All Things Entertaining and Cultural
And I mean really good. The 2016-2017 theater season has begun with almost unanimous quality in productions ranging from musicals to classic to the new-ish. Even the shows that do not exactly rate as excellent, provided fine performances and something to think about. The most critical comment I can make about the early season offerings is one play wasn’t thought out or finished enough while another lived up to what I fear most from Fringe productions and wore out its welcome though making occasionally fine and astute points.
Here, in alphabetical order, are capsule comments to the shows seen. Regrettably, some have closed, but the potential and intelligence they demonstrated lingers on.
BATHING IN MOONLIGHT, McCarter Theatre Company, Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J. through Sunday, Oct. 9 — While Nilo Cruz broaches some interesting subjects and often provides his characters with profound things to say, his world premiere play, “Bathing in Moonlight,” never takes off dramatically. The ingredients for tension and depth are in place, but “Bathing in Moonlight” remains worth attending to despite it never quite becoming compelling or moving.
It may that the core story, about a talented, charismatic priest who falls in love with a requiting parishioner, plays as too cut-and-dried on three scores — the inevitability of romance, the priest’s inner turmoil as he weighs his religious against his romantic passion, and the bouts the priest has with his by-the-book bishop. Scene after seen regarding Father Monroe, a Cuban whose parents named him for Marilyn, are pregnant with possibility, and while there is some delivery and certainly enough to consider by way of argument and debate, “Bathing in Moonlight” doesn’t register as poignant or heartwarming enough to satisfy. Go figure.
Even when Cruz comes up with the right ending, the most desired and internally logical ending, the reaction is more one of gratitude and relief the author is brave enough to buck modern literary trends than it is a source of joy or an occasion of wringing the catharsis that you’d expect or that seems possible.
One reason for the emotional disconnect might be Cruz surrounds the focal situation of his plot with other stories that never seem important or take off in any significant, contrasting, or parallel way. A young man returning to his Miami home from an unsuccessful and clinically depressing experience in a South American medical school; an older woman, the abuela, generally sound in mind but teetering on dementia and given to fantasies about her life with the husband she married in Cuba and for whom she confuses her son; the struggle against household poverty in a devout genteel family that appreciates Schumann, pre-Columbian art, and Panama hats; mild references and attitudes towards a Cuba defected from and a Cuba to which one might return; a teenage girl’s ambition to become an oceanographer and study a nocturnal species that ‘bathes in moonlight;’ and even a death have little impact. Some of the threads, because they remain incidental rather than integral, seem to get in the way of the priest’s dilemma and the consuming love he has for a woman who we agree deserves his respect, affection, and ardor. Possibly because most of the threads are left dangling, either by being loose in Cruz’s plot weaving or simply incomplete. It seems, for instance, more convenient and pandering than sad or dramatic when one of the character’s stories is curtailed by sudden death. And it’s a character we like!
It seems as if Cruz was committed to deliver a script to McCarter director Emily Mann, who did a fine job cobbling “Bathing’s” ragged scenes, and had to hand it over before it was finished or even completely thought out. The brother’s story of dashing family hopes by failing to pass the medical boards and disappearing without a word for two years, especially hangs in mid-air. It needs more substance, solution, and symbiosis with the rest of Cruz’s plot. You wonder half the time why this character is in the play. The domestic side of Cruz’s piece cannot take hold because there are no linchpins or dramatic glue to hold them together. Matters hover as potentially important facts, but they don’t move us or even accrue to a greater whole. Though seeing the family is pleasant, it’s frustrating because for all that is said or hinted, little of consequence happens, and there’s a feeling the family scenes are only buffers to give breathing room to the more important business of Father Monroe’s war within himself.
That war does get your attention and rouse your emotion more than any other part of “Bathing in Moonlight.” The play begins with Father Monroe addressing the McCarter audience as if it was his congregation at a Sunday mass. He puts his arm around people, speaks to them as if he’s familiar, joshes with one person in particular, all while delivering a rather interesting, foreshadowing sermon on the need to adapt to do what is prudent or right, even if it clashes with dogma or faith. Specifically, he tells a parable about an Italian priest who allows American war dead to be buried by his church but not on the grounds consecrated for interment because he doesn’t know if the Americans have been baptized. Later, he regrets his decision to dishonor fallen soldiers, and in his repentance changes the path of his church’s wall to encompass the Americans’ graves. The point is there are many ways to shift perspective and find a way around proscription when the options is to be respectful, merciful, or just. Or even real.
This sermon becomes germane when Father Monroe becomes enamored of Marcela, a fortyish woman who comes with her family to worship in the parish that Father Monroe has made successful after years of decline because of his ability to reach his congregants and make them want to hear his words each Sunday. In addition to being a pious churchgoer, Marcela is a talented pianist who uses the church piano it practice and entices Father Monroe with the loveliness of her music.
As would be natural, Father Monroe wrestles with his vows. He cannot pursue nor consummate his love for Marcela while he is committed, as Father Monroe would be, to his vow of celibacy.
