All Things Entertaining and Cultural
To keep up with the glut, here is a listing of plays running currently in the Philadelphia region and some quick comments about them.
ANTIGONE — Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce, Philadelphia through November 8– Meticulous care and military precision given to visual elements make a strong impression but fail to convey the depth of Antigone’s struggle with Creon, a universal and eternal contest between the free will of the individual and the authority of the state. Motion is gorgeously stylized and synchronized, but no emotion filters through. You don’t hear the passion, or even the internal logic from Antigone, as she insists despite dire consequence on burying her slain brother, Polyneices, and Creon, who wants Polyneices to remain exposed, untouched carrion as a warning to others who fight foment what the ruler regards as insurrection. An omnipresent sword of Damocles and a jabbering older Teiresias, who may be endlessly repeating his accurate but unheeded prophecy, create interest as you enter the Wilma but that interested disappears when you realize much is for show, and naught is for substance. No feeling emerges from the stage, As storytelling, Theodoros Terzopoulos’s production is a void. Even though Ed Swidey stands stage right relating Antigone’s plight in English.
Be grateful for that English. Half of Terzopoulos’s production is in Greek, and the supertitles take careful reading, as opposed to a summary glance, which adds to the rampant alienation Terzopoulous has wrought. Curiosities, such as Antigone bursting into Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Creon spending much of the production looking like a nervous wreck upstage, also create distance. There’s no pity, there’s no terror, there’s nothing beyond some spectacular muscular choreography to recommend this production that become almost comic when the chorus’s moves look like synchronized masturbation and their laments sound like the chant that accompanies the Atlanta Braves tomahawk chop. Fabric is used rather beautifully, but, again, to little purpose beyond the cosmetic.
Terzopoulos’s production will polarize audiences into the appreciative and the disappointed. I’ve already heard arguments in favor of the director’s formal approach, but none of them mentioned storytelling or caring viscerally about an intense situation. Theater without drama is effete. Motion without effect is window dressing. I may admire many of Terzopoulos’s tableaux, and his promising beginning, but “Antigone” should raise partisan hackles, resonate beyond the stage, and address an age-old conflict with fire and vigor. The Wilma’s “Antigone does not.” Sarah Gliko, as Eurydice, manages to infuse her speeches, even the ones in Greek, with emotion that registers and affects. Brian Ratcliffe, as Haemon, seems to take Gliko’s lead and follow suit. Ratcliffe and Ross Beschler also call attention to the monologues they perform while members of the chorus. Otherwise, this “Antigone” is cold ritual. I admit some will call it genius. I call it twaddle.
AUCTIONING THE AINSLEYS — People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pa., through November 8 — Laura Schellhardt’s quirky comedy, about an insular family of five taking stock of their individual histories, talents, and character traits before moving, per force, to the phase of their lives, is a sweet curiosity that delightfully engages for its donation. The Ainsley matriarch, Alice, aware she is dying, decides to bequeath the Midwest auction house that has sustained her family to an estranged oldest daughter who she knows will be disposed to sell it and let her nesting siblings, now near or in middle age, fend for themselves in a wider world. In preparation for both her demise and her commanding daughter’s arrival, Alice works with an amanuensis to catalog her life, as she might an estate. Each of her four children is also examined as if she or he was an object, assessed for bid and groomed to attract the highest price. Schellhardt sometimes stretches the limits of her conceit, but she also provides something interesting for her audience to take in, and she makes a warm, but firm case, that people, like collected possessions, should move on to where they might be useful instead of staying where they are no longer needed. Or worse, are vegetating.
The Ainsleys, each cozy in the success of the family business, have been able to indulge themselves with lifestyles that suit them. One, Annalee, is the ultimate organizer who catalogs and prices everything and assigns an item both a value and a place in the Ainsley’s overall inventory. Another, Amelia, is the arranger who takes the items and groups them, sometimes polishing and sometimes tarnishing them, to create the greatest appeal to the bidding public. The lone son, Aiden, gay and upset because he has been abandoned by his partner, lives in almost monklike isolation and minimalism. As Alice’s scribe, Arthur, also gay and attracted to Aiden, notes, the boy’s apartment doesn’t have to chair let alone any other comfort or nicety that says company is welcome. The rebellious daughter, Avery, who fled the family and conducts itinerant auctions throughout the U.S., sees everything as an item to be sold and passed on to the highest bidder. She views people in the same way. They aren’t much good if they stagnate. They have to touch and be touched by the world.
Only Avery has had that experience, so a lot of the drama in “Auctioning the Ainsleys” is seeing how ready the home-entrenched siblings to thrive elsewhere if Alice proceeds with her intention to leave all to Avery, and Avery unsentimentally sells the 1892 house, auction hall, and carriage house where Amelia lives, and evicts the others.
Schellhardt’s is a story of exposing what’s within an individual and works on the premises that all items, even some that are discarded, move on to their next purpose in a new setting. Abigail Adams’s cast at People’s Light, led by the estimable Carla Belver, do a fine job in delineating their characters and reacting to the pronouncements and situations that face.
