Contrasting premieres at New Jersey Regionals: “The Outsider” and “American Hero”

As if we needed a reminder about the difference between governing and politicking, along comes “The Outsider,” running through February 18 at Paper Mill Playhouse. The wide chasm that exists between those two concepts is old news (and hardly fake), but Paul Slade Smith’s farcical romp puts a quirky spin on it.

When the governor of an un-named state is forced to retire (the usual reason), his Lieutenant Governor is revealed as a mumbling fumbler. Ned Newley (Lenny Wolpe) appears not only to be incompetent, but also incapable of coherent communication in a public forum, but he is actually a policy wonk with a firm grasp on budgets, infra-structure and other facets of statewide government. The bumbler-cum fiscal whiz is acted to a tee by Wolpe, whose familiar visage has never been more pliable, and it is no surprise that Governor Newley’s brand of governmental accountability eventually triumphs.

Power-broker (Burke Moses) grooming the Governor (Lenny Wolpe) for a public appearance

What makes the civics lesson palatable is how deftly written, acted and directed (by David Esbjornson) it is. The climactic mini-lecture is drawn out of Newley in a believable way. What makes the play about more than just that lesson are the characters that surround Newley, especially Louise “LuLu” Peakes, a totally inept office temp, played to a ripe comic turn by Erin Noel Grennan.

The ditsy LuLu becomes a central political figure in spite of herself. She dwells in non-sequitur land, where her out-of-left-field responses place her squarely in the sights of political image-master Arthur Vance (Burke Moses), who grooms her for greater things. LuLu actually conning the electorate might have been a ludicrous over-reach a year or so ago, but today? Not so much. Someone says of LuLu, “She’s got great energy,” which applies twice over to the fiery red-headed Ms. Grennan.

Governor Newley (Lenny Wolpe), the TV anchorwoman (Kelley Curran) and Lulu Peakes (Erin Noel Grennan) rallying the electorate

In other roles, Julia Duffy is a pollster with her finger on the public pulse, and Manoel Felciano and Kelley Curran play the Governor’s chief of staff and a TV newswoman, between whom a bland budding romance is chemistry-deprived. Mike Houston stands out as a gruff TV cameraman who becomes the unlikely catalyst for Ned Newley’s emergence from the political-puppet closet.

Mr. Smith’s play is really a live-action sitcom, but buoyed by Mr. Wolpe’s skillful take on the Governor’s dual personas and Ms. Grennan’s scene-stealing (hell, play-stealing) LuLu, “The Outsider” is worth stashing the remote and getting yourself to Paper Mill.

Through February 18 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn NJ. Performances Wed. at 7:30PM; Thurs. at 1:30 and 7:30; Fri. at 8PM; Sat. at 1:30 and 8; Sun. at 1:30 and 7PM. For tickets (from $34): 973-376-4343 or at www.papermill.org

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There are heroes and then there are heroes. That seeming incongruity is brought home with searing clarity in Christopher Demos-Brown’s “American Hero,” running through February 25 at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. And while its tone is opposite that of “The Outsider,” the two plays share a defining trait: they are both steeped in cynicism. Paper Mill’s play skewers politics with comedy, while “American Hero” takes on the American military establishment. Both plays’ success speaks to the efficacy of Theatre as a message-medium (and to the quality and variety of New Jersey’s Regional stages).

“American Hero” opens with a remarkably vivid battle scene, staged on designer Jason Simms economical set. Upstage of an interior space, it evokes an Iraqi forest-tangle, where, later in the play, the harrowing conflict is enacted in more detail. The scenes depict the heroism from different perspectives: the first one of clear-cut bravery, the second more nuanced – still courageous, to be sure, but colored, if not marred, by surrounding circumstances.

Marine Captain Robert “Rob” Wellman (Armand Schultz) is awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in that Iraqi encounter. The citation, we learn, carries multiple privileges and a near-mystical aura within the military, prompting those in the vetting process to over-emphasize some of the narrative and omit some, which Rob, after token resistance, signs off on.