Cruz has hit on a great conundrum. Father Monroe is a moral man, a man who believes in his commitments and is confident he has the strength to honor them whatever the temptation. He is also happy in his vocation and a benefit to his diocese. He values his work and takes nothing lightly. He is not the type to take advantage when no one is looking or wink and grant himself an indulgence to have what he has agreed, according to Church doctrine and in a promise to the Holy Trinity, is forbidden.
Pretty heady stuff, huh? And plotted well by Cruz and played excellently, leaving no doubt Father Monroe is a man of ultimate probity, devotion, and honor, by the touching Raúl Méndez. It is Father Monroe’s soliloquies and dialogues with God that grab us and pull us close, the way we’d like to be, to “Bathing in Moonlight.” These solo scenes are given strong punctuation as Father Monroe argues with his bishop, a man who doesn’t want to lose a good priest but who cannot brook any breach in Church policy.
Not only does Cruz make us think of the difficult, soul-scorching choice Father Monroe, to whom we are and remain constantly sympathetic, must make, but he calls to mind to whole structure of the Church, one that has determined priests should go unwed and removed from all vestiges of sex and fleshly desire. Both issues resonate, and the one involving priests’ marriage speaks to the modernization some in the Church advocate and call for..
The curious problem comes when we see Father Monroe and Marcela. We realize their love is mutual and honest. Hannia Guillen, as Marcela, is as clear about her affection and ardor as Méndez’s priest. She announces her attraction before we see the pair together in an intimate setting. We witness romance on the bloom and know it is the kind of romance that must, at some point, speak its name whatever is gained or lost. Yet, for all of the understanding we have for the situation, and all of the empathy, we don’t feel the same passion during love scenes as we do when Father Monroe expresses his angst. Even when they get steamy, the love scenes play as comme il faut. The reason I used the word “curious” at the beginning of this paragraph is Méndez and Guillen are attractive actors who communicate the love bond between Father Monroe and Marcela. Their embracing should cause us to turn warm and happy that the Church will not stand in the way of their visceral urges. The question, one I can’t answer, is why these scenes remain so cold, or neuter. The right elements and right actors are there. It may be because Cruz regularly keeps taking us so far afield from Father Monroe and Marcela that their love scenes seem episodic instead of continuous, opportunistic instead of deep.
Father Monroe is the best defined characters in the play. Though each of the others. Including Marcela, have a distinct personality, they seems to be playing functionary roles rather than having full dramatic depth and dimension.
Priscilla Lopez is charming and funny as the abuela who has a sense of tradition but is happiest when she loses her perception of time, place, and who is actually with her, to relive her meeting and marriage with her husband, in Cuba and Miami, sometimes mistaking her son for his father.
Frankie J. Alvarez has the modern sensibility for Tavi, Jr., the son and slides into the role so smoothly, he doesn’t seem to be acting. He seems more buoyant than someone who is recovering from deep depression, but that can be from coping with the crisis and defeating it. In general, Alvarez enlivens Mann’s production. It is not the actor’s fault that Cruz does not explain Tavi enough or add something substantive to his part that would better explain his existence on the stage.
Cruz handles much well, but there are some wrong notes he needs to smooth as much as he needs to add flesh to the domestic story and supporting characters. News and public reaction to one of Father Monroe’s decisions seems out of keeping with anything that would actually happen. I am among the first to say that a fictional drama is free to create its own world on its own terms. In this case, Cruz means to reflect the real world, and his mirror is smudged or off-bevel.
Music is a major part of this production, starting with Marcela’s gifts as a pianist. Emily Mann wistfully ends her production with “The Moonlight Sonata.” Grade: Production — B+; Play — C-
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media, Pa., through Sunday, October 23 — Jason Robert Brown has a unique way with lyrics. Several of his songs begin by wallowing, more artfully and articulately than most, in the modern trend to tell stories and forward exposition rather than express or underscore emotions. Then, mid-song, Brown’s lyrical stream changes. A theme emerges, and Brown proves as capable as Hammerstein, Berlin, or Gershwin at evoking imagery and creating poetry that pleases the ear and establishes the desired perspective. A list of experiences or events ascends into the picture of an ideal that is usually worth waiting to hear. Especially when sung by the elegant and text-conscious Elisa Matthews, a performer whose pure tones and keen understanding of what she’s singing can make any song a delight.
In the Media Theatre production of Brown’s “The Bridges of Madison County,” with a book by Marsha Norman, Matthews is joined in vocal beauty and dexterity by Derek Basthemer. Together they make a nucleus for Jesse Cline’s atmospherically moody production that carries the musical through romantic and mundane passages with equal aplomb. Except for the ending, which I think is, unlike Brown’s lyrics, too determined to conform to ’90s irony than to let the reader/audience have romantic satisfaction, Robert James Waller’s best-selling book provides Brown and Norman with a gripping story reminiscent of romances throughout literary history while having the virtue of bringing you back to reality in a way that allows you to live the lead character, Francesca’s, dilemma as she faces and considers it.
