Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Natural Affection" - Powerfully Affecting

By Judd Hollander

The world is ugly. So says Sue Barker (Kathryn Erbe), a buyer for a Chicago department store at both the beginning and end of William Inge's rarely-performed 1962 work Natural Affection. A revival of which is kicking off The Actors Theatre Company's (TACT) 2013-2014 season. The group delivering a stunning production of people adrift and desperately trying to hold their lives together, but who are always just one half step away from falling completely apart.

Sue currently lives with Bernie Slovenk (Alec Beard), a somewhat younger former bartender turned Cadillac salesman who has big dreams of moving up in the business world. Bernie is not yet ready to commit himself to marriage, this despite Sue making no secret of wanting a ring on her finger. Bernie is also a man who likes things the way he likes things and has a short fuse whenever someone tries to upset his ordered lifestyle. As such, he's not particularly happy when Donnie (Chris Bert), Sue's seventeen year old son, who she had when she was a teenager and who's been spending the last several years at a work farm for teenage delinquents comes to stay with them for the Christmas holidays. It turns out Donnie can stay with Sue full time if she's willing to be responsible for him till he comes of age. Feeling the guilt of never being there for Donnie, Sue agrees. Something to which Bernie very reluctantly acquiesces.

Though Bernie attempts to take Donnie under his wing, the young man, who has a ticking time bomb persona is having none of it. Wanting instead to spend as much time as he can with his mother while slowly becoming accustomed to the finer things in life she can give him. The already volatile situation turns from bad to worse when Bernie loses his job even as Donnie's contempt for him continues to rise. Things comes to a head on Christmas Eve, with the three about to go to a party with their alcoholic, aging neighbor Vince (John Pankow) and his twenty year younger trophy wife Claire (Victoria Mack) - Claire being on the make for anything in pants and who has eyes for both Bernie and Donnie - as frustrations, anger, pain, hidden secrets and some grim realizations begin to spill out, leading to an inevitable and devastating explosion.

Natural Affection is a title with a loaded meaning, it referring in this case to the affection a boy has for his mother, a mother has for her son and that a man and woman can have for each other. Yet when that attraction isn't the same on one end of the equation as on the other, it can lead to disaster as Inge perfectly demonstrates here, stunningly deconstructing a series of relationships and stripping away the layers of the various characters to reveal the pain, ugliness and ultimate disgust they carry inside.

Acting is superlative down the line. Erbe is great as Sue, the most shaded character in the piece and the glue attempting to hold her patchwork family together. Desperately trying to find happiness with Bernie, who she dearly needs, while also trying to be the mother she thinks she should be in an attempt to make up for lost time with her son. Yet those around her are unable to live up to her idealized expectations, as is she herself, and Sue is forced to settle for what she wants most of all, though one suspects she will suffer a bit of an identify crisis because of it in the future.

Beard is good as Bernie, a sort of Stanley Kowalski lite. The reference to the Tennessee Williams character is not accidental as Williams and Inge were friends, the latter dropping in a couple of references to Williams in this story. Also like Stanley, Bernie is not above rationalizing his various misdeeds, coming clean in a half-hearted way at points. He's also an old-fashioned man through and through, feeling as though he has to be the king of his castle or if not, have no castle at all.

Bert does nice work with the character of Donnie, giving off the impression of someone quietly creepy, and a personality that is only seconds away from exploding. Donnie also has a somewhat unhealthy attraction toward his mother, wanting desperately to take Bernie's place in the home; his affections toward Sue almost going over the line as he tries to return to the childhood he lost and a future he believes will be perfect as long as his mother is in it.

Pankow is excellent as Vince, who takes the role of good time drunk and spews out venom and hatred, transforming the character into be a sad and lonely old man. Vince may have money, a beautiful wife and a lot of friends, yet he's so desperately afraid of seeing it all slip away that he starts to push those he loves toward the door before they can even think about leaving. Mack is fine as Claire, the tramp trophy wife looking for a good time with anyone but Vince. The role is a bit one note, but Mack is still able to bring some pathos to the character, especially when she recalls why she married Vince in the first place. In a nice touch of irony, Claire is revealed to be someone just as lonely and scared as Vince.

