, guilty. As Hermione, Hunter at first hides her blood-and-birth-stained clothes, but as the horror of her situation grows, the makeshift covering she’s holding drops, and we understand her pain completely as we see the evidence of what she’s endured, forced to give birth unattended in a prison cell, only to have the child immediately taken away from her.

King Leontes (Greg Hicks) begins to find his life amiss. (Photo: Alessandro Evangelista)

Farr and his cast handle all of this magnificently. Leonte’s insanity is appalling and awful, and there’s nothing anyone can do. Even the most capable member of his court, Paulina (the rich-voiced Noma Dumezweni) is unable to move the King. Helplessness is writ large on the face of every actor, and the tension is electric. When Leontes comprehends his own madness (too late, after the death of his wife and son, and after the banishment of his infant daughter), he staggers under the weight of his actions, and opening the upstage doors, he lets in a roaring gale. The bookcases fall over, disgorging their volumes, and the chandelier crashes onto the floor. Leonte’s kingdom is wrecked physically as well as spiritually and morally. Farr viscerally, brilliantly brings home the damage done.

When the scene shifts to the island where Antigonus (David Rubin),Paulina’s husband, has brought the infant Perdita to be abandoned, Shakespeare’s famous bear, the instrument of Antigonus’ death, appears, a spectacular, large puppet (designed by Steve Tiplady), created out of the pages of the fallen books. Leontes abandoned rationality, and the very instruments of rational thought, unbound and loosed, gather to revenge themselves on Leontes’ friend. It’s a stunning moment.

Other productions of The Winter’s Tale I’ve seen have handled the Sicilian Court scenes well (never as well as this production) and then have stumbled in the Bohemian scenes of Act IV. The pastoral interludes are presented as either boring business that must be gotten through, or else as manic party scenes that throw off the rhythms of the play. (A Cal Shakes production I saw unsuccessfully staged Bohemia as a wild 1960s “happening.”)

This time out, I never experienced a greater disparity between the quality of the first three acts and Act IV. I’d like to believe it was a different director altogether who staged the Bohemia scenes, because the only way to account for the defiling mess presented here is that Farr was struck with a madness almost as great as Leontes’. His Florizel (the handsome Tunji Kasim) and Perdita (the regrettably unappealing Samantha Young) have no chemistry and worse, no facility with the language. The rascal clown Autolycus (Brian Doherty) is charmless, and the design falters, too. The costumes suddenly contain contemporary elements (e.g., athletic shoes) for no good reason, and the fallen bookcases and books are left in heaps on the floor. But the worst is when the dance of shepherds and shepherdesses is presented. The actors wear open books as headpieces, and are clothed in arrangements of loose-leaf pages so that they look like shaggy blobs. Also, they all have large, red-tipped penises that they manipulate as part of the dance. Yes, you read that right.

The play does get back on track for Act V, but the disasters of Act IV linger as you puzzle out what the director could have been thinking, and the work of the cast in Act V is unfairly tainted by the preceding travesties. Farr and his cast are masterful dealing with the tragic and fairytale elements of this great play, but brief as the comic and pastoral sequences are, his disastrous handling of them is so unsettling that the genius of the rest the production is ultimately undercut. If Act IV had merely been boring, you could better overlook its failure, but because Farr’s conception and direction are both inept and so confoundedly wrongheaded, you can’t quite forgive the damage it does to this otherwise spectacular mounting.

Over at a much more comfortable venue, Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beamont Theater (where both The Light in the Piazza and the recent revival of South Pacific played), Britain’s National Theatre has exported their production of War Horse to our shores. I was actually hesitant to see this adaptation of a young adult novel (by Michael Morpurgo) where the horses are life-sized puppets. I feared it might be gimmicky and sentimental. I could not have been more wrong.

The soldier Müller (Peter Hermann) calms a terrified horse. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

War Horse, adapted by Nick Stafford and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, is miraculous—emotionally overwhelming from its very first scenes. The horses, designed and built by the Handspring Puppet Company and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick, are abstract and constructivistic in design and no attempt is made to hide the puppeteers manipulating them. But the animals are so extraordinarily lifelike in movement, you believe wholeheartedly in their existence.

The story is simple: In a Devonshire farming village, a drunken father foolishly bids on and purchases a thoroughbred horse, spending desperately needed money on something unneeded. His 16-year old son falls in love with and worships the horse. When the horse is drafted for cavalry service in the trenches of World War I, the boy lies about his age and enlists so that he can find the horse again.

That’s basically the entire story, but that brief description doesn’t do justice to the show’s reverberations, undercurrents, and themes. Encapsulating the technological innovations that brought such overwhelming destruction to the War to End All Wars and opposing them to the old-fashioned and outmoded idea of a cavalry horse (and by symbolic extension, to the soldiers themselves) resonates with both beauty and horror. Of what use is a horse against machine guns, barbed wire, and noxious gas, the play asks. And of course, it also asks of what use is a man against such deadly machinery. But the show also understands that use and value are two different things, and while either horse or man may be ineffectual, their value is limitless and incalculable.

The entire experience is as elemental and entrancing as Carole Ballard’s majestic 1983 film of The Black Stallion. (Steven Spielberg is set to direct the film adaptation of War Horse, and although its very good material for him, he will have his work cut out equaling the theatrical experience.) The entire cast is magnificent, but I would single out the work of four performers. Seth Numrich as Albert Narracott, the boy in love with a horse, possesses both a gentleness and a steely resolve. Alyssa Bresnahan as the boy’s longsuffering mother, owns a voice that echoes with earthy richness and timeless wisdom. Peter Hermann, familiar from his many appearances on Law & Order: SVU (he is also married to Mariska Hargitay), plays the sympathetic German soldier Friedrich Müller, who cares for both the horse and a lost French girl who reminds him of his daughter, with a touching and lucid simplicity. And as Emilie, that lost French girl, the young Madeleine Rose Yen gives an astonishing performance. Her French is impeccable, she projects to the rafters, and she radiates an aura of feral terror as the girl separated from her mother, roaming the shattered countryside.