The plot of “The Bridges of Madison County” is a well-crafted reward, and Norman knows how to make it come alive on the stage, as does Cline and his cast. Francesca is a woman who has been transplanted from Naples to the rural center of Iowa. She has adapted well to her new soil, mainly by not pining too much for the culture, beauty, and bustle she left behind in Italy, the duties of family and farm more than filling her time and, for the most part, fulfilling her existence. Francesca, via Matthews, sings eloquently about her personal experience, Matthews weaving a spell with “Bridges’s” opening number, “To Build a Home,” a song with the paradigm I describe above but which takes to poetic soaring quickly and elicits immediate empathy and majesty in Matthews’s rendition.
For 18 years, from the end of World War II when she meets the G.I. that takes her to flat, landlocked Iowa from the gorgeous Vesuvian region where the Tyrrhenian meets the Mediterranean Sea, to 1963, when we meet her, Francesca has sublimated her need for culture, sketching, and making mozzarella for an appreciative audience to tending to home and chores. Rather than bring some Italy to Osceola, Francesca has become an Iowan. You can see her physical journey from Naples to Iowa in one of the best sets of visuals Jesse Cline, who is given to using projections, has ever assembled. They show Francesca’s trek from war-torn Naples, among the most damaged cities in World War II, through New York, South Bend, Chicago, and so forth. Cline’s slides reflect the time period of Francesca’s travels, so several skylines look different from today.
An awakening comes when a stranger, a photographer for National Geographic, comes to Francesca’s door while her husband, Bud, and her children, are away at the Indiana State Fair, where the daughter has an animal competing for Best Steer. The photographer is looking for a covered bridge he can’t find, and Francesca takes him there by driving with him, she using the time he takes to capture the bridge on film to sketch it in pencil, drawing and painting being among activities she sacrificed to be a Midwesterner.
The rest proceeds in the way of age-old storytelling. Robert, the photographer, is different from anyone Francesca knows or is likely to meet in Osceola where big doings mean getting ice cream in town. He has travelled the world, including to Naples, where he took and published pictures of the exact war-torn streets from which Francesca escaped. Francesca makes it clear she wanted to leave and would have fled Naples whether the G.I. came along or not, though not perhaps to the American corn belt. Rather than boy meets girl, lonely drifting man meets discontented detoured woman who is feeling incomplete and nostalgic in his presence.
Matthews and Basthemer let you see the romance budding and are best when looks communicate their feeling more than words. Basthemer is a fine singer and conveys Robert’s sincere attraction and affection for Francesca. Line reading is a bit different. Some of Basthemer’s are cold and unpointed, as if he’s saying the words by recited rote, his eyes revealing the context behind them more than his tone does. His delivery slows down some scenes, but It works in another way. It helps to create tension and establishes the moodiness, a good kind of moodiness that has a positive effect on the play, I mentioned earlier. Matthews is more vocally adept and more focused in terms of acting as Francesca. The going may at times be more like a series of tennis volleys than a conversation, but again, the hesitations work in the production’s favor. They seem to give a man who rarely has company in his hectic international travels, and a woman whose talk has been limited to grain prices, cattle, farm matters, and children’s needs, the chance to relearn the verbal part of adult communication, the words being a prelude to the smoldering Matthews and Basthemer each convey clearly.
One of Marsha Norman’s gifts is integrating Francesca’s family life with her romance in a way that makes the former feel like an intrusion only in the way Francesca would experience it, as an interruption in her time with Robert, a necessary-to-accept interval in which she tends to Bud and their children, who call regularly by telephone, as her affair with Robert percolates.
Again, some of these calls seem more cold, abrupt, and dismissive than need be, especially if Francesca is attempting to hide signs of her liaison, as do the greetings Francesca gives Bud and their children when they return from Indiana. The distance, lack of touching, and lack of kisses, at least for the children, is a bit off-putting, even as you realize Francesca has moved on emotionally from her family and home. Iowans may not be demonstrative, but the characters turn their aloofness towards each other into a fault. Whatever the situation, they should look genuinely glad to see each other after nearly a week’s absence.
These are small observations that do not get in the way of a more sweeping picture of love blooming and taking hold. In eye contact and gesture, Matthews’s Francesca and Basthemer’s Robert register as a pair almost from their first conversational exchange in the clearing before the bridge to which she directs him. Cline cleverly illustrates the growing feeling between Francesca and Robert by trading the black-and-white slides he used to show the pair’s journey towards the bridge, to colorful shots of foliage, a la “The Wizard of Oz,” as they make their way back to Francesca’s farm.
The glorious and overriding fact is Matthews and Basthemer make you love this couple and root for them to consummate their affair and consider a life together. There’s a lightness, an easing of their beings that Matthews and Basthemer make equally clear. Francesca and Robert are obvious soulmates whose passion is coupled with compatibility and appreciation for the other’s talents and intellect.
