Review: “Thousand Pines” at Westport Country Playhouse

Review: “Thousand Pines” at Westport Country Playhouse

Watching Matthew Greene’s triptych “Thousand Pines” is like sitting down to a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast – the kind made up of individual, familiar parts you already like, the kind that takes center stage in Walt Spangler’s homey set – only to find a few side dishes that, while tasty, don’t nearly fill you up. It’s a frustratingly fuzzy experience, especially since there’s such a compelling story so close to the surface. But more often than not, Greene’s work is well-meaning but rushed, overstuffed and undernourished.

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Review: "Man of La Mancha" at Westport Country Playhouse

Review: "Man of La Mancha" at Westport Country Playhouse

Inspired by the Miguel de Cervantes’ literary masterpiece, Don Quixote, Westport Country Playhouse brings us the classic musical, Man of La Mancha. It tells the story of a man, Alonso Quijano, who is convinced that he is “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” a determined and valiant knight-errant. The tale is told as a play-within-a-play by Cervantes himself, as part of a mock trial of the prisoners he is detained with, waiting to be questioned by the Spanish Inquisition.  Truth be told, I am not a fan of “old-school” musicals, but this production feels contemporary thanks to its choreography, staging, and casting. 

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Review: "The Understudy" at Westport Country Playhouse

Review: "The Understudy" at Westport Country Playhouse

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction, but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you.” – Franz Kafka

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Review: “Flyin’ West” at Westport Country Playhouse

Review: “Flyin’ West” at Westport Country Playhouse

Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” was written in the early 1990s and set in 1898, yet the show has an ardent topicality that will surely resonate with audience members at the Westport Country Playhouse. The themes of discrimination, racial identity and the legacy one generation leaves for another in this segregated nation of ours are of the utmost timeliness, and the female-driven, anti-domestic violence narrative lies right at the heart of the current #MeToo movement. The moments in Seret Scott’s handsome and well-acted production where the characters speak freely and lyrically about the struggles they face as free black women stuck in an era between the Civil War and the end of the Jim Crow laws are moving and fascinating. Problem is, they’re buried in a boilerplate script that undermines the subtlety and intellect of its themes with one-dimensional characters and a series of contrived set-ups that would feel more at home in a Lifetime movie.

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Review: 'The Invisible Hand' at the Westport Country Playhouse

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic

Having seen Disgraced at the Long Wharf Theater last season, I was eager to see the Pulitzer-Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s earlier work.  Akhtar’s ability to discuss Muslim-Americans relations is astute and sometimes disturbing and I was interested to see how his other works compared. For those unfamiliar with the term (like I was), “invisible hand” refers to a term used by early American economist Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations) describing the unintended social benefits of one’s actions in terms of income distribution and production. With Akhtar’s play, we see the many layers of meaning this 18th century term has in the 21st century: the invisible hand can give, take, and slap hard enough to draw blood. 

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Photo: Carol Rosegg

I know for many this seems like a boring prospect for a play (financial stuff = ZZZZZZZ), but I assure you that it isn’t. As a person who doesn’t know a bond from James Bond, I found the play riveting. The plot centers on American banker, Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), who is kidnapped by a Pakistani terrorist group in order for them to secure monies for local interests. Knowing that his company won’t be able to (or plain won’t) secure his $10 million ransom (“we don’t negotiate with terrorists”), Bright offers to earn the ransom money through the commodities and futures market. Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose – who was brilliant in Long Wharf’s Disgraced) agrees to Bright’s plan, but only if his disciple, Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), works alongside Bright to learn how to manage the organization’s finances. Luckily, Bright is a Pakistani futures market expert, so he can earn money quite quickly -  luckily *and* unfortunately. Nick’s agreement to save his skin evolves into something much more sinister; you leave believing more than ever that money is the root of all evil. 

One thing I will say for Akhtar’s writing: he doesn’t write milquetoast characters, which is why his stories are so compelling. They’re fascinating in a rubbernecking sort of way, craning your neck to see what outrageous move they’ll make next. Yet, his characters are authentic enough that we keep circling the accident to see what becomes of them. 