Brian Lee Huynh is especially impressive as Arthur, the neutral secretary, who goes about his business with class and poise while also gaining an affection for the Ainsleys, especially the lonesome Aiden. Mary Elizabeth Scallen defies years, looking as if she has not aged one jot since her first appearance at People’s Light in an earlier century. She is uncompromising as Avery, refusing to let anything get in the way of truth or purpose. She and Teri Lamm, as Annalee, are particularly good in a scene in which Annalee knows of Avery’s aversion to the deceased Ainsley pere, so profound she can’t enter the space he once occupied, a space that is now Annalee’s office with all Dad’s furniture in place. Annalee uses that office as a refuge, but Avery, the survivor, musters the courage and moxie to get past her neuroses, realize her father’s dead, and the office is just an office, and fulfill her business there. Jesse Pennington shows Aiden’s smug distancing techniques, one of which is calling Huynh’s Arthur by a different diminutive like “Petal” or “Cupcake” instead of his name. Lamm exudes tight efficiency as Annalee. Julianna Zinkel exudes independence and artistry as the creative Amelia, who lives 10 feet from her family’s manse and thinks she’s separate from the fold. Carla Belver is all calculating shrewdness as Alice, who has stayed in her apartment, away from her children, for 15 years but knows their every tic and movement and is determined to make them have larger lives instead of allowing them to live peacefully, contentedly, but hermetically, in the family home.
All kinds of jetsam was collected for the “Ainsley” set, and Luke Hegel Cantarella organized with the precision of Annalee, the eye of Amelia, and the merchandizing savvy of Avery. Examining Cantarella’s set is an exhausting occupation. You must linger after the show to see it all. I have my eye on a rocking horse, a carved elephant, and an swag teapot with gold trim. I’m also taken with Alice’s desk with its pinkish legs. Anne Kennedy has costumed perfectly. Karin Graybash’s sound design includes instances of gavels falling and illusions shattering. Also memories, as when Alice speaks nostalgically of an item and then can’t see it any more, as if the cataloguing in her memory is so complete, the actual item is rendered unnecessary. Or by letting once-important objects fade into the oblivion they’ve acquired.
BROADWAY DOES OPERETTA — Concert Operetta Theater at AVA; closed as scheduled — Daniel Pantano’s gift and pleasure is knowing the great operetta catalog and choosing tempting morsels from it for presentation on the AVA stage. Pantano can offer favorites from the repertory, or he can surprise by unearthing gems that have not been seen on any stage for almost a century, if not more than one. Occasionally, he produced a piece he knows is not among the best for the curiosity of it and to give people like me, who want to see everything ever written, the chance to experience a live performance. Many a time and oft, I hear songs I only knew from recordings or manuscripts under Pantano’s aegis.
For this latest program which, alas, ran as usual for one brief weekend of two performances, Pantano compiled selections by Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg, and Jerome Kern that had been heard on Broadway stages or in featured film. Even while dealing with the familiar, he included two tunes I didn’t know (and one he thought I wouldn’t know but that I’d heard somewhere.
A pleasant 100 minutes was spent hearing gems like “Lover, Come Back to Me,” “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “Bill,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” and perhaps the best popular song ever composed Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “All the Things You Are,” from their musical “Very Warm for May,” which thanks to the bygone Equity Library Theatre, I was able to see.
For all of his shows, Pantano recruits students from the Academy of Vocal Arts, and the quarter of young singers did credit to all they performed. Hannah Ludwig, a mezzo-soprano, had a particular gift for blending the operatic with the popular. Garrett Obrycki, a baritone, showed he had a way with several styles and was adept at acting the song as well as singing it. Matthew White, a tenor, is ready to take the stage as a leading man in a musical He was quite touching in “Mother” from Romberg’s “Her Soldier Boy” and in introducing, to me anyhow, ‘My Paradise” from Friml’s “Katinka.” Christina Chenes, a soprano, bounds with energy that informs her singing and makes all lively and immediate. Jose Melendez accompanies with his usual sensitivity and charm.
Pantano’s next program, “Vive España!” is set for March 2016. Zarzuela! La mia favorita!
THE CHILDREN’S HOUR — EgoPo Classic Theatre, The Latvian Society, 7th & Spring Garden Streets, Philadelphia, through October 25 — Misplaced emphases and misread line delivery that frequently accents the wrong word mar this much anticipated production of Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play that uses suspected Lesbianism to show the danger of an unexplored, well-circulated rumor. Hellman’s script is a subtle thematic combination of justice, innuendo, and moralism cooked in a hardboiled melodrama about how a believed lie can destroy love, livelihood, and life. The play, while dealing with some subjects that have advanced in people’s minds since 1934, is relevant in this era of humorless political correctness for the way it shows how easily accepted, and even respected, people can become pariahs at the whim of one who has power. Its various plot lines need to blend seamlessly and be handled in the most realistic, naturalistic way possible. Dilemmas should be a blurred barrage the beset the lead characters, Karen Wright and Martha Doby, at once and are dealt with as a whole rather than individually.