The absorbing part is you want Francesca and Robert to be together even as you retain friendly feelings towards Bud, who shows a needy side and an expectation of marital loyalty as played with dimension by Bob Stineman, and the concern you develop for her children, portrayed winningly by the impressive Molly Sorenson and Gianni Palmarini. It is to Norman’s, Cline’s, and the cast’s credit that you care about Francesca’s family even as you’re hoping she will, for her own sake, leave them. Stineman helps create the allegiance we feel for him, despite thinking Robert is a better match for Francesca, by being so solid and so much a symbol of the kind of man who wouldn’t worry about a wife’s infidelity or flight because he is so rooted in the salt-of-the-earth way of the Iowa farmer, such behavior wouldn’t occur to him. And yet you see that worry and how it affects Stineman’s Bud.
Music helps the romantic care express themselves. Brown’s score is lush and aims towards the beautiful as it gives Francesca and Robert ample opportunities to explain and express themselves, opportunities Matthews and Basthemer seize and turn into intense dramatic and musical gold on the Media stage. Their voices are so good, and their bearings so earnest, they bring you into the moment and allow to share the emotions, new or rekindled, that envelop them.
Cline’s supporting cast is equally adept. You see hurt and concern in Stineman’s careworn face, both when he finally reaches Francesca by telephone and wonders what’s going on that she seems so distant and when he trying to deal with his expressive and warring children, who are the usual province of Francesca. Stineman draws in, his face becoming narrow and hard, as he shows an ordinary man, whose life is regulated by farm business, dealing with marital and parental confusions beyond his ken, habit, or expectation. Palmarini does a fine job in conveying Michael, the son’s, mild but tangible rebellion as he figures out what he might do to withdraw from the farm and live another kind of life, perhaps one of vegetarian who would not value a prize steer. Sorenson repeats the natural presence she exhibited in Cline’s production of Brown’s “Thirteen” at the Media this summer, a natural presence that makes it perfect casting for her to play Matthews’s daughter and that reveals an excellent way with lines and song lyrics.
Faith Yesner made me laugh out loud in the Gladys Kravitz-Ethel Mertz role as the snoopy next-door-neighbor who surveys Francesca’s garden, several hundred yards away via binoculars, spies Robert’s truck there as night approaches, and wonders about the length of his stay there. Yesner is also excellent in a scene in which her character, Marge, asks her husband, Charlie, what he would do if she had an affair with an out-of-towner, status enough in Osceola to render a person exotic.
The best part of Marge is she’s not judgmental. Nothing big or special is made of it, but it’s heartwarming and truly moving when Marge just shows up with a complete and fully cooked dinner on the day Bud and the kids return from Indiana. You see immediate signs of empathy and neighborliness that don’t need a spotlight to convey their humanity and fellowship.
Nick Saverine is cleverly nonchalant as regular guy Charlie who sweetly puts up with Marge’s grilling while having the content look of a man who doesn’t have to worry. Marissa Wolner makes the most of a show she does as a night-club performer to kick off Act II.
Loveliness and tenderness that breaks through the surface coldness are the hallmarks of the Media’s production of this delicate but sweepingly romantic musical. Atmosphere, mood, and the sincerity of eye contact triumphs over a dodgy reading or two. You are definitely drawn into Francesca and Robert’s world and revel in being there. Kudos also to Christopher Ertelt and the excellent Media orchestra. They enrich Brown’s already generous score. Grade: A-
CAT-A-STROPHE, Papermill Theatre, 2825 Ormes Street, Philadelphia, Pa., through Sunday, September 25 — “Cat-A-Strophe” contains everything most people like about the Fringe and some of the things that keep me from being a natural and enthusiastic Fringer. I admit before going further that I left the show at intermission, not because I was unhappy or bored but because I thought I got its gist, and while I enjoyed the shrewder, knowing parts of what it had to say, I found some of the Fringy way of saying it tedious. I guess I am not a fan or easily tolerant of wacky for wacky’s sake. I enjoy satire and farce, and while I found “Cat-A-Strophe” rather astute in dealing with the former, especially when it came to lampooning general mores and squeamishness about sex and its prevalence in our thoughts, I thought the latter, farce, was larded on a little too thickly. I prefer both satire and farce to be subtle, to sneak up on me. When farce gets too blatant, or the satirical becomes too literal or absolute, some of the effect is ruined. There were sections of “Cat-A-Strophe” I enjoyed immensely, usually those dominated by Taiwo Sokan as a character named Beaver, who true to the slang reference playwright Yoel Wulfhart gave her as a name, talks openly about using her sexuality and how a buttock, breast, or clitoris enhances her allure as they are often on the top on the mind of any man who encounters her. Indeed, it is when “Cat-A-Strophe” is so wittily and directly frank about sex and sexuality that it is its most entertaining. Wulfhart may go hither and yon, as far afield as one can get in making some of his points, but he understands his material, the dynamics of attraction, the obsession with the sexual, and the crapload of façades we put up to deny or deflect our desires to get our mojos working actively. It is in Beaver’s frankness that we hear truth and wisdom. It can also be heard in other characters, notably Josh Kirwin’s Peckerstein/Peckerstien. I found myself listening intently and smiling when the obvious that is rarely said — We must be polite, you know — was expressed with some eloquence and a lot of understanding about how the libido and sexual urges work. The dialogue, when it is honest and snappy, is the best part of his show. Ubiquitous dildos and other props can provide fun at times (and curiosity at others), but they also become the occasion for silliness that has little point and wastes time. Most of the sequences, usually musical, involving Wulfhart, or director Kevin Fennell’s favorite prop, become juvenile and smack of everything I try to avoid when it comes to Fringing. Something tells me Wulfhart can be cleverer and more pointedly commentating while delving into human lust. To put it in terms more akin to his. I think he has the talent to be penetrating about penetration if he’d only take the time to do it. Don’t bother shocking the prudes or pandering to the salacious. Going with the thesis we are all on some level perverts, or sex-driven, keep up the celebration and frank healthiness of sex while making fun of the people who pretend to the common good manners to be above discussing it, let alone doing it. “Cat-A-Strophe,” when it reveals its intellect by talking openly and smartly about sex, holds one’s attention (often while holding something else as a prop). When it gets into the bits about writing or putting on a play or devolves into random vaudeville, the piece becomes a yawner even when performed well.
