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September 10, 2010

A Mysterious Way

amysteriousimage.jpg

Reviewed: September 10, 2010
Venue: Red Room (85 East 4th Street, New York City)
Running Time: 40 minutes (no intermission)
Run: September 9-18, 2010

Written by: Steven Walters
Directed by: Barrett Hileman
Sound Design: Chris Monroe

Produced by: Firebone Theatre
Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Zach Dorn

Cast
Gene Francis as Kane
Alexander Richard as Gordon



A Mysterious Way - Not All That Mysterious

Steven Walters' play, which Firebone Theatre first produced in 2009, has Edward Albee's The Zoo Story stamped all over it: the two-people-on-a-bench set-up and a character (in this case named Kane, as in Abel) whose theological uncertainty leads to a murder. But while this interrogation of God's will in human life may have been shocking in 1959 when Albee loosed The Zoo Story onto the world, it has no bite a half-century later, which is why the play has no bite either, even though it ends with a murder and has vigorous performances from Gene Francis (Kane) and Alexander Richard (Gordon).

The arc of the play is simple. Kane and Gordon are both waiting for a train to Atlantic City, with this difference: Gordon is planning to visit his mother there, while Kane plans to blow up the train enroute. Kane murders Gordon, a gentle-souled Bible-reading Christian, as part of his challenge to God to use his divine powers to prevent such evils, and the play ends with a voiceover announcement that all train service has been suspended, hinting that while God did not save Gordon, he thwarted Kane by causing the system to malfunction.

But none of the action in Walters' play feels authentic or necessary, in part because he never gives any urgent reason for Kane to enlist and then kill Gordon. If Kane's objective is to test whether God would interfere with his plans, he could simply keep his mouth shut, get on the train, and see what would happen (assuming that God, being God, would know Kane's intentions).

The coincidences in the play also give it an inauthentic feel: the only other person on the platform at 3:30 AM just happens to be a Bible-reading fallen human being trying to work his way back into life from (it is hinted) some dissipations involving gambling, drinking, and sex -- in other words, the perfect foil for Kane's maneuvers. Perhaps we're meant to think that God put Gordon there so that Kane can have his means, but the neatness of the set-up just stretches believability a bit too much.

Albee's play struggled with the question of what do people do when they reach the end of their tethers -- a question any matured adult confronts on a daily basis. The core issue of A Mysterious Way -- does God intervene in human history to prevent evil -- is less compelling because it's less imperative in people's lives -- and, in any case, most evidence indicates that God doesn't intervene, which more or less settles the case and makes A Mysterious Way not mysterious at all.

Michael Bettencourt

September 18, 2010

Roadkill Confidential

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Photo: Carl Skutsch
(L to R) Alex Anfanger as Randy, Polly Lee as Melanie, Danny Mastrogiorgio
as FBI Man, Greg McFadden as William and Rebecca Henderson as Trevor

Reviewed: September 13, 2010
Venue: 3LD
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Written by: Sheila Callaghan
Directed by: Kip Fagan
Set Designer: Peter Ksander
Costume Designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting Designer: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Sound Designer and Original Music: Bart Fasbender
Video Designers: Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty
Sculpture Designer and Animals: Jessica Scott
Wig, Hair, and Make-up Design: Erin Kennedy Lunsford

Production Stage Manager: Sunneva Stapleton
Assistant Stage Manager: Colleen M. Sherry
Assistant Director: Sarah Rose Leonard

Cast
Alex Anfanger as Frizzy Haired Man/Randy
Rebecca Henderson as Trevor Pratt
Polly Lee as Melanie Colander
Danny Mastrogiorgio as FBI Man
Greg McFadden as William Whiting/The Doctor

The Con Game in Roadkill Confidential

Sheila Callaghan's "noir-ish meditation on brutality" has an interesting moral and aesthetic knot at its core, about an artist living in a brutal culture using the means of that culture to inform its citizens about that brutality, only to become, in the process, as indifferently brutal as those she chastises. That artist is Trevor Pratt (Rebecca Henderson), the sculpture is built from animals she injures as she speeds down country roads, the situation she wants to condemn is the war in Afghanistan (with its own roadkill in the form of IEDs), the fatalities she causes include a nebbish lover and a nosy neighbor (both from tularemia, contracted from the animal carcasses) as well as her husband and step-son (by emotional abandonment).