Hellman has supplied ample drama and a good structure that allows “The Children’s Hour” to remain taut and engrossing. Adrienne Mackey, in her production for EgoPo, seemed to prefer high, isolated effects and angry hyperbolic dudgeon to the subtly unfolding, ever more complicated, approach “The Children’s Hour” calls for. Her staging is shrill and obvious, with no one, except Keith Conallen’s Joe, a doctor engaged to Karen and nephew to Mrs. Tilford, the society matron who will foment calamity in Karen’s life, seeming to know his or her business on the EgoPo stage.
The production comes off as bitter and wrong. Mackey and company seem to be using it to declaim personal anthems rather than to present a complete play that uses a controversial premise to delve into much that is sinister in an allegedly respectable wider world. As sinister today as it was in 1934. Her production misses several salient points while overdoing some strategically juicy aspects of Hellman’s play. You are left with a hodgepodge that doesn’t register as sincere or natural. Miscasting in two key areas and a tendency toward melodrama when courage and an enlightened sensibility are required makes Mackey’s production unredeemable. It bores more than it fascinates. It leaves no room for mystery that must linger, even against a sympathetic audience’s 21st century will. It overdoes or misplays the most intense adult sequences in Hellman’s piece, those between Joe and Karen and between Karen and Martha. It is an example of theater that wants to make a statement by playing each scene as it comes and stressing certain flashpoint elements, homophobia for example, rather than by approaching Hellman’s piece in its entirety and getting genuine earned poignancy out of all situations — reaction to rumors of Lesbianism at the girls school Karen and Martha run, the poison of unsubstantiated gossip, the relationship of Karen and Joe, societal rigidity, and Martha’s sense of responsibility. Mackey aims for the angst-filled high points but is careless about the scenes that foreshadow and inform them. The EgoPo production looks more like a high school effort than one geared for the professional stage and featuring actors with the credentials of Emilie Krause, Cheryl Williams, and Conallen. Mackey’s “Children’s Hour” is too simplistic. It bores and dismays more than its moves or exposes the inherent evil in prejudice, child coddling, gullibility, errant decisive action, tinges or doubt, arrogance, guilt, and pride. No cohesion or mood develops, so you see the bare bones of Hellman’s plot and have speeches and tantrums where there needs to be conversation, aversion roiling under skin, and genuine contempt or empathy. These things are played at rather than played in Mackey’s staging. As mentioned, only Keith Conallen manages to combine the colors, textures, confusions, and certainties of Joe in a way that seems complete, believable, and troubling to the individual having Joe’s particular experience. You feel for Conallen’s Joe because you always know who he is at the core, where he stands, and why he is going through his specific turmoil. Conallen doesn’t play a type or approach different scenes as if they’re isolated actions that require a Joe of the moment rather showing an aspect of the total Joe we know. He plays a full-fledged human being with compatible shades and feelings that coalesce into a single, discernable, complex character. Conallen can be angry or tender without making you think Joe is exaggerating one behavior or another. Or worse, putting one on for effect. His Joe always seems appropriate to the situation and doesn’t turn on the melodrama when the mood strikes or express anger as a theatrical fit that derives its intensity only from lines in Hellman’s script rather than from Joe’s honest, judiciously expressed feelings.
“The Children’s Hour” is not Lesbianism, even though in 1934, as now, the subject adds some tantalization to Hellman’s piece. In 1934, any mention of homosexuality would be scandalous. Today, we are blessedly more matter-of-fact on the subject.
Or are we? Lesbianism is an offshoot that gives “The Children’s Hour” an extra note of curiosity, especially when Hellman treats the topic with variety given Karen’s engagement to Joe and Martha’s actual libidinous attraction to Karen. Hellman is not lax or lazy about Lesbianism one she introduces it, but her interest in “The Children’s Hour” is moralistic destruction, the idea that one person or one group, be they the leftists who claim to be ‘politically correct’ or the rightwingers who invoke religion to support their righteousness — a plague upon both houses — is so virtuous and upright, it can decide how others should live, speak, eat, behave, commune or otherwise. Hellman knew the bigotry and hypocrisy of true believer of any stripe and was lashing out, by making a good dramatic case, against those who would make an issue of the matter-of-fact, even the suspected, unproven matter-of-fact, to uphold their own orthodox standards whether a situation at had was their business on not.
Rampant Lesbianism at a girls school would still make headlines, even if no instance of it was forced and all was consensual. The students, as in Hellman’s play, are underage to give reasonable consent, creating an entirely different issue that involves any overt practice of sexuality.
In 1934, the idea of two woman having sex, even discreet consensual sex, would be shocking.