Bryant’s depiction of the hostage-turned-Rumpelstiltskin walked a fine line between honesty and hubris. I was shocked at times at Bright’s egotistic utterances to his captors, whispering to myself, “Don’t say THAT, you idiot!” thinking it’d get him punched, whipped, or shot in the head.  Kaisi’s Bashir was larger than life; his presence and volatility kept me on the edge of my seat.  He played a difficult character in that he had to show a tough exterior despite the chip on his shoulder.   Bose plays a remarkably different character than the one he depicted in Disgraced: Imam Saleem is composed and controlled (to a point). Besides some initial stumbles getting comfortable with accents, the performances were strong and persuasive. 

As you walk in the theater, it’s difficult not to notice the gigantic, lidded, black box on the stage. “Gives a whole new meaning to ‘black box theatre’,” quips my husband. When the show opens, the room darkens and, as if by sorcery, the box is somehow opened to reveal the set: a small cell. During intermission, the imposing box closed and we prowled around it to figure out how it works to uncover the cell of the imprisoned banker. Kudos to Adam Rigg and his clever, thought-provoking design.

Overall, the Westport Country Playhouse’s production of The Invisible Hand does not disappoint with intense performances, smart design, and thoughtful direction.  

 

Review: 'Buyer and Cellar' at Westport Country Playhouse

James Cooper

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic

The Westport Country Playhouse has imported the off-Broadway production of Fairfield resident Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer and Cellar,” including the set, the director (Stephen Brackett) and the fabulously talented star Michael Urie. This comic semi-fantasy was inspired by Barbra Streisand’s book My Passion for Design, in which her photographs show her gorgeous Malibu estate (much of which looks like it belongs in New England).

But, in reading her book, people discovered that she had created a mini-mall of “shoppes” in her basement, each one displaying collections of her “stuff,” including costumes, knick-knacks, and dolls, as well as a frozen yoghurt machine and a popcorn machine. This led to any number of snarky comments about this mall, including who exactly is/are its customer(s). Presumably just Ms Streisand.

Michael Urie in “Buyer & Cellar,” written by Jonathan Tolins, and directed by Stephen Brackett, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through July 3.  (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org      Photo by Carol Rosegg

Michael Urie in “Buyer & Cellar,” written by Jonathan Tolins, and directed by Stephen Brackett, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through July 3.  (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org      Photo by Carol Rosegg

Tolins’ play is a monolog, ably performed by Urie, in which standing outside the proscenium, he explains that this is a work of fiction and begs Barbra not to sue them. Then he steps into the frame, playing Alex More, an actor recently dismissed from playing a character (Mayor of Toonville) at Disneyland. Feeling sorry for dismissing him, the Disney casting director lets him know of a role he could take on in Malibu, which turns out to be the shopkeeper for all the stores in Barbra’s mini-mall.

That’s the premise, and to a large degree the only joke that Urie has to riff on. He hangs around and eventually gets to actually meet Barbra and sells her some of her stuff. Since he notes that there is no cash register or cash drawer, you are left to puzzle out what happens to Streisand’s cash.

Alex More is gay and has a boyfriend he refers to, but this is just Urie’s show, and he chooses to be so flamboyantly gay, prancing about, waving his arms and so forth, that it is distracting from what little comedy there is, and just adds to the show’s running time.

Much of the audience laughed at the quips that Urie is given, but some did not, and I started looking at my watch about 9 pm, when a few people began to leave. While the show is billed as 90 minutes without intermission, it actually ended about 9:50, by which time a few others had left as well.

One of the fantasies Tolin gives Alex is that he suggests to Barbra that she would make a great Mama Rose in Gypsy, and she asks him to rehearse her in the part, even though, as Alex admits, it is hardly credible that a seventy-year old lady would have a 5 year old daughter. In a case of life imitating art, it appears that such a movie is now in the works.

Buyer and Cellar is a mildly amusing play based on the missing Ms Streisand and ably performed by Mr Urie, but it is not great theater despite its Off-Broadway awards. You may enjoy it, though because of its preposterous premise. 

It runs through July 3 at the Westport Country Playhouse, and tickets are available on their web site.

