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Too Much Sun — Isis Productions at Walnut 5

too much sun -- interior 2Kitty can’t get any peace.

Everyone is her life, or at least in her immediate vicinity, is too loud, too demanding, too unmotivated, and too needy.

Kitty wants only to settle in her summer beach house and enjoy some respite from the workaday world when her husband, who is supposed to be writing the opus that will establish him as an artist but is never in his sunlit studio composing; her sexy and comely teenage next-door-neighbor, who seeks solace, succor, and sarcasm to cope with his mother’s recent suicide; and her rich, handsome, serially philandering next-door-neighbor, the boy’s father, all find ways to wrest her from relaxation and involve her in their individual angst. Or create angst for her.

Worse yet, Kitty’s mother, a famous Broadway actress whose thirst for attention — and desire for cigarettes — makes the others look like petty nuisances in her entitled, uncensored wake, descends upon Kitty’s house for refuge and sanctuary from her agent and a Chicago producer determined to force her back to the Windy City to fulfill her commitment to headline in his mounting of “Medea,” from which Audrey, taking pity on herself, has fled in terror we get to witness. Such sanctuary is destroyed when the agent sends his persistent, persevering nudnik of a nephew to Kitty’s home with orders not to return to Chicago, or leave Audrey’s side, until he can drag her back to legal obligation and work.

Kitty, having sympathy for the nepotistic agent’s assistant, gives him shelter too. Her chance for rest and relief terminally ruined, all she can do is watch, like the conventional person at the side show, as her leisure evolves into mayhem and her summer into a time of both surprise and consequence.

“Too Much Sun” is not deep. It’s characters are smart, and they can spout wise, worldly, interesting things, but playwright Nicky Silver is going for zany, laughs over sentiment, paradise disrupted by the lunatic, and director Neill Hartley and the Isis Productions cast meet him more than halfway.

Hartley does not make “Too Much Sun” into a comic romp. One element in Silver’s script would make going too camp or taking too screwball an approach unsavory. He opts for a comic veneer, letting Silver’s funny one-liners fly, big personalities flourish, egos rage, and disorder counter to Kitty’s intentions have its day, or season, while keeping most scenes and characterizations on a human level. Even Renee Richman-Weisband’s Audrey has a solid core informing her sickness of work, disdain for “Medea,” and prima donna attitude. Looking back on Hartley’s production, you see the one character, besides Kitty, who might rate serious sympathy has, for all the cynicism he spouts and disapproval he projects, been vulnerable all along. Much more so than Audrey, a Gorgon and veteran of so many professional and romantic wars, she’s developed a thick stoic hide, or Dennis, Kitty’s husband, who couches his shallowness in the guise of being a committed artist, or Winston, the wealthy ladies’ man who pretends to profundity and to reform his penchant and opportunity for playing around won’t let him muster.

I’m talking about Lucas, the literal boy-next-door, who feigns sophistication and has a genuine edge, but basically wants to make sense of a young life that has been traumatized by his mother’s death, him blaming his father for it, and other conflicts he seeks to resolve via affection, young gay affection that is, at once, naïve, callow, sweet, and with ardent purpose.

“Too Much Sun” is meant to tell Audrey’s story, one built on experience that fosters a brittle but knowing outlook on life. Audrey is more grounded in reality that one may think. She plays the diva in off-stage life just as she might play Medea, Regina Giddens, or Mary Tyrone to appreciative audiences, but there’s strength, will, and ability to read situations for what they are behind her Margo Channing/Mame Dennis bluster. Richman-Weisband conveys that understanding even as she rails humorously against the meaninglessness of her career, her daughter trying to retreat deep into normality to cope with the slings and arrows withstood while growing up with a seemingly self-centered diva for a mother, her agent’s bootless pleas to bring her back to Chicago, and the perpetual absence of cigarettes in her midst. Kirsten Quinn is wonderful as a woman who never gets into the comic swing of Silver’s text or Hartley’s production and keeps Kitty, another candidate for “Too Much Sun’s” focal character, isolated and miffed, in a resigned way, at the chaos she’s worked so hard, after her childhood with Audrey, to avoid. Quinn is always serious in Kitty’s various challenges to her husband, who rates challenge, and pointed contretemps with her mother. Quinn’s is a character too fed up with the dramatic and messy to welcome a return of it or participate in it. When she must, her Kitty handles things directly and without diplomacy or kid gloves.

Both performances give texture to Hartley’s staging, but the turn that galvanizes it and puts a painful lump in its comic throat is Arlen Hancock’s as Lucas.

Hancock’s acting makes you think of the Shakespearean reference in Silver’s title, Hamlet’s retort to Gertrude that he’s “too much in the sun” and punning on the word “son” to mean he is not pleased to be considered the son of Claudius and not all that happy with Gertrude either. Hancock’s Lucas is a young man stricken with all kinds of emotions ranging from guilt to blinding anger from his inability to notice or help his mother and from his deep-seated, unforgiving, perhaps irrational or overstated, disdain for the father he thinks is culpable in his mother’s demise and unworthy to guide him.