“The Children’s Hour” depicts what happens when that shock, or another moralists would say has equal magnitude, becomes the fodder of gossip and causes someone, or a number of people, to lose all they’ve worked for and are currently accomplishing because of innuendo. (Hellman would have her own bout with such moralism 20 years after writing “The Children’s Hour,” when she would appear before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s committee on un-American activities.) Mackey’s production, of course, goes into the effects of slander and how they ruin Karen and Martha’s lives. But she is clearly more interested in all that involves Lesbianism and, by extension, feminism. It skews her production. Mackey has not realized how, theatrically, she could have presented what’s important to her while being faithful to the rest of Hellman’s play.
Problems start before Hellman’s script even suggests Lesbianism. You see Markéta Fantová’s marvelous classroom set that has a sitting area attached to it and a raised section on the usual Latvian Society stage as Mrs. Tilford’s house.
Mackey’s opening scene is all over the place, with characters chattering in ways that obliterate what anyone is saying, including Martha Doby’s aunt, Mrs. Mortar, once an actress who worked in England with Henry Irving but now Martha’s dowager ward. She is allegedly holding a class in sewing and elocution, but this Mrs. Mortar can keep no discipline, even as regards herself. She is all high-pitched well-rounded tones, fluttery gestures, and flowery phrasing. Mary Lee Bednarek certainly creates a character but not one you’d believe walks the Earth. Her Mrs. Mortar registers as a student production’s Lady Bracknell. There’s no substance in her, no core of reality that indicates her long life and reduced circumstance. Her failure to control the girls is not comic or purposely raucous to show how Karen will remedy the situation upon her entrance. It’s chaotic because it has no tone. Regrettably, it also prevents a tone from being established.
You also notice the girls attending Karen and Martha’s school seem too old, especially Mary Tilford, the girl whose lies will cause all “The Children’s Hour’s” commotion. Karen and Martha’s students have to be on the brink of learning about sexuality and the shame Americans of 1934 would assign to thinking or talking about it. They have to be near puberty and “the talk” without having reached either. Mary, of course, is more precocious. She also likes to spark trouble and uses lies to protect herself. Even so, Maggie Johnson seems to old and too knowledgeable for the part. She plays Mary as if she’s a kewpie doll. The girl badness is blatantly noticeable. This Mary doesn’t have the guile of, say Patti McCormick’s Rhoda Penmark in “The Bad Seed.” She is obvious trouble, so much so even a doting grandmother could not fail to notice. Even the way she bullies the other girls with her lies and threats is too bold, too transparent for someone to miss the rascal Mary is. Mackey needed to guide Johnson towards subtlety, to a look of innocence no one can penetrate. Dramatic suspense insists that you need to have doubts about whether Mary is fibbing or not regarding her teachers. You have to give Mrs. Tilford a plausible reason, besides being a doting grandmother, for taking Mary seriously, something Johnson’s Mary, per Mackey, doesn’t allow. You know who she is the minute she speaks. “The Children’s Hour” requires more doubt. Mackey keeps all heavyhanded and too transparent for the audience to have the slightest doubt.
That would be OK to an extent if we can have the outrage of seeing Karen and Martha defamed and watch that struggle unfold. Even though Cheryl Williams as Mrs. Tllford does enter into a match of contention with Joe, and then Jenna Horton’s Karen, there’s no sport in it because we already know the truth and because the scene plays like polemic instead of like drama.
Cheryl Williams is a wonderful actress but even with her skill, she can only stretch so far. There is something proletarian about it that prevented her from portraying the wealth or hauteur on Mrs. Tliford. Williams is so typically down to earth, you expect her to be more reasonable to have suspicions about Mary. Although she was marvelous as the comic noblewoman, Lady Hardcastle in Temple’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” she was called on to be funny and a tad crude. As Mrs. Tilford, Williams’s ingenuous ordinariness shows. She is not the Gorgon she needs to be and seems out of place in Mrs. Tilford’s home. Jillian Keys doesn’t help much with costumes that belie Mrs. Tilford’s age and position. The coat Williams wears in a late scene is which she visits Karen and Martha at the closed school, borders on the abominable. Mrs. Tilford wouldn’t give it to her maid, let alone wear it in public.
jenna Horton is the anomaly. She brings order and reality to the play when she enters as Karen. She has the tone of a serious, dedicated woman who doesn’t take nonsense but has humor enough to know when to relax and when she can be sarcastic or funny. She is a lot less tentative than Emilie Krause’s Martha, who always seems to be nervous, as if she’s constantly expecting something catastrophic to happen.
Both Horton and Krause have good moments, but in their most important scenes, they stop being characters and start being types, Horton advocating and declaiming rather than tackling matters head-on as an angry but controlled Karen, Krause overdoing the tense and sulky jealousy of Martha and not defining enough in her last scenes with Joe and Karen. There’s too much knowledge in her voice and face when she asks Karen, “Where’s he gone?” when she notices Joe absent from the sitting room where the three were supposed to have the dinner Martha is preparing. The scene would be more poignant if she began it by being nonchalant and building to Martha’s epiphany rather than signaling it.