Laiona Michelle, left, Armand Schultz and Kally Duling in “American Hero” [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

          The primary omission is that of US Army Corporal Mary Jean Boudreaux, without whose participation there is no Medal…and no play. But there is the fiery Corporal, played with spirit and wit by Laiona Michelle. (Another feature of both plays reviewed here is the dominance of secondary female characters over the plays’ titled males.)

Over the course of a tight 95 minutes we learn much about the outer and inner lives of Rob and Mary, from their battlefield bond to their post-Iraq trajectories – his upbeat on the surface, despite being wheelchair-bound, and hers a downward spiral exacerbated by her being female, African-American and a lesbian: a triple whammy.

          Rob treats his 17-year old daughter Shawn like one of his underling leathernecks, some of whom could probably not do twenty push-ups as efficiently as Kally Duling does in her excellent performance. (“Quick twenty before you go,” Rob commands Shawn.) Scenes between Mary and Shawn, one upon meeting and then later sharing intimacies (and a doobie) are both heart-warming and amusing.

George Street’s artistic director David Saint stages the battle scenes and the many post-Iraq transitions with seamless efficiency

John Bolger plays eight roles, including the U.S President, some supercilious Marine officers and a beat cop. While we know it’s the same actor, each character is a distinct individual, a credit both to Bolger and playwright Demos-Brown. Significantly also, Schultz adjusts Rob’s relationships with each of the eight in a multi-faceted performance. Medal of Honor recipient Captain Robert Wellman is a sympathetic character. Or is he?

   Through February 25 at George Street Playhouse’s temporary home (while a downtown New Brunswick PAC is being built) on the Cook Campus of Rutgers University. For directions, performance schedule and to purchase tickets, go to: www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org 

Blog, Professional, Regional

Glorious still: “A Chorus Line” in Westchester

Here’s a list of those individuals who should see “A Chorus Line”: Anyone who has ever auditioned for a show or competed in any way for any job; anyone who has ever sung, danced and/or acted on any stage (or “air-danced” in private); and anyone who remembers “A Chorus Line” from years ago or who, by some fault of timing or misguided choice, has never seen it.

And here’s a list of who should see it at Westchester Broadway Theatre before it closes there on April 1: All of the above.

It had been a while since my last “A Chorus Line.” The 2006 Broadway production was more an attempt at re-creation than a revival: faithful but somewhat mechanical. WBT’s is a fresh revival (oxymoron noted), a vibrant rendering of the 1975 musical that not only took Broadway by storm, but that also altered the face of the American musical. No history lesson here, but when’s the last time you saw separate singing and dancing ensembles? Try to get a gig now at any level if you can’t do both. (And, oh yeah, act.)

The auditions begin [Photos: John Vecchiolla]

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“El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” at Two River Theater: Bueno, muy bueno

Write what you know, the saying goes. Playwright Matt Barbot and director José Zayas both credit their Hispanic heritage with having inspired their collaboration on “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom.” After being showcased at Two River Theater’s Crossing Borders New Latino Plays festival, Barbot’s play, directed by Zayas, is premiering in a full production at Two River through February 4.

The play is about the creation of comic book character El Coquí Espectacular by an aspiring Brooklynite cartoonist of Puerto Rican descent – a Nuyorican, as that ethnicity is known. El Coquí will be the first Latino super hero, and having committed him to comic-book panels, writer/artist Alex (Bradley James Tejeda) ventures out into the dark of night dressed as his alter ego, not exactly in search of burglaries in progress or damsels in distress. “I thought it would help to get inside the character,” says Alex.

Bradley James Tejada as El Coquí Espectacular [Photos: Richard Termine]

          [The coqui is a singing tree frog native to Puerto Rico, so named for the sound of the male’s call. From such humble origins do super heroes emerge…at least this one.]