But as the subtitle of the play hints, this is all treated very "-ish," that is, not with an entirely serious commitment to the moral forces at play in her story -- instead, we get an ironic arms-length attitude abetted by an overlay of ornamental technical effects (multiple video monitors, projections, etc.) and a narrator (Danny Mastrogiorgio as FBI Man) whose pastiche delivery of his lines, by sampling the voiceovers of old noir films, constantly reminds the audience that they're attending a sort of vaudeville show.

This is not to say that Roadkill Confidential doesn't entertain. Ms. Henderson signs off everything she says with a trademark snarl -- after all, this is a person who burst her way into the art world by using the photos of a dead woman in a car crash as an art installation, the mangled woman being the first wife of Pratt's current husband, William (Greg McFadden), an art historian who has hitched his academic career as well as his heart to the rise of Trevor.

Mr. Mastrogiorgio gives the cartoonishly drawn FBI Man what heft he can, as a man whose patriotic fight for justice (he even lost his right eye in the battle) is flummoxed by his growing admiration for Trevor's ruthlessness. Polly Lee plays Melanie Colander, Trevor and William's next-door-neighbor, with great energy, gradually revealing how her good-neighborliness is really an aggressive pitch for affection from an emotionally starved woman. Alex Anfanger gives Randy, William's son from the first marriage, non-stop voltage as the perpetually angry adolescent who has every reason to distrust the adults around him and the world they've created.

And kudos to the technical staff for the projections, video, lighting effects, and set design as well as to Kip Fagan's direction, which is sure-handed, inventive, and well-paced. Ms. Callaghan is served well by her crew.

Yet, in the end, it's not clear what the audience is supposed to take away from this "meditation on brutality." Both the off-kilter humor and technical tricks in the play displace rather than deepen an emotional response to the story, and by the end, when Trevor and FBI Man have their inevitable showdown, the action shades off into demonstrations about the whorishness of fame and the hypocrisy of making art, rounded off with an unsatisfying display of the actual roadkill sculpture as Trevor walks into a blizzard of photographers' strobes.

However, there is one moment in the play when Ms. Callaghan lets down her guard and goes simple, in a good way. When Trevor tells William that she doesn't want him to attend the opening, he reminds her that by giving her the photos of his dead wife "I took my hands off the wheel/I signed up for this./All of this." She responds by eviscerating him, turning him into emotional roadkill: " I'm, I'm sick./Sick of your intellectual postscripts./Your fame whoredom/Your cloying regard/And I'm so fucking sick/of being the one thing/that makes your career feel important."

When she finishes, one can feel the whole audience leaning forward, drawn into the scene by the strength of the writing and the honesty of the actors onstage and actually "meditating on brutality" as they watch William wither under Trevor's blast.

Trusting more of that and less of the tricks and gadgetry could make Roadkill Confidential the serious dramatic meditation on brutality Ms. Callaghan wants it to be rather than the theatrically skillful but emotionally remote exercise that it is.

Michael Bettencourt

September 28, 2010

A Home Across The Ocean

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Photo: Antonio Miniño
(L-R) Mark Emerson, David Stallings, and Lavita Shaurice Burr


Reviewed: September 21, 2010
Produced by: Maieutic Theatre Works
Venue: Studio Theatre, Theatre Row
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with intermission)

Written by: Cody Daigle
Directed by: Dev Bondarin
Producer: Martha Goode
Set Designer: Blair Mielnik
Costume Designer: Rachel Dozier-Ezell
Lighting Designer: Dan Gallagher
Sound Designer: Kimberly Fuhr-Carbone