Adrian Sutton’s music and Christopher Shutt’s sound design are also integral to the experience, as are Rae Smith’s sets, costumes, and projected drawings. (It’s a glorious irony that a show which is tangentially about the dehumanizing effects of technology employs technology so masterfully.)

War Horse is almost unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking, a fairy tale both simple and epic.

Emilie (Madeleine Rose Yen) finds a moment of peace in No Man's Land. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

The RSC productions have closed. War Horse continues its open-ended run at Lincoln Center in the Vivian Beaumont Theater. An American tour of the play is scheduled to begin in Los Angeles next summer, coming to San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in August of 2012. For tickets and other information, go to http://www.warhorseonbroadway.com/. For tickets in San Francisco go to http://bestofbroadway-sf.com/war-horse-san-francisco.

Dogma Doo: “The Book of Mormon”

Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad) spread the Word. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Broadway’s The Book of Mormon is a certified mega-success. Created by South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, along with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, the show won a passel of Tonys a few months ago, upped its prices so that it’s now the most expensive ticket on Broadway, and is sold out until 2012. Ben Brantley of the New York Times led the unanimous acclaim by proclaiming it the “the best new musical (so far, anyway) of the 21st century.” (Somehow, his parenthetical comment doesn’t do quite enough to curb the hyperbole.) It’ll run for years.

I loved Stone and Parker’s 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. Full of crassness and obscenity and genuine wit, this satire of American mores and myths is one of the great movie musicals, beautifully constructed and magnificently, hilariously scored (by Parker and Marc Shaiman, who went on to do Hairspray and the new Catch Me If You Can). Impossibly smart, it’s also unbelievably funny. With a pastiche of songs that satirized Les Miz, The Little Mermaid, and the excesses of contemporary pop, as well as displaying a genuine affection for traditional Broadway razzmatazz, it demonstrated an exquisite knowledge of musical comedy conventions and construction. So of course, I (along with the rest of the world) looked forward to seeing their attempts at a genuine Broadway musical.

Almost no one has had a single negative comment about The Book of Mormon. Even the Mormon Church released a surprisingly measured response: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” I tend to be wary of critical consensus, although sometimes it’s warranted: The Producers and Hairspray are cases in point. The shows, when I finally got to see them, met the sky-high expectations raised by their rapturous reviews. With The Book of Mormon I was hoping I’d be able to join the general huzzahs.

But as I sat in the Eugene O’Neill theatre, watching the carefully calibrated and choreographed (in all senses of the word) spectacle proceed, a creeping sense of disappointment began to set in. The crudeness and obscenity didn’t seem fresh so much as tiresome and strained. The set-up isn’t especially clever, nor is it especially fair. The Mormon Church gets off rather lightly (though not its dogma, which deserves what it gets), but the production’s treatment of Africa, more specifically Uganda, where the two young Mormon protagonists are sent on their mission, doesn’t sit well. Using the ravages of AIDS, poverty, warlord tyranny, and sexual violence as vehicles for musical comedy requires a finer sensibility than Stone and Parker’s. (One of the few things that worked in their 2004 comic marionette movie Team America: World Police, was the song “Everyone Has AIDS,” from the fictitious Broadway musical Lease. But in this case, Stone and Parker weren’t dealing with the plight of AIDS victims, they were puncturing the fatuousness of Rent, a ripe target.)

To be fair, much of the show is genuinely hilarious, and the score has several highlights, especially at the beginning. “You and Me (but Mostly Me)” zings Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” (in about half the time of the original) as Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), the golden boy of his particular class of missionaries, sings of the things he’ll accomplish, as long as the screw-up assigned to accompany him, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), stays out of his way. Several numbers have a peppy Up-with-People hokiness that gives the audience a feel-good buzz even as they laugh at the material. (“Two by two, / We’re marching door to door! / ‘Cause God loves Mormons/ And he wants some more.”) But things begin going wrong with one of the more infamous songs, “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (a spoof of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata”). “Eebowai” gives away its joke (what the phrase actually means) too soon and then goes on trying to top it with relentless (and unfunny) crudeness. The show and song would be better served with the punch line saved for the song’s end.

The comedy rule of three is no longer of any use to Stone and Parker. They too often bludgeon you with repeated jokes. One character’s complaint of a maggot-infested scrotum is repeatedly endlessly. “Clitoris” and “clit” are mentioned incessantly, and barely a minute goes by where the F-word isn’t spoken. (In the South Park movie, the truly fabulous song “Uncle Fucker,” a joyous orgy of F-bombs, worked because it came out of the blue. Nothing prepared you for it, and it was genuinely shocking as well as riotous. You couldn’t quite believe you’d heard what you just heard.) And quite frankly, the creators’ decision to set the show in Uganda is a large part of why the crudeness and obscenities don’t work. Stone, Parker, and Lopez clearly wanted a locale where the problems were too huge, too overwhelming, for the consolations of Mormonism, but piling on compulsory female circumcision, AIDS, and numerous other African miseries, expecting us to laugh at their repeated mentions, is just too much.

Elder Price sings the sweeping, very funny anthem, “I Believe,” in an attempt to convert the evil warlord who’s made life hell for the village where the missionaries have been assigned (“And I believe!/ That in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!” the chorus echoing soulfully “Black people!” and “I believe! /That God lives on a planet called Kolob!”) But at the conclusion, the warlord’s response takes place with the lights down, and because we don’t trust the writers, we assume from Elder Price’s screams that something truly terrible is happening. (We assume he’s being raped.) What actually happens isn’t revealed until several scenes later, and it turns out to be a crass joke that might have been funny with cartoon protagonists, but doesn’t seem so funny when embodied by actual people.