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New Jersey Repertory Company gets religion: “The Calling” world premiere

Selected by NJPAC’s Stage Exchange as one of 30 plays by New Jersey playwrights to be produced at in-state venues, Monmouth University adjunct professor of playwriting Joel Stone’s “The Calling” is world premiering through February 4 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Set in the nave of a Catholic church, it occurred to me even before the play began that an apt sub-title might be “A View from the Altar,” so authentic is designer Jessica Parks’ set.

That musing aside, the one-act two-hander opens with Father Dan (Ames Adamson) discovering a man sleeping in one of the pews, where he had lingered after Mrs. Callahan’s funeral mass.

Ames Adamson, left, and Jared Michael Delaney in “The Calling” [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

At first wary of the stranger (“…we don’t keep cash on the premises…”), Father Dan relaxes when Carl (Jared Michael Delaney) reveals scrubs under his jacket, informing Dan that he is a nurse. Aha, I figured; the play will deal with the timely topic of male nurses in that heretofore female-dominated profession. I was mistaken. (The gender issue is not even mentioned, which may be even timelier.)

Soon enough, Carl makes a reference to the Catholic clergy’s sex-abuse scandals. Aha #2: so that would be the topic, I (and surely the rest of the audience) assumed. Wrong again. Finally, Carl tells why he had stayed after the funeral service, but, wouldn’t you know it: he’s lying about his intentions. We still don’t know. And as if the foregoing isn’t frustrating enough, even after a distasteful truth emerges, yet another underlying motive bubbles up.

The red herrings and shifting suspicions are both the strength and the weakness of Stone’s play. We’re intrigued by the by-play between the two men, as Father Dan becomes more and more interested in his interloper, but the technique requires too much exposition, some of it re-hashed, with each revelation.

Questions abound: Had the two men ever met before? What, if any, was Carl’s relationship with the deceased Mrs. Callahan, and why had he attended her funeral? What are his intentions toward Father Dan? Those and other factual questions are pretty well answered.

More interesting are some philosophical and liturgical questions: Are there degrees of Faith? Divergent but equally valid interpretations? What are a priest’s obligations to a worshiper or confessor? And just how sacrosanct is the confessional – even when a priest knows of or strongly suspects the likelihood of further grievously sinful acts. These issues are randomly addressed and not really resolved (can they ever be?), which might be the playwright’s intent, but paraphrasing those issues several times over? “Get on with it,” I thought more than once.

Those points made about the play, it’s hard to imagine it better acted or directed. Adamson and Delaney are as much different types as are their characters, but their rapport – chemistry, if you will – is established early and maintained throughout. It takes a while for Father Dan and Carl to communicate effectively, but even that awkwardness is well acted. The director of a two-character play is fully one-third of the equation; Evan Bergman’s guidance is consistently creative and on-target.

Toward the end, Carl interrupts Father Dan’s lengthy discourse on why he chose his vocation. “Are you sure this isn’t the plot of an old movie?” he asks the priest. That line, I thought, is either a mark of courage by the playwright – or a challenge to a reviewer. The benefit of the doubt here goes to Mr. Stone. He’s hardly a rookie, but this is his first full-length play after 44 years of writing shorter one-acts. He’d do well to pare this one down a bit, but “The Calling,” as it stands and however flawed, is nonetheless worthy of NJPAC (and NJ REP)’s selection.

Through February 4 at NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances Thurs & Fri at 8PM; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 2PM. Tickets ($46): 732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org

Blog, Professional, Regional

Together off-Broadway: Ballet, Bach and…Frankenstein?

It may be a tad unfair to begin a review of Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s serious play “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” by recalling the most irreverent take ever on Mary’s creation, but the blind man’s cane-tapping entrance in act one conjured up a vision of Gene Hackman igniting Peter Boyle’s thumb in Mel Brooks’s movie “Young Frankenstein.” My barely stifled chuckle stood out against the dark and stormy nature of the play, which is as much about Ms. Shelley’s creative process as it is about the work itself. It is, in fact, a story within a story, enhanced by classical compositions and evocative choreography.