Samia Merritt was the right age for playing Rosalie, who seems likely to respond to Mary’s threats that she will brand her a thief if she doesn’t agree to all Mary says. I don’t know what direction Mackey gave John Schultz as a delivery boy bringing groceries to the empty school, but he looked deranged and threatening rather what he should have been, disrespectfully curious.
Fantová’s set serves all purposes well, but Mackey uses it awkwardly during Mary’s last appearance. Jillian Key’s costumes were a horror. She overdid the dress and heels for Mrs. Mortar, who would have flounces of affectation but wear something more in keeping with someone who expects to spend each evening at home. She went in the opposite direction with Mrs. Tilford, choosing an evening dress that is too youthful and lowbrow for its wearer. Karen wears an ugly dress and boots. A thread hung from her outfit, something that should have been noticed and fixed. Martha’s outfits were dowdy but suitable. Joe’s suit was fine, as were the students’ uniforms.
A COMEDY OF TENORS — McCarter Theatre, University Place and College Road, Princeton, N.J., through November 1 — Ken Ludwig cannot keep away from tenors. While his new farce, “A Comedy of Tenors,” does not refer to his lasting favorite, “Lend Me a Tenor,” Ludwig brings four of the outstanding characters from that show — Tito Merelli, Maria Merelli, Max, and Saunders — from Cleveland to Paris for more rollicking escapades that chronicle the mayhem that occurs in the last hours before Saunders is about to produce an opera spectacular the entire world is anticipating.
Two tenors is not enough for “A Comedy of Tenors.” Ludwig gives us five, one a Swede we never see, another a bellhop named Beppo who bears a striking resemblance to Merelli and may have to pass for him during the grand concert, and the last the young American with the Italian parents and Italian name, Carlo Nucci, who is challenging Merelli’s place as the prime tenor in the operatic world and, coincidentally, is having a torrid affair with his daughter.
Besides doors to slam, there are balconies in the French hotel where “Tenors” is set. Gymnastic Rob McClure, playing Max, and supple Kristin Martin, as Merelli’s daughter, Mimi, do some entertainer gainers in attempts to escape being seen, stabbed, choked, you name it. Bradley Dean, in addition to having the credible voice necessary to play Merelli, doubles superbly as Beppo, as free-spirited and lighthearted as Tito is temperamental and jealous. Dean has a genuine field day going from the poised, polished, phlegmatic Tito to the anything-goes Beppo, who is particularly delighted when mistaken identity gives him the chance to have sex with two willing woman in two separate hotel rooms at the same time. This being a farce, he mates with the one that won’t raise a fuss when she learns the truth, but the scene and the set-up is hilarious.
Everything is Ludwig’s play is hilarious. The playwright is a master of linking plots, having one character finish another character’s sentence in a way that is a hoot, creating false impressions that confuse characters and create suspense, giving the temperamental a chance to slap their frustrations away, using language barrier and hesitation as someone summons the words different from the smutty one we anticipated, and providing a musical good time, as happens when Dean, McClure, and Bobby Conte Thornton — talk about adorable — launch into a three-part version of Alberto’s (and Violetta’s) “Libiamo ne’lieti calici” with enough brio and excitement to elicits bravis from a packed opera house.
Ludwig is top form. The cast, including a soprano, Lisa Brescia as the fiery Tatiana Rancón, is on fire on spit-spot timing, funny pratfalls, fabulous double takes, and superb singing. All is kept is order by one of my candidates for the world’s best director, Stephen Wadsworth, who stages this farce with the same care and creativity you see in his classical pieces and operas. Wadsworth knows when to quiet the riotous for a bit of pathos and when to go full tilt on the riot. Never does a door open without some delight occurring because of it. Mayhem, as it ensues, stays clear and enjoyable because Wadsworth and his cast don’t allow to miss any joke, verbal, physical, or facial.
Ludwig knows his tried-and-true and isn’t afraid to draw on the structure of “Lend Me a Tenor” for his new opus. Once again Saunders, now a former mayor of Cleveland in addition to being an opera impresario, has to produce a major concert featuring the greatest name in opera, Tito Merelli. Once again, Merelli is late. He still likes to eat and drink too much and eats, as Maria says, like-a a pig.” Building on the way Merelli will predictably react, he arrives in Paris not knowing he’s going to appear with the man destined to take his place as the opera fan’s favorite, Carlo Nucci. Even Saunders doesn’t know that when the play begins. Merelli is also unaware his daughter, Mimi is having an affair with Carlo. Marital squabbles, misunderstandings, and rapprochements abound. Max, who begins “Lend Me a Tenor” a put-upon factotum and ends up an opera star, holds both roles in “A Comedy of Tenors.” He is still Saunders’s go-to person while holding a career as a tenor. You don’t have to be at all familiar with “Lend Me a Tenor” to appreciate Ludwig’s new play, but having seen it gives “A Comedy of Tenors” extra texture and more jokes for you to savor.