There are other problems as well. Directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also did the choreography) don’t properly delineate the other Ugandan missionaries (most of them are indistinguishable), so in the song “Turn It Off,” a paean to the glories of repression, you can’t keep track of which Mormon is which, and whose story is whose. When Elder Price has his moment of doubt, the musical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is clumsily staged and confusedly designed. (It’s an excess of ridiculousness that puzzles more than it delights.)

For the first-act finale (“Man Up”) they rely on a device used in the South Park movie, (and borrowed from Les Miz and countless other musicals) where strains and phrases from all the songs we’ve already heard show up in medley and in counterpoint. But here the tunes don’t mesh as well as they did in South Park, and the score feels forced and awkward. And in “Joseph Smith, American Moses,” a number that goes on way too long, and in which we’re meant to find hilarious all the obscenities we’ve already heard too many times, the villagers enact a pageant on Mormonism for some Church higher-ups. (The number’s inspiration: the far more charming “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” from The King and I.)

Andrew Rannells seems born to play the part of Kevin Price, the star Mormon pupil from whom big things are expected. Tall, blandly non-threateningly handsome, clean-cut, he possesses a broad face, large white teeth and perfect hair. Dressed in the emblematic short-sleeved white shirt, black tie, and high-waisted black trousers, he’s the essence of the white (really white) Mormon missionary—earnestness personified. (Irony is a foreign language to Elder Price.) He also sings in a nasal, square, slightly dorky voice, but which has surprising range and control. Faith, fervor, and idealism beam from his eyes, and his inevitable crises of belief are both touching and funny.

Unfortunately, I was less taken with Josh Gad’s performance as Arnold Cunningham, the screw-up assigned to be partners with Elder Price. (Cunningham serves the same function as the role of George Lewis in Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime—the idiot successful in spite of himself.) Cunningham is a chunky, attention-deficit-disordered geek, who has never actually read the Book he’s supposed to be preaching. He’s also prone to outrageous lies whenever he feels slightly uncomfortable. Gad is willing to do anything for a laugh. He throws his voice around, alternating between weird, Peewee-Herman-esque vocalizations, full-voiced yells, and hiccup-y giggles. But manic, comic craziness is not a character choice, and his Cunningham remains a collection of tics, spasms, and impulse control problems that never gels into a real person (even within the confines of Stone, Parker, and Lopez’s insane world).

Nikki M. James has a winning sweetness as the village girl who becomes the first convert (she also has a hell of a voice), and the rest of the cast is talented and game.

The show’s eventual “thesis” (the fact there is a thesis is a big part of why the show disappoints) is that as long as you don’t take the dogma too seriously, all religions are equivalent and can actually be helpful, no matter how far-fetched their particular scriptures and strictures. Without giving too much of the plot away, the villagers are taken in by Elder Cunningham’s ridiculous embellishments of the Book of Mormon, (which he hasn’t read, remember)—a combination of popular sci-fi movies involving lots of frog-fucking (don’t ask)—and their lives are made better. Improbably so, even for a Stone and Parker creation. Christopher Durang eviscerated Catholic dogma in his hilarious one-act Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Stone, Parker and Lopez do the same on a smaller scale for Mormonism, but at play’s end they wimp out, dismissing the tragedies of Africa and shrugging their shoulders with a “hey, dude: it’s all good” message. This time out, it ain’t.

The missionaries take a detour through "The Lion King" on their way to Uganda.

The Book of Mormon will play forever at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York. It’s effectively sold-out, but there are some standing-room and lottery tickets available at each performance. More information can be found at www.bookofmormonbroadway.com.

Troika Travesty: Berkeley Rep’s “Three Sisters”

Irina (Heather Wood) tries to wash off the stink while Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) realizes it ain't comin' off. (Photo courtesy of mellopix.com)

Over in Berkeley, a conspiracy is happening eight times a week.  Director Les Waters and adaptor/playwright Sarah Ruhl (Eurydice, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)) have plotted to produce a version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters bereft of beauty, delicacy, and artistry, substituting a crass, clanging mess in place of one of the great masterpieces of world theater.  I have seen many bad or misguided productions of Chekhov, but I’ve never seen anything to rival this abomination.  It’s like watching a production of Streetcar adapted and directed by Stanley Kowalski. Waters and Ruhl apparently believe that if Chekhov were alive today, he’d be a staff writer for “Two and Half Men.”  (Chekhov was bi-winning, man.)

Why does Baron Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) announce he’s going to play the piano and then crash his hands down discordantly on the keyboard and then yuk it up like it’s not something an ill-behaved child does?  Why does Masha (Natalia Payne) keep saying “Goddammit”?  Why is Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson) so boring and dowdy?  Why is Natasha (Emily Kitchens) played as a twitchy, goggle-eyed circus freak, unbecomingly got up in pink gingham? Why, when the men dance and sing, are they so loud and clumsy, knocking over drinking glasses?  No wonder Natasha wants them the hell out of the house.  Why do almost none of the actors appear to know anything about naturalistic acting, declaiming in monotones, with odd pauses?  Is this supposed to be some sort of Commedia Dell’Arte version of Three Sisters, God help us all?  Do Waters and Ruhl actually believe Chekhov wrote this play about a bunch of buffoons?

It seems that the creative (term used extremely loosely) team feels deeply that portraying a character as unhappy on stage will drive the audience away, or will be undramatic, or something, so all the good folks in Three Sisters are rendered as bat-shit crazy instead.  (‘Cause it’s funny, man!  And Chekhov wrote comedies, man!  Just ask him!) I sat through the first two acts with my mouth open, jaw dropped as far as it could go, stupefied.  I did not sit through the last two acts, my urge to make the pain stop overcoming my curiosity as to how people who think that the Prozorov family was a precursor to Al and Peg Bundy would handle the tragedies of the third and fourth acts.