 

Review: 'Broken Glass' at Westport Country Playhouse

Tara Kennedy

Being a fan of Arthur Miller and Mark Lamos, I jumped at the chance to review this production. I remember Mr. Lamos from his days at Hartford Stage and his interesting, artistic bends with classical works, and was pleased to see those elements were alive and well with his direction of Broken Glass. Mr. Lamos’ vision and direction delivers in nuance and darkness.

Arthur Miller wrote this play later in his career (it premiered at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven before going to Broadway for a 73 performance run in 1994), and it displays elements of his earlier works: fear, deceit, insecurity, and the human condition, with a decided emphasis on “Jewishishness” – more so than his other works. The atmosphere is set immediately: a Jewish couple is married and the groom steps on a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. It follows with the sounds of breaking glass, chaos, and screams to set the stage for the time period of the play: shortly after November 9-10, 1938. Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – was the marked beginning of anti-Semite pogroms in Germany to vandalize and destroy Jewish businesses and places of worship.

L-R:   Stephen Schnetzer and Felicity Jones in “Broken Glass,” written by Arthur Miller and directed by Mark Lamos, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through October 24. 
(203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org      Photo by Carol Rosegg

Brooklyn denizen Philip Gellburg (Steven Skybell), a successful businessman working at an insurance company is consulting with the family doctor about his wife Sylvia’s (Felicity Jones) mysterious illness: she suddenly has become paralyzed from the waist down and cannot walk. Dr. Harry Hyman (Stephen Schnetzer) believes the problem to be psychosomatic since all tests reveal no physical ailment. The more the doctor investigates the problem, the deeper he becomes involved in the crumbled relationship between Philip and Sylvia. It is a marriage of miscommunications and misunderstandings, coupled with an extreme lack of self-awareness on Philip’s part: he seemingly has no idea that his abrupt, boisterous outbursts and sudden acts of violence (that we only hear about and never witness) could be pushing his wife away, a woman that he “worships.” The psychological twists and turns, with the backdrop of an event like Kristallnacht, provides tension and darkness that keeps the audience engrossed. It is 90 minutes of film noir with an ending that is shocking, yet not.

Mr. Skybell portrays Miller’s self-loathing, Jewish Everyman with skill: he finely walks the line between bravado and breakdown. We see his self-loathing almost at the top of the show as he makes small talk with Margaret Hyman (Angela Reed): the correction of the pronunciation of his last name and its origins emphasize his need to be someone that he’s not - sometimes.  The audience watches helplessly as Philip’s insecurities are revealed bit by bit as he steers himself into collapse toward the end of the show. He gives a masterful performance of a complex man struggling with identity.

Ms. Jones too gives a fantastic performance as the oppressed, overwhelmed Sylvia. She provides subtle layers to her character that are revealed piecemeal: an underlying strength and intelligence that is overshadowed by fear of the world around her. You feel her anxiety and her loneliness. Her honest performance shines on stage.  

Mr. Schnetzer’s Dr. Hyman is the emotionally-intelligent orchestrator of the play. Despite the doctor’s insistence that he is an amateur psychologist, his accidental ability to guide this couple into self-revelation is what makes his character so riveting. His probing questions are the cornerstone of therapy, but he struggles with neutrality. His feelings often go beyond doctor-patient, but he (mostly) manages to keep it in balance. His melodious voice is perfect: another distinctive performance.

The minimalist scenic design by Michael Yeargan works perfectly to create the needed spaces (bedroom, doctor’s office, and business office) while providing an angular strain that adds to the play’s atmosphere. My favorite touch is the reflective upper portion of the stage: everything is mirrored back to the players, yet the only ones capable of true self-reflection are the Hymans. The angles of the mirrors also provide a way for the performers to hide things from each other, but not from the audience.

The lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge too is subtle, but adds to the drama of the scenes, especially when there is discussion of potential spiritual possession as the cause of Sylvia’s infliction. Sound design by David Budries provides additional film noir elements with understated sounds that help to create the right atmosphere; the sound overall was wonderful: actors were heard perfectly without sounding amplified.