New characters in “Comedy of Tenors” are inspired. Beppo arrives in time to give novelty to Ludwig’s second act, as well as to give Dean a great role and the audience a characters they can’t wait to see often. You hear about Carlo Nucci before you see him, but once you see him, Thornton in tighty whities making love to Mimi on a suddenly unveiled sofa, you hope he, too, will make frequent visits to the stage. Even dressed. Brescia’s entrance as Tatiana is another breath of fresh air, not only because it means more plot complications, but because Brescia adds a Russian accent to the collection of Sid Caesar-esque dialects heard the McCarter stage. Her pronunciation of some words is a belly laugh on its own.
Antoinette LaVecchia’s Maria is an absolute gem. LaVecchia not only mines comic gold with her on-the-mark delivery of Maria’s punch lines but, temperamental though she is, she serves as the reasonable link between plots involving Tito and Carlo. In some ways, she is the theatrical key to the first act, and LaVecchia fulfills that responsibility with aplomb.
Rob McClure showed Philadelphians his mettle early on in “The Bom-bitty of Errors,” and “Austentatious” for 11th Hour. He must like appearing in shows that parody Shakespeare’s title because all of talents as a singer, as a contortionist, and as a comic are used to their utmost in “Comedy of Tenors,” as they were in “Bom-bitty of Errors.”
Bobby Conte Thornton, with the lock of thick dark hair falling over his left eye, is more than just a looker. He matches McClure and Dean in comic timing and quick takes as much as complements them when they take stage as The Three Tenors. Kristen Martin is wonderful as Mimi and adds to the comedy when she arrives at the hotel in the French peasant dress she will wear as a costume while appearing opposite Norma Shearer in “Marie Antoinette,” a role Mimi auditions for after making playful love to Carlo. Ron Orbach doesn’t have the vocal purity of his co-stars — He sounds as if he’s in a different show. — but he is a cantankerous, pragmatic Saunders who keeps the comedy hopping.
Stephen Wadsworth always finds way to infuse the most basic comedy with heart. He plies that magic once again with “A Comedy of Tenors.” The timing that is his hallmark comes through in this production, as does his uncanny knack for foreshadowing every joke so the laugh is bigger when the punch line comes.
Ludwig gets wonderful mileage from his punch lines. I don’t think I’ll ever hear the words, “Would you like some tongue” in the same way again, just as I have made a habit of saying, “It’s not you, Max” when someone doesn’t fit in a given situation and quoting, “In my town they have a saying gas never killed anyone, and believe me, in my town, they’d know.”
Charlie Corcoran’s Paris hotel set is good enough to move into. Its stage left window includes a view of the Eiffel Tower, I’d say from the perspective of The Trocadéro. The furniture is exquisitely chosen, and you have Beppo to bring you what you need from the lobby. William Ivey Long designs as gorgeous gown for Tatiana, a wonderful tight-fitting shirt for Carlo, and formal wear that’s worth its name and looks pricey. Shad Ramsey made various fights into larks, although you wonder how Carlo can sing when Mimi gets done slapping him after she misinterprets one situation and has another she needs to reveal to him. Music is essential to Ludwig’s play and Joshua Horvath’s sound design incorporates all well.
DISGRACED — Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, Philadelphia, through November 8 — Ayad Akhtar pierces through the polite, and often meant, niceties by which we hide our true sentiments in this well-behaved politically correct world. “Disgraced’s” Amir Kapoor, née Abdullah, was born in America, traded his Muslim-identifying Pakistani surname for an Indian moniker, developed no accent, went to the right schools, became an able and relied-upon attorney, and left his religion in favor of apostasy, an act punishable in Islam by death.
Amir also married a white artist, Emily, who ironically takes a deep interest in Muslim art and knows the Koran and Islamic tradition better than Amir does. They dine with another couple, a man who is Jewish and an art producer, a woman who is black and works with Amir at a prestigious Manhattan firm.
All goes swimmingly for Amir. He has created a genuine identity away from the name, country, and Muslim traditions he was born to. He may have to undergo accusations of self-hatred for this, from his family at least, but all signs point to Amir being happy and contented to leave his parents’ world behind for a diverse, eclectic, wealthy one he likes better and prefers not only for his belief that it’s superior but because he worked to craft it.
In “Disgraced,” Amir truly is an individual. He is never the one to bring up his past or his culture. Emily or her and Amir’s friends, Isaac and Jory, do. Amir is also drawn back into his family by Abe, another who changed his name, a sixteen-year-old who has Americanized by stays close enough to the Islamic fold to seek Amir’s help in winning freedom for an Imam who is accused of redirecting charitable funds he’s collected to Hamas and to become militant after he’s hassled by the FBI at a Manhattan Starbuck’s and is threatened to deportation to Pakistan.