The compositions are those of Franz Lizst, Franz Schubert, and Johann Sebastian Bach. The choreography is devised by Robert Fairchild, who also executes it as The Monster.

Robert Fairchild as The Frankenstein Monster [Photos: Shirin Tinati]

Playwright Eve Wolf’s concept – conflating Mary Shelley’s state of mind with the tale she wrote – is not aided by Donald R. Sanders’s direction, which muddies the lines between the two facets. The play opens with a surge of organ music reminiscent of a Bela Lugosi movie intro. We then see Mary (Mia Vallet) waking from a dream in which she envisions The Monster that she goes on to create in a horror-story contest with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and Byron’s mistress during a storm. The back-and-forth between the state of Mary’s mind and of her fictional creation leaves both threads unfulfilled.

Fairchild’s periodic spasmodic writhing, while faithful in part to Shelley’s description, is nonetheless distracting. Also, as my companion observed, Fairchild’s own appearance works against Ms. Shelley’s tale. Despite some ungainly writhing and unruly behavior, the dancer-actor is hardly “of monstrous size and dreadful appearance,” nor does he act so. When The Monster is repulsed by his reflection in a pool of water (creatively imagined on Vanessa James’ set by Beverly Emmons’ lighting), the projected reflection is a blow-up of Fairchild’s face, cringe-worthy only if you are frightened by preternatural handsomeness.

[Fairchild retired as Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet to pursue a career in musical theater, garnering a Tony Award nomination (and Drama Desk win) in his 2015 Broadway debut “An American in Paris.” He was last seen as Will Parker in “Oklahoma” at London’s Royal Albert Hall.]

Mary Shelley (Mia Vallet) in the symbolic grasp of her creation

Somewhere in there is a straight play about Mary, whose scandalous elopement with the already-married poet Percy and his later drowning during a storm, not to mention her tragic losses of two infants and a toddler, could fill a mini-series.

Overall, projection designer David Bengali’s handiwork is very impressive, evoking eerie landscapes, storms and a chilling and menacing atmosphere barely matched by the context. The digital art, complemented by the live-performed classical music, creates a mesmerizing effect and would, in fact, be a satisfying hour-long concert event. At two hours, however (including intermission), “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is in limbo somewhere among the worlds of Theatre, Ballet and Concert. Until that Mary Shelley bio play appears, I’ll stick with Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman et al.

Through Jan 6 at Pershing Square Signature Center, West 42nd Street, NYC. For schedule and tickets: 212-279-4200 and online at www.romanticcentury.org 

 

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Something old, something…older: Once On This Island and Twelfth Night

Re-visit with me, if you will, some of the comments I made in reviews of “Once On This Island” in Ocean Grove in 2004 (“…undistinguished, although pleasant enough”) and at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2012 (“…more a whimper than a bang”). The current Broadway revival at Circle in the Square, is indeed distinguished, and the only whimpers are in the audience as certain emotional scenes unfold. Directed by Michael Arden, the show has charm, verve and passion to spare. Not that it is over-the-top by any means; it is, in fact, a perfect blend of fantasy, romance and pathos: thoroughly satisfying in every way.

In its way, “Once On This Island is also timely – even more so, perhaps, than when it opened off-Broadway in May 1990, transferring later that year to Broadway, where it ran over a year and was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning none, alas, against that season’s juggernaut, “The Will Rogers Follies” (unlikely to be revived anytime soon). The deceptively simple theme, couched in a mystical tale of forbidden romance, is grounded in class and racial distinctions. The material by Lynn Ahrens (book & lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) is of a piece, varying seamlessly from Caribbean tempos to haunting ballads.

From left: Mia Williamson, Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore (on lap) with cast members. [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Off Broadway