Assistant Sound Designer: Carrie Cook
Production Stage Manager: Carolynn Richer
Assistant Stage Manager/Prop Designer: Nichol C. Rosas-Ullman

Alex Bond as Grethe Rast
David Stallings as Connor Rast
Mark Emerson as Daniel Bader
Lavita Shaurice Burr as Penny
Dathan B. Williams as Mhambi Nobhule

This Ocean Is Easy To Cross
As befits a play with "ocean" in the title, A Home Across The Ocean, by Cody Daigle, is a moist play. Not a scene goes by without some character standing on the verge of tears (of laughter, of anger, of relief, of joy); it seems that whenever Mr. Daigle wants to illustrate emotional authenticity, on come the waterworks.
Connor (David Stallings) and Daniel (Mark Emerson), a gay middle-class couple (though we never do learn what they do for a living), bring Penny (Lavita Shaurice Burr), a 13-year-old African-American girl who has been through the wringer of the foster-care system, into the their home. They plan to adopt her but have agreed to something like a trial run as foster parents to see if the situation will work out.
Penny arrives three weeks after David's father, Anthony, died from a massive heart attack, and Grethe (Alex Bond), David's mother, seems insufficiently grief-stricken after 35 years of marriage -- she not only wants to offload the father's suits to Goodwill, she writes a letter to Mhambi Nobhule (Dathan Williams), a college lover originally from Nigeria, letting him know, in so many words, that she's available. Mhambi, for his part, has always kept a flame in his heart for Grethe, and he arranges to fly from London, where he's lived for years as a literature teacher, to Chicago to see what sparks can spark.
At first, Grethe is a bit shocked that Connor and David arrange to take the older Penny into their home; she was expecting (one can sense) a white infant, someone she could mother. But she soon warms to Penny, and Penny to her, to the point where Penny prefers to stay at Grethe's house rather than with her two highly agitated, trying-too-hard foster parents. When Mhambi arrives, Penny sees in him the father she has always been hoping will return to rescue her, which drives Connor and Daniel into a deeper hole of self-doubt and self-recrimination.
But not to fear -- we are not in the land of August: Osage County: people cross this ocean, not drown in it. While Connor accuses Grethe of betrayal, and Grethe defends herself by saying that life goes on, they are too closely bonded for this disagreement to rupture their relationship, and they reconcile as Grethe goes off to spend three weeks with Mhambi on her own test-run of a new life.
Penny, at first distant because afraid of risking any emotional attachment that may not last, eventually grows closer to Connor and David, and by play's end they are on the road to being a family. Mhambi, for his part, gets the woman he's always wanted, even if it is 35 years later than he expected.
While the play is earnest in its narrative of happiness won through emotional struggle, the honesty it aims for is undermined by a whole host of clichés (though it's not clear if these are in the writing itself or come from Dev Bondarin's direction). For example, as the gay couple aching to be parents, Connor and Daniel exhibit every tic of the "stage gay man" (like the "stage Irish" of the English theater): eye-rolls, hissy fits, a love of "The Golden Girls," even Connor's little gelled rooster-comb of a haircut. While fun to watch (Mr. Stalling and Mr. Emerson work well together onstage), it also makes one wonder how they ever passed the interviews with the case worker: they hardly seem settled enough in their skins to qualify as potential parents.
More irritating is the way Mr. Daigle employs the black characters as saviors of the white family, especially in the exotic otherness of the Nigerian Mhambi, a published (if minor) poet who speaks in perfected sentences and appears as the soul of grace (right down to his bow tie). Penny, too, plays this role for the white people around her, a body of still water that runs deep with insight and advice that brings Connor and Daniel to the senses they should have had going in to this venture.
A Home Across The Ocean is cleverly written, well-plotted, and performed with great skill (Ms. Bond is especially good), and if you like high fructose plays that end well, this is your cup of sugar. (Note: A few of the shows will have talkbacks about the perils and pleasures of adoption, as part of their mission to "raise awareness of the social issues presented in our work.")

Michael Bettencourt

About September 2010

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