Like many who have assimilated, I among them, Amir knows the traditions of his people and can willingly participate in a meal or ritual or two. His apostasy keeps him from getting too involved. He also remembers the parochial teachings of his parents. White women, including Emily, are to Amir’s mother, whores. He should have met a Muslim women and produced Muslim children. All women, he learned from birth, are secondary to men, and a man has the right, granted by the Koran to beat, or even kill, a woman, particularly a wife, who is disobedient or who insults his manhood.
Amir laughs at these ideas as much as he laughs at other trappings of the religion into which he was born and, frankly, the obsolete rules and traditions of all faiths and cultures. Amir has cut through the crap in own life and he’s not to be polite about similar baggage others carry.
In “Disgraced,” Amir’s roots will eventually show, just as everyone’s but Emily’s will rear the uglier head of being part of a culture, even if you have eschewed ethnicity, separated yourself from orthodoxy, and put shibboleths, prejudices, and other insanities behind you. Akhtar’s point is when situations become raw or when matters come to the fore, such as Amir feeling a slight if inconsequential twinge of pride about Muslim success on September 11, 2001, people will show some allegiance, however shallow, to a culture they’ve discarded.
In “Disgraced,” Akhtar confronts Amir with this culture and his rejection, or disregard, of it. The playwright actually confronts all of the characters, even in some ways the least touched, Emily, with their roots. You’ll hear Isaac support Israel for its own sake even though he is politically correct enough to denigrate Benyamin Netanyahu. Jory is aware of what affirmative action has done for her but can get “street” real fast when she sees Isaac kissing Emily and suspects the affectionate move was more than the consoling peck they say it was. No one is perfect in Akhtar’s play, which shows the playwright knows human nature and the world. I, like Hamlet in relation to lying, am “indifferent unprejudiced and unbound to any tradition, yet I can accuse me of ethnic allegiance and cultural stereotyping on a more regular basis than I care to countenance.
Same with Amir. Same with Isaac. Same with Abe. Same to a lesser extent with Emily and Jory. To borrow another Shakespearean phrase, no one would ‘scape whipping.
Akhtar built a complex play in which Amir loses the most and has most to confront the way his past affects his present and informs his future but in which everyone is in jeopardy from trying to free him- or herself from the beliefs that he or she should think, or act, a given way because of his or her heritage. Isaac, Jory, and Emily have liberated themselves from the once-upon-a-time world of hyphenation. Amir and Abe, being Muslim in the early 21 century, have a harder time because whatever they’re thinking or doing, some people suspect them of terrorist sympathy.
In really strong productions of “Disgraced,” such as Kimberly Senior’s Broadway mounting in 2014, every character shows his or her weakness or passion.
Mary B. Robinson’s production for Philadelphia is strong, and effective, but it centers more on Amir and how he, in particular, is affected by reverting, almost against his will, to the teachings he learned about men and women when he was a child. It also shows how, being drawn in to Islamic affairs as a favor to Abe and Emily, gets enmeshed in ways that ruin him even though the repercussions are unfair and do not pertain truly to the Amir we know and see.
Akhtar knows his audience. He knows that having Amir say, honestly, that he got a small thrill from September 11 or cheers terrorist victories, is incendiary is a way that Isaac backing Israel or Jory blinking at some ghetto behaviors would never be. Akhtar makes it clear that Amir is not a a terrorist or even a sympathizer. He thanks heaven each day to have the opportunities of an American. But hearing an Islamic person spout some ultimately meaningless bravado is different and more notable that hearing an American Jew or well-heeled American black woman do the same. Amir’s words are much more unsettling and frightening. We know the others are kidding or don’t really care. They’ve risen above their ghettos and really won’t even be pushed back into them, especially Isaac.
Amir is immersed and Robinson makes “Disgraced” his story even more than Akhtar, who means Amir to be the central figure and the lead, does.
She makes Amir the focus from the beginning. Never is there an attempt to make “Disgraced” into an ensemble piece that ends concentrating on Amir. What Amir says and does has extra weight.
You feel the tension of that responsibility. The atmosphere as you watch Robinson’s “Disgraced” is never relaxed. Even when Amir is in his underwear and Emily is sketching him in preparation for putting his face in a variation of a Velasquez classic, there is a frisson of danger radiating from the Suzanne Roberts stage.
Abe’s arrival intensifies the senses of anxiety and friction. In other productions, Abe has had an accent to indicate that he did not come to America from Pakistan until he was age eight. He is also more adamant about his own name change, of which Amir makes fun, and of his desire to assimilate even though he still goes to a mosque and loosely follows Islam.
Abe wants Amir to help defend an Imam accused to sending money he’s collected as charity to Hamas. Amir is resistant, but Emily, who has visited the Imam in prison, gets involved.
This starts a firestorm. The Jewish partners of Amir’s firm, even one whose work Amir has been covering for three years, wonder about his possible ties to politics in the Middle East. Amir’s name change comes into question, as does his saying his parents were born in India because Pakistan had not created when he was born.
Amir suddenly can’t do anything right. The past he has so thoroughly and carefully obliterated comes back to haunt. So do some bad habits. In an argument with Emily over Isaac, Amir slaps Emily hard and almost kills her. He has already called Jory the n-word because of a business dealing, and he is dismayed to find Abe, kufi on his head, talking about his possible deportation.