William McHattie takes the stage well and is quite delightful as CAPPucino, the barista of sorts at the coffee shop in which the play is set. Doug Cashell is nicely frazzled as the author and alleged raisonneur. Samantha Solar has style as Pussika. But it is Kirwin with Peckerstein’s flirtation, and Sokan, as the Beaver. who knows the score and reports it plainly — for instance when she says if a certain dangling shape fits a certain compatible orifice, how do you think people might be moved to experiment and what do you think might happen? — that steal the day. They display sexuality in its simplest, most playful, most recreational terms, and when they do, it’s good, and encouraging, to see and hear.
So, as with most Fringe that isn’t rooted in a classic, store and take with you a lot of patience to get past the folderol to the isolated moments of perspicacity and wit. Grade: C
ELECTILE DYSFUNCTION, Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Pike, Ambler, Pa, through Sunday, October 9 — Smart is different from sharp. “Electile Dysfunction,” the satirical revue Tony Braithwaite concocted with Will Dennis and Tracie Higgins for Act II Playhouse, is not the most incisive in the sense of skewering all who dare to run for the Presidency in 2016 by revealing their foibles and idiocies. It doesn’t go into for commentary or even blatant partisanship. It does something better, more lasting, and more entertaining. It perceptively picks out the flaws in the current candidates’ personalities and presentations using sketches, impersonations, and ready humor to show where Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton may be sorely lacking. Puns, pokes, and irreverent portrayals take the place of debating issues or trying to show off political astuteness. Braithwaite, Dennis, Higgins, and even pianist and occasional time filler, Owen Roberts, are keen observers who use the snide remark, the knowing leer, and a gift for both language and imitation, to have fun while getting points across that all candidates provide something at which you can laugh. “Electile Dysfunction” may not take candidates to task, but it shrewdly shows them for who they are and why they are not the most popular duo that ever vied to become the U.S. Commander in Chief. It’s the small but perfectly aimed gibe, the clever play on the candidates’ own words or shortcomings, and the perceptive take on what amounts to self-sabotage in both camps that is so winning here. Braithwaite, Dennis, Higgins, and Roberts are just flat-out funny. They provide a good time while tweaking the noses of certain people who have put themselves forward, heaven help us, to be our leader.
It’s theatercraft, not satire, that drives “Electile Dysfunction,” yet what Braithwaite and company show indicates they know how to read the field of play and what in it leads to comedy.
Braithwaite, in particular, has a ball trotting out dead-on mimicking of not only Donald Trump, who he has down to a “really terrific, I mean it,” but all of the Presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama with a little JFK, FDR, and Andrew Jackson thrown in for good measure. Well, Tony tells us that’s what Andy Jackson sounded like. He wouldn’t tease us, would he?
Braithwaite’s imitation are gems and makes one wonder where the Rich Littles, John Byners, and David Fryes are in this generation. Have voices and mannerisms become so bland, no one is worthy of mimicking? Do stars and politicians fade so fast, no one will remember who you’re doing the way they would immediately recognize Jimmy Cagney, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, or Humphrey Bogart?
No matter. Tony Braithwaite restores impersonation to high entertainment art. Not only are his voices on the mark, but he has each prexy’s mannerisms and facial expressions down pat, and — Here comes ‘smart’ again — knows the exact buzzwords that denote each President. It would be difficult to say which imitation was the most entertaining, but the one that goes much for the jugular is Donald Trump, whom Tony has down to each repetition, interjection, and roundabout way of saying nothing but assuring you you’ll love it.
Nothing in “Electile Dysfunction” is direct. Everything is presented in the form of the time-honored construction of the cabaret theater sketch. Watching Braithwaite, Dennis, and Higgins work is like seeing a particularly good take-off on “Saturday Night Live” or even Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In.”