Is there anything good about this production?  Annie Smart’s set is both rustic and elegant, using blonde wood and blue panels.  Alex Moggridge attempts to give a performance as Andrei, the put-upon brother to the three sisters.  But as Ruhl has the good doctor Chebutykin (James Carpenter) say: “Ah, who gives a shit?”  (And yes, that is actually a line that the celebrated playwright Sarah Ruhl thinks is appropriate for a production of Chekhov.  She’s a genius and she’s got the grant to prove it!)

In the program notes, Ruhl writes, “I am sorry, Anton, for any havoc I have wreaked….” Some things are unforgiveable.

Hey, it don't look so bad in this pic! And yet it is. (From left to right: Natalia Payne, Heather Wood, and Wendy Rich Stetson. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com.)

Three Sisters plays through May 22, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA.  To purchase tickets, call 510-647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org. But why, WHY, would you ever do such a thing?

The Caged Bird Sings: Aurora Theatre’s “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale”

Alma (Beth Wilmurt) encounters John (Thomas Gorrebeeck) at a Fourth of July celebration. (Photo: David Allen)

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Tennessee William’s 1961 reworking of his earlier Summer and Smoke, is one of his masterpieces, residing just beneath A Streetcar Named Desire and The Night of the Iguana in achievement.  It is also, unfortunately, one of his lesser-known and less-produced plays.  The schematic and much inferior Summer and Smoke is mounted far more often, and productions of The Glass Menagerie, a play that hints at greatness but falls well short, seem to pop up every other month, as inevitable and tenacious as crabgrass.  (Next in line to break the horn off that damn unicorn: Marin Theater Company, Fall 2011.)

My first experience with Eccentricities, reading it in college, left me unimpressed.  I read it immediately after Summer and Smoke, and the earlier play’s heavy-handedness bled into my experience of the later.  It wasn’t until many years later, when I saw the terrific television production with Blythe Danner and Frank Langella that I realized its greatness.

I thus eagerly awaited the Aurora Theatre’s production, directed by the skilled and talented Tom Ross.  And when I heard that the wonderful Beth Wilmurt would play Alma Winemiller, the “Nightingale of the Delta,” my hopes were raised almost impossibly high.  (This blog is in real danger of becoming a Wilmurt fan site.)  So it’s with real enthusiasm I can report that the Aurora’s production is wonderful: delicate, poetic, immensely moving, and gorgeously acted and directed.

The character of Alma Winemiller is the heart and soul of the play.  (“Alma means soul in Spanish,” she tells a stranger.)  A singing teacher in the small provincial town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma possesses such depths of feeling and emotion that she can’t help but manifest them physically: she talks too much, she talks too loud, her hands flutter about, she’s awkward and needy. She’s desperate for connection, for beauty, and for meaning.  In love with the handsome boy next door, a recent medical school graduate from Johns Hopkins, she does her best to hide her desire, but she fools no one, especially the boy’s mother, whose own sense of suffocation in this small town causes her to live too much through her son.

The play is set just before World War I, and one of the shocking things is the utter lack of nostalgia in Williams’ vision.  We’re not used to seeing people in turn-of-the-century finery dealing with the messiness and reality of sex.  (In most novels of the period, people get married and babies magically come.)  Alma’s tragedy is also in some sad, small, scandalous way her triumph as well.  In giving up her dreams of love, she, the daughter of a pious minister and a mentally disturbed mother, doesn’t also give up on sex.  She gets her moments of connection where she can. Trapped in her claustrophobic community, with its populace mostly concerned with convention, she makes her way as best she can and Williams’ not only refuses to condemn her for it, he loves her for her bravery.

Alma (Beth Wilmurt) seeks treatment for her palpitations from John (Thomas Gorrebeeck). (Photo: David Allen)

Wilmurt is spectacular.  (Is she the best actress around?  It sure seems that way to me.)  At the play’s opening, she took me aback somewhat. Alma sings at a Fourth of July function, and Wilmurt has a gorgeous voice, but this time there was a strain I haven’t heard before.  It wasn’t until a later scene, when she performs at home for that boy next door, Dr. John Buchanan (Thomas Gorrebeeck) (“Sacred or profane?” she asks, referring to the type of song he’d like to hear.  “Profane,” he answers), and her voice is relaxed and clear, that I realized just how carefully Wilmurt had calibrated that opening performance, how the strain was the character’s, not the actor’s.

What makes her performance so amazing is the restraint with which Wilmurt portrays Alma’s awkwardness, self-consciousness and desperation.  She emphasizes Alma’s courage, her ability to go on day after day, when only unhappiness stretches before her.  Wilmurt’s Alma is rarely still, she’s busy planning, arranging, talking, hoping to make things come off well.  But Wilmurt is so inside the skin of this character, that she gives every gesture, every motion of Alma’s meaning and purpose.  When her hands flutter, they don’t flop around without direction—they move according to the myriad different, sometimes competing impulses within Alma. Wilmurt projects Alma’s rapid thoughts and emotional changes physically, through movement.  Her scattered motions aren’t awkward to the audience, though we understand how they are to the other characters; Wilmurt uses her body to make Alma’s soul tangible to us.

Of the many heartbreaking yet lovely scenes is a gathering of fellow arts lovers to which she invites John.  Before he comes, she tries to tamp down the groups’ peculiarities, and you can tell she’s seeing the group through John’s eyes.  But rather than cancelling the whole thing then and there, she tries to make it as presentable as possible, delaying any discussion of the group’s manifesto in front of John, as well as avoiding a reading of one member’s epic-length verse play.  When the arts group’s members get too rambunctious, Alma calms them down by reading William Blake’s “Love’s Secret.”  Wilmurt recites it with a beautiful simplicity, and you can see why Alma interests John.