Lucas needs a channel for his emotions. He also needs affection. He, especially as embodied by Hancock, is a young man who has the looks and wiles to attract another person. As Lucas is gay, he chooses the most unlikely person in the group, Dennis, to trust and seduce. Rob Hargraves is far from unattractive in his middle aged way, but his Dennis, a bit ordinary looking and with some paunch, is not the person you’d expect Lucas to offer his ardor, and even love.

Though Hancock shows Lucas to be an avid romantic, and one that enjoys foreplay and sex, especially if he initiates it, he also conveys Lucas’s need for tenderness and for a father figure.

As Isis’s “Too Much Sun” proceeds, it is Lucas and his story that grabs our focus. You know how Dennis’s dalliance will affect Kitty, the only one who will really be affected by the summer fling. But the same carelessness that Kitty felt as child in regard to Audrey she knows is inherent in Dennis.

Dennis’s behavior affects the two characters we will come to care about the most. He hurts one and seems destined to devastate the other.

For a good reason, to preserve his relationship and marriage with Kitty.

As often happens with the shallow and careless, the damage is done before he or she can control it. What they see as a lark someone else is taking seriously, e.g. Kitty as a sign their marriage is not honest or inclusive or Lucas believing Dennis is sincerely in love with him and ready to be his partner.

“Too Much Sun” may not be deep, but the way Hancock plays his role, with a mighty assist from Hargraves, and the subtly different, quietly romantic, way Hartley treats the scenes between Lucas and Dennis, the Isis production gathers depth from the sequences involving the two lovebirds, and particularly from their last assignation on the alleged day Audrey is to wed Lucas’s father.

I don’t want to give the impression Hancock is all young Werther or a melancholy lad like Hamlet.

On the contrary, his Lucas is as quick with a quip or a lancing observation as Audrey or any of Silver’s characters. He is romantic, but he is also playful and randy, teasing Dennis at times, then surprising him with warmth, possibly disturbing warmth, that reveals Lucas is not playing the summer game Dennis is. Lucas is playing for what he youthfully perceives is the keeps. (This contrasts with Audrey, who knows nothing is for keeps and can shrug off romantic adversity when she must.)

So, Isis’s “Too Much Sun” is not the non-stop riot, or situation comedy, it could be if Hartley chose to play Silver on his hilarious surface. Quinn and Hancock give it substance that is underscored by Richman-Weisband plain-spoken Audrey who gets appropriate laughs with her readings but doesn’t play them as jokes.

There is one character and one performance that seems to come out of classic Silver. That’s R.J. Magee’s turn as Gil, the nebbishy nephew Audrey’s agent sends to fetch her but who proves useful as a fussy factotum who can do all kinds of household chores, make things just so, and even get an online pastoral credential so he can officiate at Audrey’s impending wedding. It’s Gil you’d think Lucas would seduce because it’s Gil that stuns you when you find out he eventually marries and even fathers children. Who’d know? Especially since Magee makes him so officious and fey.

That is a not a mistake on Magee’s part. Silver’s script supports such an interpretation. Gil is the most stock of the characters.

Audrey could be stock, but Richman-Weisband doesn’t let that happen. In the company of her daughter and the privacy of Kitty’s home, if compromised by Gil’s presence, Richman-Weisband’s Audrey only does her diva routine for effect. Most of the time, she prefers to have normal conversations with people who might expect her to act but don’t want her to or demand she does. Quinn’s Kitty would be happy if Audrey would forgo all dramatics and change, presto, into the Donna Reed mother she always craved.

Parts of Hartley’s production could be more fluid or well-defined, but in general, he and his cast mined the best parts of “Too Much Sun” and made it into more than it would be without the director’s, and actors’, care and thoughtfulness.

The Isis staging is entertaining and caustically funny while showing some people who might need to think more before they take certain actions, such as Dennis succumbing to Lucas’s entreaties, or Audrey’s plan to wed Winston.

Audrey’s decision to bolt from “Medea,” besides being necessary to set up Silver’s plot and get Gil on stage, is a good, if impulsive, one. Just the wig and costume in which she’d appear would undercut Euripides’s tragedy. Silver and Richman-Weisband both have fun with the tongue-twisting translation Audrey would allegedly use.

Richman-Weisband, Quinn, Hancock, Hargraves, and Magee are joined in “Too Much Sun” by Steve Gleich, who does an excellent job showing Winston’s casual manner and in honestly presenting Winston’s point of view about his late wife, Lucas, and plans to make amends and patch things up between father and son. Gleich is also credible in the scenes in which Winston and Audrey display their attraction.

Rob Hargraves is straightforward as Dennis. He barely seems to be playing a character as he excuses his way out of evading his writing to Kitty and calculates the good time he’ll have with Lucas while the summer lasts.

The set by Hartley and Rick Miller, announces “beach” as you enter the theater. Bobby Fabulous did a great job on the costumes, especially some colorful outfits for Lucas that make him seem less casual and random than a boy might be while idly lurking around his own or a neighbor’s beach house.

“Too Much Sun” runs through Sunday, March 27, at the Walnut 5 black box theater on the fifth floor of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by visiting www.isisperforms.com. Grade: B

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