Rounding out the cast are Tobi Aremu as a person Donnie knows from the reformatory and who offers him a chance to make a quick buck - by becoming anything from a drug courier to a contract killer. Aremu also playing one of the various party guests Vince has over to his apartment. There's also Eve Bianco, playing two roles, one of which figures significantly in the play's powerful and completely unexpected conclusion.

Director Jenn Thompson keeps the show moving nicely, allowing the various characters to develop naturally while quietly bringing forth the underlying power of the text. Indeed, every line and scene comes across as having a definite purpose, with nothing presented on stage that feels forced, tired or extraneous.

A top-quality production through and through, thanks to a dedicated cast and creative team, one hopes Natural Affection will not be forgotten again after the play's final performance at TACT.

Natural Affection
Featuring Kathryn Erbe (Sue Barker), Alec Beard (Bernie Slovenk), John Pankow (Vince Brinkman), Victoria Mack (Claire Brinkman), Chris Bert (Donnie Barker), Tobi Aremu (Gil/Party Guest), Eve Bianco (Religious Woman/Party)

Written by William Inge
Set Design: John McDermott
Light Design: M.L. Geiger
Costumes: David Toser
Sound Design: Toby Algya
Publicist: Richard Hillman
Props: Lauren Madden
Fight Direction: Uncle Dave's Fight House
Wig Design: Robert Charles Valance
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Production Stage Manager: Jack Gianino
Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Burns
Tact General Manager: Christy Ming-Trent
Directed by: Jenn Thompson

Presented by The Actors Company Theatre
Beckett Theatre
Theatre Row Studios
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Information: www.tactnyc.org

Running Time - Two hours, 10 minutes (including intermission)
Closes: October 26, 2013

"Women or Nothing" - An Interesting Look at Relationships

By Judd Hollander

Honesty is the best policy or what you don't know won't hurt you are the choices Ethan Coen postulates in his latest stage offering, Women or Nothing, now at the Atlantic Theater Company. Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) and Laura (Susan Pourfar) are a seemingly happy New York couple. Gretchen is a lawyer and the more grounded of the two in terms of going after what she wants; while Laura, a classical pianist, is more introspective and insecure. Laura often wondering if she is really as talented as everybody seems to think.

Gretchen and Laura also want to have a baby. However Gretchen, who is medically unable to get pregnant, doesn't like the idea of Laura going the anonymous sperm donor route, as she wants to have a say in the genetic makeup of their offspring. Her choice for the father: Chuck (Robert Beitzel), a young, divorced co-worker at her firm, and someone with apparent good genes as evidenced by his daughter, whom Gretchen has met. Chuck doesn't know Gretchen is a lesbian and has flirted with her in the past, and so, Gretchen's reasoning goes, he should be relatively easy for Laura to seduce. Yet the prospect of sleeping with a man, which Laura has never done, is not something she wants to consider. Laura becoming even more agitated when she learns Gretchen has set up the assignation with Chuck for that very night. Though her wanting to please Gretchen, coupled with the not quite unconscious realization that Gretchen will never give up on this issue until she gets her way, prompts Laura to reluctantly agree to the plan.

However Chuck turns out to be not at all the stereotypical male who just wants sex with a woman, but is in fact a rather nice guy. Lured to Gretchen and Laura's apartment after all traces of the two women's relationship have been removed - shades of La Cage aux Folles - Chuck learns Gretchen has been "unexpectedly" called away, with Laura, claming to be a neighbor, waiting there instead. After some awkward small talk and a drink or two, Laura finds herself opening up to Chuck, talking to him about her career, her personal insecurities and about how people interact in general, all of which Chick responds to with interesting and insightful opinions. Eventually the inevitable issue of where the two go from there emerges, the after effects of which are hilariously explored in Act II.