Earlier, Reverend Winemiller, Alma’s minister father, (the unbelievably good Charles Dean), in trying to help his unhappy daughter, tells her how the townspeople mock her and imitate her mannerisms, and it’s awful, awful, awful.  Wilmurt has Alma’s very skin seem to beg him to stop.  Pacing about, wringing her hands, Alma suffers physical pain facing the things about herself that she hates more deeply than any townsperson ever could.  Within herself, Alma already knows how her neighbors feel about her, and forcing her to acknowledge openly their behind-her-back mockery seems intolerably cruel, yet Dean makes it clear that Winemiller doesn’t know how else to help his daughter.  Wilmurt makes it clear that Alma can do nothing with this knowledge except suffer.

The Reverend Winemiller (Charles Dean) shares hard truths with his daughter. (Photo: David Allen)

To the smaller, and in some ways more difficult role of Mrs. Buchanan, John’s mother, Marcia Pizzo brings an astonishing depth and skill.  Mrs. Buchanan is a harridan, so fearful that John may fall into Alma’s grasp that she goes to often ludicrous lengths to keep her son away from Alma. But as Pizzo acts the role, Mrs. Buchanan recognizes too much of Alma in herself: Despite her seeming success (the town beauty, married to the town doctor, respected by all), she’s a woman as unhappy in her own way as Alma is.  She knows how dangerously close she might have come to Alma’s mannered eccentricities.  She’s achieved everything she was taught to want, and it’s not enough.  Her hopes and desires now reside in her son and she clutches him protectively; she believes he won’t be happy or successful if he stays in Glorious Hill, because she did and she isn’t.  He has to leave to achieve the dreams she has for him, and she knows he never will if he attaches himself to Alma.  Pizzo makes the woman more than a harridan: she makes her human.

As John, Gorrebeeck gives an extremely intelligent performance.  He lends the role a stillness and a watchfulness, and John becomes a shock-absorber for these two very different women nevertheless tied by common fears. He’s probably the only person who’s ever really listened to Alma, who’s ever really heard her.  He’s also no fool: He seems to tolerate his mother’s ministrations, but his attention to Alma is an act of rebellion towards his mother.  Unlike her, he knows that Alma is no danger to him.  He’s intrigued, but it’s an almost clinical interest, and he knows that he doesn’t love her.  (Alma, no fool herself, knows it too.)  In Center Rep’s mostly dreadful production of Dracula, Gorrebeeck appeared movie-star handsome, but here, he sports a mustache that somehow makes him more stolid and ordinary, good-looking but in a small-town way, and it’s absolutely right for the role.

Tom Ross handles his actors and the script beautifully—he understands its exquisite structures and moods.  The extreme thrust stage of the Aurora does provide an exciting intimacy with the actors and the play, but it presents some challenges Ross is unable to overcome. Wilmurt is in every scene of this play, and because the play’s done essentially in the round, of necessity there are times when Wilmurt has to have her back to some portion of the audience.  And since what you want to see most at any given moment is her face, you sometimes find yourself craning in your seat, hoping to get a better view of her features.

The design (lighting by Jim Cave; set by Liliana Duque Piñeiro) while on the whole lovely, does have an occasional problem: A gas lamp snaps on like an electric lamp, and there are difficulties suggesting fireplaces with the lighting in the first act scenes.  The fireplace screens are directly in front of the audience and the lighting meant to suggest flames doesn’t quite come across. In the penultimate scene, however, the fire flames, dies, and comes back to life suggestively and beautifully.

In the play’s heartbreaking final sequence, Alma asks a travelling salesman if he speaks Spanish.  “Un poquito,” he replies.  “Sometimes,” she responds, “un poquito is enough.”  For Alma, it has to be enough: It’s all she has, all she’s left with.  With this beautiful, tender and moving production, we’re left with much more than enough, a glimpse into the beauty that illuminates a small, seemingly wretched and insignificant life. And that’s everything.

Mrs. Buchanan (Marcia Pizzo) "rescues" her son from Alma. (Photo: David Allen)

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale plays through May 8, 2011, at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA, 94704.  For tickets and other information, call 510-843-4822 or go to http://www.auroratheatre.org.

Miracle Workers: Masquers Playhouse’s “The Marriage of Bette and Boo”

Love and Marriage: From left, Paul (David Weiner), Bette (Michelle Pond), Joan (Anne Collins), and Margaret (Ellen Brooks). Photo: Adam Telfer.

Christopher Durang’s 1985 play The Marriage of Bette and Boo deserves to be considered a classic of American theater, yet many people have never heard of it, let alone seen it.  Even folks who love Durang’s other work are likely not to have encountered it, or having encountered it, are likely not to comprehend it. This is somewhat understandable given its surprising tonal shifts from comedy to tragedy, its comic non sequitor dialog, and the highly stylized portrayals of the extended family of the show’s narrator, Matt “Skippy” Hudlocke.  (In my first encounter with the play, reading the script, I didn’t much understand it myself.) Frank Rich’s respectful but ultimately negative review of the original New York production, in which Durang himself portrayed Matt, compared the show to The Glass Menagerie, mainly due to its autobiographical nature and the narrator/son being the playwright’s alter ego.  I’ve seen a videotape of that original New York production with its amazing cast—in addition to Durang, it starred Joan Allen, Mercedes Ruehl, Olympia Dukakis, and Richard B. Shull—and it’s clear that Rich missed how the comedy and the sorrow work together, how the broad strokes with which the characters are at first painted coalesce into a vivid reality, and that what Durang achieved was nothing less than an absurdist Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  This thinly disguised portrait of Durang’s own dysfunctional family, troubled by unhappy marriages, alcoholism, and broken dreams, looking to the insufficient, even deleterious, balm of Catholicism to ease their pain, is an uproariously funny, profoundly moving, and achingly beautiful act of both compassion and forgiveness.

So someone please tell me what the hell a small amateur community theater in sleepy little Point Richmond is doing putting on this play? What, pray tell, is The Marriage of Bette and Boo doing in a season that features such crowd-pleasers as The Musical of Musicals, The Hot Mikado, and The Mystery of Irma Vep?  And how could it possibly be any good?