The poignancy of this script to today’s world did not escape this audience member – pogroms are terrorism, are they not?  This play takes place right after the Great Depression, amid a war, with a particular group of people as the scapegoats.  As Dr. Hyman astutely says to Philip, "And supposing it turns out that we’re not different [Jews and Gentiles], who are you going to blame then?" Indeed.

For a thought-provoking, cerebral production with psychological spirals, look no further than this production of Broken Glass at Westport Country Playhouse. Now playing through October 24. For tickets, go to www.westportplayhouse.org.  

Review: 'Bedroom Farce" at the Westport Country Playhouse

Nancy Sasso Janis

In some ways, the title of the play ‘Bedroom Farce’ by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn says it all. In his nineteenth full-length play written in 1975, there is rollicking comedy that takes place over one long Saturday evening and it is all set in three separate bedrooms. The relationships of four couples (and one almost love triangle) are on display in the room where humans spend a large chunk of their time, at their best and their worst. The focus is on the couples at various stages in their marriages, with only cursory bawdy elements, and it is all played for laughs.

 Director John Tillinger (‘Things We Do For Love,’ ‘How the Other Half Loves’) precisely managed the constant switching between the three bedrooms lined up on the stage of the beautiful Westport Country Playhouse where this piece runs through September 13. Lighting designed by John Demous masterfully helped the process, as did the scenic design of the three distinct bedrooms and hallways by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg. Mr. Tillinger also beautifully oversaw the intricate arrivals and departures (actually the title of another of this playwright’s works) of the eight cast members; Robert Westley gets the credit for “movement choreography.” Shane Ann Younts served as dialect coach for the mostly British accents and the actors proved up to the challenge.

Scott Drummon (Malcolm), Carson Elrod (Trevor), Sarah Manton (Susannah) & Claire Karpen (Kate). Photo by Carol Rosegg

Scott Drummon (Malcolm), Carson Elrod (Trevor), Sarah Manton (Susannah) & Claire Karpen (Kate). Photo by Carol Rosegg

 In his notes, Artistic Director Mark Lamos focuses on the need for great ensemble acting in Mr. Ayckbourn’s plays. “His greatness as a writer has always depended on the interaction of a group of people in situations that crackle with comic conflict,” he writes. The director of his plays must seek a company of actors that are equal in their ability to bring out their own character as well as mesh into a team of players that work together as a strong company. This Equity cast is an impressive one that masterfully does just that.

 In alphabetical order, Scott Drummond made his debut at the playhouse as he played the young husband Malcolm. Carson Elrod, who appeared in ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ on Broadway, was the even younger and spastic Trevor. Matthew Greer, who was in the national tour of ‘Spamalot,’ was (almost) confined to bed as Nick. Cecilia Hart returned to WCP to play a mature wife named Delia and Claire Karpen (‘The Sixties Project’ at Goodspeed) glowed as Malcolm’s wife Kate. Nicole Lowrance, another WCP alum, was the lovely wife of Nick named Jan. Sarah Manton, with many London credits, played Susannah, the young bride of Trevor and Paxton Whitehead was the husband of Delia called Ernest. Mr. Whitehead won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Work for ‘Noises Off’ on Broadway. The characters are easier to follow than it might seem and of course some are related to each other in other ways.

 The costumes for the English characters of different generations were beautifully designed by Laurie Churba. The aforementioned lighting by Mr. Demous enhanced them nicely, as it did the meticulously decorated bedrooms with props by Karin White. Kudos to Production Stage Manager Megan Smith for riding herd over the nonstop action. 

 I enjoyed this production for what it was, an intricate and rollicking farce. The packed audience was laughing throughout. One actor deftly incorporated an audience member’s ringing cell phone into his performance on opening night despite the fact that Mr. Lamos had reminded us to turn them off. He even suggested asking someone young nearby for instructions on how to do so in order to enjoy “the pleasure of two hours without a cell phone.”

 Westport Country Playhouse has announced their most ambitious lineup for next season. ‘Art’ and ‘Red’ will play in repertory in May, followed by “Buyer and Cellar,” ‘The Invisible Hand,’ and ‘What the Butler Saw.’ A brand new version of ‘Camelot’ will close out the season that runs through October of next year.