All is a mess, but a lot of the mess had to do with Amir being Muslim, in some of his reflex reactions, in some of his remarks, and is the larger world’s eyes.
Akhtar aims for us all to be disgraced. Robinson leaves Amir in a quandary. Her production relies more on words and is tamer than Senior’s was. For instance, Abe, in his last scene with Amir, is filled with emotion. He accuses Amir of self-loathing and of turning his back on his people and abandoning those who could use his legal prowess to fight discrimination of the kind to which Abe has been subjected. In Senior’s production, the actor playing Abe, was shaking with anger and barraging Amir with words. At the Roberts, Anthony Mustafa Adair looked Amir directly in his eye and spoke like an actor delivering a speech in character. There was no passion. There was no emphasis. Words were the only tools Adair used. His speech was effective. You knew, whether you agreed with Abe or not, what he wanted to say.
The reading was cold, and that is the difference between a powerful but distant production of “Disgraced,” like Robinson’s, and a more visceral, committed version of the play like Senior’s,
Book approaches are good. Robinson’s production amply does its job and presents Akhtar’s play in a riveting fashion. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking the other characters, especially Abe, who is a reckless child who only rates sympathy for being a juvenile and has no right to judge Amir, get an easy ride, that their warts, and their excuse for having warts, isn’t shown as plainly.
Robinson’s “Disgraced” isn’t as rich and varied as Senior’s, but it is potent and thought-provoking. You have a lot to consider and ponder as you leave the theater.
The cast as the Roberts is uniformly fine. I was particularly impressed with the performance of Aimé Donna Kelly, who has emerged over the last two seasons as one of Philadelphia’s most versatile actors. There is nothing false about Kelly’s Jory. You believe in her authenticity from the start. I like the ease and sense of assurance Kelly gives Jory at the dinner party (where, with a Jew and Muslim at table, the main course is pork roast; Akhtar is witty as driving the assimilation angle home) at which the four trade barbs and speak freely on many subject, Jory always keeping her cool. The men may go at it, and Emily may not care much, but Kelly’s Jory is unflappable and, beyond that, amused at all the badinage, especially when Israel and the Middle East are up for discussion.
Ben Graney is natural as Isaac, who believes he can support what he likes but balks when Amir takes a stand. Graney is excellent in the seduction scene with Emily.
Monette Magrath has the most difficult part. Emily is the most evolved, the most decent of the quartet. She even has the advantage of not having to think of sliding into stereotype because she fits none. Being a white woman, she didn’t have the same influences to thwart while trying to forge her identity. Also, Emily is always the sympathetic victim — of Amir’s physical and emotional assaults and of Isaac’s seduction. Maybe, if it wasn’t for political correctness, Emily could be more forgiving of Amir. But audiences may balk at a woman returning to a man who has hit her. Even if it is a good calculated risk. We have become an absolute society.
Given that Emily is the character with the least demonstrative personality, Magrath does a fine job conveying her decency and normality.
Although I pointed out that Anthony Mustafa Adair stood and delivered while another actor emoted Abe’s big speech, Adair played a young man you want to root for and help. His Abe seemed like a boy in the quandary Amir will land in as man. No is letting him decide his identity. The FBI labels him. His kufi labels him. His name change speaks volumes. Abe is the one who will have to decide what place there might be for a young Muslim man in America. The trouble is Amir knew the answer to that question until he was still too Muslim for some people’s taste.
Adair is firm is his scenes and conveys how sincere Abe is, confused by life or not, in all he has to say.
Pej Vahdat is a remarkable Amir. Even when his character is smug and snarky, he has appeal because he is confident and because he has withstood all kinds of pressure and prejudice to be the man he envisioned, not the good Muslim lad his mother wanted, the barely noticeable Muslim his employers wanted, or the Muslim who occasionally acknowledges his roots and culture Emily wants.
As Amir is drawn into reacting to calamities in his marriage and career, you see him both recoil and proceed with flippant glee before he launches his verbal salvoes. He clearly defines the moment he realizes Amir has gone too far is physically punishing Emily for her infidelity with Isaac. It’s one the more poignant moments in this “Disgraced.”
I also like the way Vahdat handles Amir considering his fate as he stands in his vacant apartment, once such a symbol of success. It’s a moment of wonder. Not of defeat or self-recrimination or regret or confusion. He has taken an angry step and destroyed Emily’s homage of Velasquez. The next step is uncertain but needs to be taken, and that’s what Vahdat shows.
Jason Simms created a beautiful apartment for Amir and Emily. Everything speaks of ease and taste, and the little outdoor terrace Emily uses to get some air is very well placed and designed. The carved woodwork says Emily and Amir admired the old and traditional and blended it with the modern. Mark Marini’s costumes let you see Amir’s expensive taste in haberdashery. Marini did a good job dressing all.