The Masquers Playhouse production, despite its tiny budget, its amateur actors, its rough edges, is, unbelievably, astonishing.  This can be largely credited to the skill and love lavished on the show by its two directors, Peter Budinger, who also portrays Matt, and DC Scarpelli.  Budinger and Scarpelli fell in love with the show as undergraduates at Yale and somehow convinced the Masquers to take a risk that very few would.  Bette and Boo will be puzzling to many and offensive to some, qualities that most community theaters go out of their way to avoid.

Matt, called Skippy by his mother after her favorite Jackie Cooper movie, narrates the story of his devout Catholic family: his mother Bette (Michelle Pond), desperately trying to have another child but suffering stillbirth after stillbirth; his father Boo (Craig Eychner) turning to drink as a respite from the horrors of his marriage and each failed birth, paternal grandmother Soot (Nancy Sale) who nods and smiles as her husband Karl (Jerry Telfer) mocks and insults her; maternal grandmother Margaret (Ellen Brooks) who strides confidently through the chaos around her as if unaware of the miseries of her life, which include a husband who makes noise but can’t speak (David Weiner) and two other daughters besides Bette: Joan (Anne Collins) trapped in a miserable marriage of her own, and the sweet and awkward Emily (Vicki Zabarte), who has so subsumed the lessons of Catholicism that she’s crushed by her own sense of guilt.  (She apologizes for everything, even her own existence, going so far as to prepare apologies in advance, for future wrongs.)

The show does start out on slightly rocky footing.  The timing of the comic bits doesn’t always work as it should, and cues aren’t always picked up as quickly as they could be.  Not all of the actors have sufficient technique and training to carry off Durang’s unique absurdist style, but the production begins to settle into its own rhythms, and the amateurish quality of some of the acting, incredibly, begins to work.  In using people who aren’t professional actors (though many in the cast have extensive credits), people who look like normal people, people who are normal people, you stop seeing actors on the stage, and you begin to see the folks you know: You see your neighbors, you see your family.  It also helps that as the two title characters, Michelle Pond and Craig Eychner are better than anyone has a right to expect.  Pond’s Bette chatters breezily and voluminously as she repeatedly tries to give her life purpose by giving birth to more babies, all of them, save Matt, stillborn.  Craig’s Boo suffers stoically, turning to drink for some small release from his unbearable life, and begging Bette to stop trying to have another child.  His Boo dies a little more with each new stillborn birth.  When he finally breaks down, it’s almost unbearable, like the first time you saw your own father cry.

Budinger gives a very smart performance as the observant, perceptive Matt.  When playing the child Matt, he simply sits on the floor, and watches the peculiar unhappy adults around him.  He doesn’t change his voice or adopt any childish mannerisms and you accept him as the 10-year-old Matt completely.  You see the direct connection between the bewildered 10-year-old and the bewildered adult.  When his mother asks the now-grown Matt if he thinks God is punishing her, he responds, ”I don’t believe that God punishes people for specific things.  He punishes people in general… for no reason,” probably the most succinct statement of absurdist philosophy ever written. As Matt, Budinger puzzles out the drives and desires that lead the adults around him to grief and despair, watching but never condemning.

As Matt’s paternal grandparent’s, Telfer’s Karl drinks and insults his wife, accusing her of “not saying one sensible word in thirty years of marriage,” while Sale’s Soot (the origin of the nickname is a running gag) grins and laughs, trying to pass off his remarks as being all in fun. Telfer and Soot look like someone’s grandparents, and though it’s sometimes hard to hear Telfer’s foggy growl of a voice, you believe that this couple stays locked in their unhappiness because they can’t conceive of anything better.

On the distaff side, Brooks is a marvel as Bette’s mother.  Margaret is in some essential way immune to the suffering of others, even confessing to us that she’s glad of her adult children’s failures because it keeps them at home with her.  That her husband makes incoherent noises (possibly due to a stroke, but never really explained) and literally can’t communicate (in a family where even those who speak clearly still can’t make themselves heard) isn’t really a burden to her.  She’s found her way through life and doesn’t need anyone challenging her near-pathological approach.  But Brooks also makes Margaret charming, probably the only one of the four grandparents that you could actually stand to spend time with in real life, and it’s clear that her self-assuredness and self-deception is what allows her to survive. In one of the final scenes, she receives her life’s awful reward of senility, and Brooks makes your heart break for Margaret as well.  Weiner and Collins are used extremely well, and Robert Love in the dual roles of the priest and the doctor—the two external authority figures that reign over Bette and Boo’s lives, one sacred and one secular, both of no use whatsoever—has some very funny moments.  As the priest conducting a marriage counseling session, he flops on the floor and imitates a piece of bacon sizzling.  (It’s as helpful as anything else the priest does.)

As the ever guilty, ever responsible Emily, Vicki Zabarte is probably the least experienced actress on the stage. But under the directors’ gentle guidance, her own apparent sweetness and gentleness become Emily’s traits.  She’s the family’s holy fool, giving up her own life to minister to them, convinced that other’s woes are brought on by her own spiritual lapses: she hasn’t prayed hard enough or often enough.  Zabarte eventually makes Emily’s devotion as unbearably tender as it is ineffectual.

In conceiving this production, Scarpelli and Budinger use enlarged old-style snapshot borders, scalloped by pinking shears, cornered by those old gummed picture holders found in many a family album, as the primary scenic elements.  Sometimes they exist as empty frames that surround the characters, and at other times, they are filled with a two-dimensional background that defines the setting. It works brilliantly.  Durang’s play has 22 scenes in its two acts, most of them short and quick—figurative snapshots. The directors also handle the play’s crazy, mixed-up chronology with extreme lucidity.  You’re never confused about where you are in these characters’ stories despite Durang’s purposeful hopping around in time.