Let’s take the opening bit that sets up the title. Well, opening after a snappy song describing proceedings of come to the tune of “Forbidden Broadway,”
“Electile Dysfunction” is more than a smart gag title. It’s the premise for a sketch is which Braithwaite comes as a patient to doctors Dennis and Higgins with a complaint that the upcoming election has left him listless, unmotivated, unaroused, and unable to act with his usual decisive prowess in a voting booth. It’s a great gambit. It deftly expresses a conundrum many are experiencing and finds a classic comic form to present it. Masterful.
But wait, folks, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Once Tony’s case of electile blahs is made plain, the reason for it comes clear. Tracie Higgins enters in a pants suit that tells you she’s Hillary Clinton (even if Tracie’s suit wasn’t as dowdy or as badly tailored as most of Hillary’s monstrosities). She greets the crowd announcing she’s Hillary Clinton and running for President in a toneless, lusterless voice and follows her self-introduction with an equally bland, cheerless, and unconvincing “yay,” sort of with the same enthusiasm and register as you might say “fine” as a reflex answer to “How are you?”
Higgins goes on doing Hillary in hilarious, uninspired, uninspiring monotone until the candidate is interrupted by two men charging down the aisle. From the minute you hear Braithwaite yell “stop” and ask who is issuing such horrendous sounds, you realize the joke coming into play. Soon he and Dennis are on stage in formal attire under rain gear as Henry Higgins and Col. Pickering, the former betting the latter he can make this oratorical dishrag into a stirring speaker in a matter of months. The three performers erupt in a parody on “The Rain in Spain,” and you see genuine satire instead of troupers just trying to make fun of or even support Hillary Clinton.
The next part of “Electile Dysfunction” works in spite of my lifelong loathing of man-on-the-street interviews not conducted by Jimmy Kimmel or his pal Guillermo.
Braithwaite takes to the Ambler corner that contains Act II and the Plymouth Meeting Mall to ask people about their voting preferences in 2016. Surprisingly, the lengthy segment works. At least as long as the video player projecting the images holds up, (There were technical difficulties on opening night.) It isn’t that anyone says anything particularly funny or unexpected, but Tony is a game questioners, and few of the responders — Well, there’s this one man — take themselves seriously enough to make the piece too partisan or obnoxious.
While the video is allegedly running, Braithwaite and Dennis are getting ready for the best part of the evening, a long skein of imitations.
Of course, the first victim is Donald Trump, and Tony has every nuance of the Trump persona, vocabulary, phraseology, and inarticulateness down to a T.
In another burst of inspiration, Braithwaite doesn’t have Trump run for President of the United States. He has him vying to become the mayor of Ambler against incumbent Jeanne Sorg, who makes Hillary look glamorous based on her clothes and hairdo as she appears on tape welcoming audiences to the Ambler movie theater.
Braithwaite’s Trump rakes Sorg over the coals using the same tactics he uses to roast Hillary.
The idea works, but I can’t say enough how brilliantly and perfectly Braithwaite nails Trump.
Trump’s campaign speech leads into a press conference in which various Presidents comment on everything from e-mails, including one of two who could not have heard of e-mail, and other issues that pertain either to 2016 or their time in office.
Dennis runs from one side of the house to the other, introducing himself as reporters with names that become more and more preposterous as the skit goes on. Meanwhile, Tony delights the crowd with his ability to capture the tone and look of our last eight Presidents and some of their predecessors. Only LBJ is missing from among the latest chief executives. (We should cast Tony in “All the Way,” so he can learn Lyndon too.)
Setting up as Richard Nixon, Tony keeps Dennis cracked up in the aisle.
Any time anyone mentions President Clinton, Higgins comes out from the wings to take a bow as Hillary. Misguidedly because the reference is always to her husband, Bill. After a few times having to slink off stage while Bill holds the spotlight, Higgins’s Hillary screams “Goddammit” in a tone that shows Henry Higgins and Pickering did their jobs.
Next to man-on-the-street, the theatrical stunt I hate most is audience participation. I don’t think anyone who has not had the benefit of rehearsal should be called to a stage.
Tony Braithwaite’s shows often take my teeth off edge in this regard. “Electile Dysfunction” was no exception.
A guy named Jack was ushered on stage from the audience. He and Tony traded badinage in which you once again see Braithwaite’s quickness and power of observation.
The cast deftly elicits biographical information from Jack and then do something remarkable. Using actual riffs from the hit musical “Hamilton” as their model, they tell Jack’s story in improvisational hip-hip, using tunes and some words from “Hamilton” in their admirable presentation.