But it’s difficult to know whether to shower more praise on the directors’ deep understanding of this play or on their amazing work with the actors. Durang’s miraculous script uses humor and compassion to tinge the miseries of his characters’ lives with beauty.  Budinger and Scarpelli have done the same in this miraculous staging.  You may see a better and more skilled production of this play. You’re not likely to see a more heartfelt one.

Death and Sorrow: Soot (Nancy Sale) comforts Boo (Craig Eychner)

The Marriage of Bette and Boo plays through April 30, at the Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond.  For tickets and other information, call 510-232-4031 or go to http://www.masquers.org.

Too Absurd: Cutting Ball and Will Eno’s “Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays”

The cast of "Intermission" ( l-r, David Sinaiko, Gwyneth Richards, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, and Danielle O’Hare) watches a not-very-good play.

The San Francisco-based Cutting Ball Theater has been surprisingly long-lived and successful offering up esoteric, experimental fare (Heiner Muller, Sartre, Ionesco, Beckett, the modern absurdist Mac Wellman), as well as new takes on classics by Shakespeare, Strindberg, and Euripides, among others.  I’ve seen only a smattering of their work, and the productions are almost always elegantly and creatively staged.  Their recent production of The Tempest, was beautifully conceived and thought out, even though it faltered at play’s end.  Artistic director Rob Melrose is currently directing three short plays by Will Eno, who has certainly made a name for himself in New York and here, with recent performances at both Cutting Ball and Berkeley Rep, and an extended Off-Broadway run of his best-known play Thom Paine (based on nothing).

I tend to be suspicious of writers who view non-standard capitalization as an act of rebellion, which is why I stayed away from Thom Paine.  The New York Time’s Charles Isherwood’s description of Eno as “… a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” meant as a compliment, seemed to me more of a warning: hip, ironic post-modernism wedded to issues of existence and meaning.  And by “ironic” I mean the cultural snarkiness pervasive in our times as opposed to the true, deep irony that underpins the theater’s great masterpieces: King Lear, Othello, Waiting for Godot, Three Sisters, and countless others.  Melrose addresses this in the program’s director’s note: “Just as Beckett exploited the forms of slapstick comedy, vaudeville, and silent movies, Eno puts his ideas in the forms of stand-up comedy and the 24-hour news cycle.  The fact that Eno is able to tackle such weighty themes in these forms (which we normally associate with glibness and superficiality) is exactly what makes his work so surprising and catches us off guard.”  And although this is an apt description of what Eno is attempting, Melrose and I disagree on how successful his approach is.  As evidenced by the three short plays presented here, Eno’s tone and style undercut his interest in aging, death, and decay.  His fascination seems forced and rather callow, not the desperate obsession, filled with both beauty and horror, it was for Beckett.

The evening’s first piece, Lady Grey (in ever lower light) (again with the weird capitalization) is an extended monologue (ably delivered by Danielle O’Hare) on life, death, and all the stuff in between that takes as its starting-off point the old grade school tradition of Show and Tell.  Show and Tell is of course, theater at its most basic, someone in front of an audience presenting a story.  Lady Grey (I assume there’s some sort of connection to Lady Jane Grey, the Protestant would-be queen executed by her cousin, the Catholic Mary I) addresses the audience directly and tells stories both about herself and a young girl named “Jennifer,” who may or may not be Lady Grey.  “You seem nervous,” she says to the audience at the opening, “so why don’t I start?”  Her stream-of-consciousness verbal meanderings include quips such as “I caught the acting bug very young—maybe it was a rash,” and she describes the audience as “white people in chairs.”  (Sigh.)  She sings a fragment of a song, stops in the middle, pauses, and says, “Sorry, I was thinking of something else.”  She describes her few love affairs, and bemoans the passing of time and its ultimate ending for her.  O’Hare couldn’t be better, but her performance only heightens the problems with the script and its tone. Lady Grey floats on the surface of what she’s discussing.  There’s no resonance, only a wry matter of fact-ness, and the piece evaporates as soon as it’s over. (Heather Basarab’s lighting design also couldn’t be better.  Subtle, evocative, and highly effective, there are no flashy effects, just a perfect heightening of mood.)

The show’s second piece Intermission is the most accessible of the three and the funniest, ostensibly about the impossibility of predicting how and to whom a piece of theater will communicate.  Two couples, one younger and one older, view the end of the first act of some medical-based life and death drama, and then discuss what they’ve seen at the intermission. The younger couple is less interested while for the older couple the life-and-death themes have more meaning.  But what makes this piece so enjoyable is Galen Murphy-Hoffman’s portrayal as the male half of the younger couple.  He’s pitch-perfect as a certain type of theatergoer, the man pulled along by his feminine counterpart to a play, unengaged but also without antipathy.  If this stuff on stage is supposed to mean something, so be it, but he doesn’t really see what the fuss is about.  He still manages to find his pleasures, though.  He reads the program and announces, “One of the actors thanks their dogs.”  He puts his hands in his pockets and says, “Look how much change I have.”  Murphy-Hoffman connects with the audience not just because most of them share his point of view (we’ve all been there, watching some work straining to be important—in fact, we’re there now), but also because of his relaxed, confident, and humorous performance.  I look forward to seeing him in more substantial roles.

The third one-act, Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, begins with a tantrum as Mr. Theatre (David Sinaiko) comes home, turns over his kitchen table, talks a lot, and later eats a flower.  I checked out early on.  One sentence did catch my ear: “Would that my fake feelings could make yours more genuine.” Well, that’s pretty much the goal of theater, but Eno’s phrasing of it comes from a place of negation: achievement of the goal is not a possibility.  And maybe for him that’s true.  (These works certainly point to that.)  But when theater is successful, the fake is made real.  When Didi and Gogo pointlessly wait for Godot in some nameless place, we identify with them completely, no matter how abstract their situation.