Looking for cutting edge? “Electile Dysfunction” is not your cup of brine, although it has oodles of bright moments. Looking for laughs and a smart comic approach to politics? “Electile Dysfunction” is your ticket, and if I was you, I’d buy one soon. The show vacates the Act II premises on October 9. Grade: A-
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pa., Unfortunately closed (but eminently repeatable) — Mysteries have been taking a beating since the London success of Maria Aitken’s production of “39 Steps.” Instead of suspense, directors mire Arthur Conan Doyle in comedy, some of which works, some of which doesn’t know when to stop with the laughs and resume with what made the piece worth doing in the first place, a story that’s a thriller. Thank goodness for Brock D. Vickers. In adapting one of Conan Doyle’s most popular Sherlock Holmes mysteries, he kept the intense tone of the original. Directed Jared Reed was astute to play Vickers’s script straight, and the result was another success for the Storyboard series Reed initiated earlier this year with “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe,” a second installment of which, written originally for radio in the U.K., will come to the Hedgerow stage in January. Rather than make fun of Holmes, his characteristic methods and accoutrements, or Watson, Barrymore, Stapleton, or any other character in “Hound,” Vickers aimed for a pure and articulate telling of the story. As readers playing various characters present Conan Doyle’s tome about a larger than average dog with fiery red eyes that has a particular taste for killing the titled heads of the Baskerville family, cartoonlike illustrations of those characters, drawn by Hugo Delao are projected behind the actors. This makes it clear which character is speaking as the actors double, triple, and multiply further in putting together their drama. Though the Storyboard program calls for mainly reader’s theater, the Hedgerow crew did some admirable acting. Mark Swift has been notable in several parts for Hedgerow this year, most lately and famously as the randy visitor in Marc Camoletti’s “Boeing Boeing,” and he was dapper as Sherlock Holmes while being flinty and terse as the naturalist Stapleton, usually played for laughs in recent “Baskervilles,” and shaded as the Baskerville butler, Barrymore. Josh Portera resisted being silly as Watson and played the part, wisely, as someone who knows how detective work is done and could be in control. Allison Bloechl was fine in the women’s roles while also doing well as the country doctor that enlists Holmes to advise in the Baskerville case, and Robert Gene Pellecchio played a Baskerville that acted bravely while very naturally fearing for his life. All in all, this “Hound” was a good solid production that did credit to Mr. Conan Doyle — thanks again, Brock — and proved, as if it needed proving, that Victorian mystery, though it has traits that could lead to lampooning, can do its dramatic job being played for keeps in the style and tone intended. Grade: B+
MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION, Lantern Theater, 10th & Ludlow Street (St. Stephen’s Alley), Philadelphia, Pa., through October 9 — Classy and classic, Kathryn MacMillan’s production of Shaw’s play for Lantern, led by the perennially remarkable Mary Martello, illuminates all of Shaw’s themes and provides rousingly intelligent entertainment and smartly done comedy while giving a shrewd glimpse at two kinds of women, mother and daughter, who can make a name for themselves, in a world dominated by men.
From Dirk Durossette’s all-purpose, all-location set to the excellent performances turned in by MacMillan’s cast, this production has full Shavian gloss while exploring GBS’s timeless theme with humor and perspective. Mary Martello aces the part of Kitty Warren, the head mistress of a chain of European bordellos Shaw has the prim Victorian taste not to mention so openly as such, and has good company as David Bardeen excels in the difficult part of Praed. Andrew Criss is wily and gentlemanly savage as Crofts, and Daniel Fredrick is juvenilely darling as a mischievous but canny and socially adroit Frank Gardner. There’s also a stern turn by Claire Inie-Richards as a particularly inflexible Vivie and a fine performance by John Lopes as Frank’s father, the Rev. Samuel Gardner.
Shaw can be enjoyed for his lines alone. Listening to “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” I realize how many expressions from it have entered my regular vocabulary. (I always wondered where I picked up the word “dodgy.”) This production allows you to admire how clearly Shaw assessed the world and how deftly and entertainingly he knew how to put ideas on the stage. No one is better at creating a play you can savor solely for amusement while presenting a thought-provoking argument, with all sides of it clearly represented, or look at a modern concept that will evolve into a universal concept. Shaw is brilliant because while he writes of his time, his principles and perception are so keen, he speaks to all times.
“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” certainly does. Whatever her vocation and means for accruing wealth and social position, Kitty Warren stands for a woman’s independence both from drudgery and from counting on a man to provide her living and standing within the community. What Kitty knows has been picked up by her daughter, Vivie, although it must be from a kind of osmosis as Kitty only Vivie on fleeting visits to England while she spent most of her time running her houses in Vienna, Brussels, Ostend, and Budapest. Spanning two generations, both Warren women have a knack for doing as they like on their own terms while not needing a man. Except perhaps as another man would, as a business partner who invests and gets out of the way while an expert, the woman, does the work.
In this tale of two related but very different women, Shaw shows how resolve and character can conquer the prejudice Kitty and Vivie would undoubtedly face in the business world of 1893, the year “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” was written.
Some of the issues Shaw addresses linger, as noted, to today. Hillary Clinton continues to talk about taking a further step to shattering a glass ceiling of sexism Kitty and Vivie demolished in their separate ways more than a century ago.
Shaw is wonderful about having women speak their mind. The Shavian woman is often indomitable. The Millionairess shows how she can be a leader without a dime. Lady Utterword helps her husband rule a kingdom. Candida knows how to give men the space to be their best selves. Barbara Undershaft learns the difference between sentimental idealism and practical philanthropy. Kitty and Vivie Warren are women of business. One, the older, wants her independence so she can live highly and ask nothing from anyone. Her life blends practicality with culture and having a grand old time. The younger, Vivie, the daughter, is bored silly with the life that interests her mother. She’d rather jump from Waterloo Bridge than hear Elgar or attend a Turner exhibition. Her life consists of useful work, assembling actuarial tables for various businesses and using her gifts as mathematician for profit (and certainly not as an academic). While Kitty wants to go to the theater or attend a ball as respite from her competent work, Vivie wants to end the day with a cigar and a scotch and soda. Men want to be part of both of their lives, and while Shaw shows some of the men to be charming, they are all too weak and wanting to be more than friends to the Warren women.
Not that the Warren women are in league. Shaw’s play is as much about a mother and daughter, of unlike tone and temperament if like purpose, clashing in their way, Vivie upset with Kitty for continuing to make her fortune by subjugating other women, even if the job Kitty provides is better and leads to a healthier life than more conventional, respectable employment, Kitty being sentimental enough to want her flesh-and-blood daughter to be a friend and companion who will love and respect her the way many of her charges over the years have.
It is to MacMillan and her cast’s credits that all of the big scenes, especially the various confrontations, reconciliations, and conflicts between Kitty and Vivie, play so interestingly, entertainingly, and keenly. Inie-Richards may not display much color or character range as Vivie — It’s hard to see why Frank thinks this is a woman for him. — and may not have the same level of pointed delivery as Martello, but their scenes together rings as real, and both actresses know their characters well enough to let Shaw, Kitty, and Vivie do the work. Inie-Richard’s best scenes are at the second act when she hears for the first time the full story of her mother’s life, and at the conclusion of the play when Vivie and Kitty have their ultimate contretemps and know where each stands in relation to the other. Martello is marvelous in all scenes from her set-tos with Vivie to flirtatious moments with a rather forward Frank.
The Lantern cast is generally laudable because each actor has managed to create a distinct personality while fitting into an ensemble and showing how all, despite their diversity, can be friends.
I judge the dodgiest part in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” to be Praed, the architect who stands for the aesthetic and is disappointed that Vivie is not overly impressed with the beautiful in life.
Praed is both the least defined and the most likeable character in Shaw’s play. At least he’s the one everyone gets along with and wants to see again. It takes a gentle sensibility, enough personality to be good company, and enough tact so as not to be too objectionable to anyone even when you are not shy about speaking your mind. David Bardeen magnificently fills the bill in an amiable, witty performance that shows how Praed’s culture and worldliness while retaining a boyishness at age 50 that adds to him being so universally accepted.
Daniel Fredrick is a playful Frank, educated and precocious even for a man in his early twenties. Frank may not have a penny to his mind or any prospects that will lead to a lucrative career, but Fredrick endows with a boulevardier’s savoir faire and the sophisticated wit to leave the world of Shaw and enter an Oscar Wilde play if it so suited him. (Come to think of it, Fredrick played Wilde in Michael Whistler’s “Mickle Street” a few seasons back.) I liked Fredrick’s jauntiness and half-teasing, half-pleading demeanor with Vivie who outgrows Frank, assuming he was ever really her contemporary.
Andrew Criss impresses as a direct, sharp-eyed Sir George Crofts, a scoundrel in ways but one who uses his wit to earn the cash that allows him, like Mrs. Warren, to enjoy life on his own terms.
John Lopes finds the right level of befuddlement and fuddy-duddyness as the country rector one of Kitty’s early beaux, Sam Gardner becomes.
“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” can take many courses. It can put either Warren woman in the forefront. It can concentrates on the conditions of women’s lives of the relationship between a mother and daughter with much in common but different preferences and styles. It can pose Kitty or Vivie as spiteful, which MacMillian’s staging blissfully does not.
No, the virtue of MacMillan’s production for Lantern is it touches deftly on all themes and character relationships “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” has to offer. You get to savor the separate ways Kitty and Vivie regard female independence. You get to see two men, George Crofts and Frank Gardner, try their darndest to get what they want, only to be rebuffed by the wary and wise Vivie. You see Praed as the man who can get along with anyone. You understand the prejudice that would coax Frank or his father to seek and enjoy the company of Kitty but make them demur about introducing her to their wife and mother. You see some roots of women’s liberation, especially in Vivie’s realized resolve to hang a shingle, establish a business, and get to work.
Shaw always provides a wealth of character, idea, and humor. Kathyrn MacMillan and her sterling cast mine all of it. In a season with an auspicious beginning, this production of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” might be the most auspicious of all. Grade: A
To come: Notes of a Native Son, South Pacific, A Streetcar Named Desire, The War of the Roses, all of which will be reviewed favorably and even enthusiastically. Lori Tan Chinn, what a treasure!!!! Hedgerow and Villanova, be proud, very, very proud! Warren Adler congratulations on being a novelist who knows how to structure a play and made it work. Stew, I’d tell you how brilliant you are, but you know, darling, you know.