Eno is self-consciously Beckettian.  He places profundities next to banalities and tends towards the epigrammatic.  But at the end of the day, he’s only appropriating Beckett’s themes and style, covering them with a hip veneer that ensures no real communication will happen.  Eno seems not to believe in his chosen art, in the possibility of connection.  In this chattering age, nothing can be heard, he seems to be saying, and he makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.  At the end of the night, there’s nothing much at stake here.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays shows from now until April 10 at EXIT on Taylor Street, 277 Taylor Street at Ellis, San Francisco.  For more information, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.cuttingball.com.

 

 

Catching Up: Responses to Recent Productions

Although I’ve seen several productions over the last month and a half, there hasn’t been anything especially compelling to write about, with one exception.  Having seen several “serious” productions in San Francisco as well as two more commercial ventures in Walnut Creek, I can tell you the commercial stuff won hands down.  Center Rep’s production of the spectacularly superficial sex farce Boeing Boeing, featured a splendid mid-century “modern” set design by Erik Flatmo, and two great performances, the comically unhinged Alex Moggridge (whose Romeo of ten years ago or so remains the best I’ve seen) as the rube among sophisticates, and the statuesque Jennifer Erdmann as a Lufthansa stewardess, belting a line like “I can’t find my loofah” as if announcing the annexation of Poland.  Liam Vincent as the swinging bachelor whose juggling of love affairs with three stewardesses predictably leads to disaster, and Jessica Lynn Carroll and Kelsey Venter as the other two stews, also did fine work.

Alex Moggridge, Jennifer Erdmann, and Jessica Lynn Carroll flying the friendly skies in Center Rep's "Boeing Boeing."

The show I would have liked to write about at greater length, but saw too late in its run, was Diablo Theatre Company’s mounting of The Drowsy Chaperone.  I admired the Broadway production, which was clever and very slickly produced, but I loved Diablo’s production—less slick, but funnier and somehow more touching.  I say “somehow” but it’s pretty clear what made it so: Michael Patrick Gaffney’s performance as Man in Chair, the role originated by the show’s co-author Bob Martin.

Michael Patrick Gaffney shares his love in Diablo's "The Drowsy Chaperone."

We’re only in March, but I’m tempted to say Gaffney’s is the performance of the year.  He brought a deeper pathos and substance than Martin did on Broadway to his portrayal of a man lonely and alone, but still quick with a quip and possessed of a mordant wit.  Gaffney’s Man in Chair was a man withdrawn from life after a long history of disappointments, but whose passion could still be stirred by the cast album of a silly 1920s musical that he plays for the audience, providing commentary along the way.  Gossiping about the cast and back-story of the Jazz Age relic, his eyes shone and his face lit up, and when moved to dance and sing along with the music, Gaffney made his actions things of beauty.  His Man in Chair knows the show is silly escapism, but given the current state of his existence, that’s what he wants most.

Gaffney’s depth and commitment made the show’s comedy richer and funnier.  There were problems with the production (it seemed underlit, and at the performance I saw, there were late lighting cues and some sub-par spotlight work—it also didn’t help that the Thursday night audience seemed unaware they were allowed to laugh), but when the amazing Sharon Rietkirk sings “Show Off,” the terrific number where the show within the show’s leading lady announces she’s abandoning her successful stage career to get married  (“I don’t wanna wear this no more./ Play the saucy Swiss Miss no more./ Blow my signature kiss no more./ I don’t wanna show off”) and the rest of the cast is busy show-casing her as she spins plates, undergoes miraculous quick changes, performs magic tricks, and belies the song’s lyrics in every conceivable way, it’s expertly staged bliss.  (Daren A.C. Corollo directed and Sheri Stockdale did the choreography.)  Other highlights: Leanne Borghesi’s belting out the inspirational ode to being tipsy, “As We Stumble Along,” Dan LeGate’s ridiculous accent as the rakish Adolpho (Man in Chair describes the actor portraying Adolpho as “the man of a 1,000 accents, all of them offensive”), and the very funny Samantha Bruce as Kitty, the starlet hoping to marry her way to stardom.

"The Drowsy Chaperone" ensemble takes off.

Over in the county of San Fran, my theatergoing has been a little drearier.  I was looking forward to the New Conservatory Theatre Center’s production of Paul Rudnick’s Regrets Only. Rudnick, author of Jeffrey, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, and the movie Addams Family Values, can be hilarious, but Regrets Only is a social problem play (about gay marriage) told in an ostensibly high-comic style.  Rudnick’s characters don’t quip so much as perform extended routines for the benefit of some unseen audience.  (Certainly not for our benefit.)  On top of this the NCTC cast had no facility for the style, shouting their lines and pushing the jokes, and the set design, meant to replicate a swanky Manhattan apartment, was shabby looking and tasteless.  Perhaps the second act was better.  I wouldn’t know since I got the hell out of there at intermission.

The regrettable "Regrets Only" at NCTC.

A more valiant effort was to be found at the San Francisco Playhouse’s presentation of British playwright Simon Stephens’ Harper Regan.  Admirably acted (especially by Susi Damilano, Joy Carlin, Michael Keys Hall, Richard Frederick, and Daniel Redmond), competently staged by director Amy Glazer, and featuring a wonderful, ghostly set design by Bill English based on the artist Rachel Whiteread’s large-scale plaster works, Harper Regan had some genuinely affecting moments, but Stephens is another one of those British playwrights (like Patrick Marber) who’s too heavily influenced by Pinter and Mamet.  Despite a somewhat happy (and unsatisfactorily pat) ending, the script is too sour, too bitter to be engrossing.

Next up: a review of Cutting Ball’s Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and two other short plays by the celebrated (though not by me) Will Eno.

Susi Damilano and Daniel Redmond in SF Playhouse's "Harper Regan."

Regrets Only plays through April 3 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market Street), San Francisco.  For more information call (415) 861-8972 or go to http://www.nctcsf.org.