The question of how honest one should be forms the through line of the story, making the play, which centers on the subjects of family and relationships, both fascinating and delightful to watch. It also helps that the characters are well-defined, with the dialogue working beautifully throughout. Be it satirically sharp or quietly full of meaning. The script, coupled with David Cromer's expert direction, continually taking the play from comedy to farce to quiet drama and back again. 

If there is one major problem with Woman or Nothing, it's the ending, which finishes things up too neatly without really answering anything. There are a number of issues left unresolved and it's almost as if there's a missing final beat to the story that needs to be included in order to make for a more definite, though not necessarily complete conclusion. 

Pourfar makes a wonderful Laura. A strong yet vulnerable woman, someone who's not classically pretty and who worries about getting older while also battling various insecurities and unresolved issues. Among said issues being a rather contentious relationship with her mother Dorene (Deborah Rush). Yet underneath her airs of terminal resignation, Laura has a quiet core of inner strength allowing her handle whatever she faces. Even if she doesn't always realize it at the time. One can't help but wonder how the outcome of events depicted in the play will ultimately effect Laura and Gretchen's relationship, one having been changed by what went on, the other not having changed at all.

Feiffer works well as Gretchen, the weakest character in the piece in the way her character was conceived - pun intended. A woman who fixes her mind on a goal and who determinedly goes about achieving it may be okay in the courtroom, but she's a bit lacking when it comes to human interaction. Though there's no doubt of Gretchen's love for Laura and she clearly sees having a child to be the next step in their relationship, she doesn't consider how other people will be affected by her plans even as she tries to make things as uncomplicated as possible. This is shown in her selection of Chuck as the biological father, Gretchen knowing that he'll soon be moving out of state so they'll never have to see him again or tell him that he got Laura pregnant.

Beitzel is quite good as Chuck, the actor playing him neither as callow or as a white night, coming off as both interesting and sympathetic, thus allowing the audience to see the character as more than just potential father material. It also helps that Pourfar and Beitzel have a quiet chemistry together, the two playing off each other well, and their scenes having a sort of uneasy first date feel at times. Initially filled with halting communication, yet both eventually arriving at a sort of mutual understanding and respect.

Deborah Rush basically steals the show as Laura's narcissistic mother. Completely unflappable, even when she sees Chuck coming out of her daughter's bedroom, as well as self assured with a wry sense of superiority, Dorene comes in like a silent hurricane, leveling Laura time and again with a quiet remark or observation, against which Laura can do nothing but sputter in disbelief. Dorene's doesn't always come across as completely real, though in this scenario she's not required to be. She also has the best lines in the play, all delivered with impeccable timing. This being another example of the actors and director working well together. It's also interesting to note that Laura is more like her mother than she would ever care to admit, her distress about this fact continually in evidence whenever she says or does something that mirrors Dorene in any way.

Michele Spadaro's set of Gretchen and Laura's New York apartment is nicely eclectic, though it would have been nice if could have been a little less neat. A few books or newspapers in a pile somewhere would have given it that more of a lived-in look instead of a showroom effect.

Amusing and lightweight at times, quite serious at others, Woman or Nothing offers up an interesting tale which leaves too many questions at the end, but is still an enjoyable experience. Not to mention having some great acting and directorial work.

Women or Nothing
by Ethan Coen

Featuring: Robert Beitzel (Chuck), Halley Feiffer (Gretchen), Susan Pourfar (Laura), Deborah Rush (Dorene)

Sets: Michelle Spadaro
Costumes: Sarah Laux
Lights: Bradley King
Original Music & Sound: Daniel Kluger
Casting: Telsey + Company, Will Cantler, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Richard A. Hodge
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Manager: Michael Wade
Associate Artistic Director: Christian Parker
General Manager: Jamie Tyrol
Directed by David Cromer

Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street

Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.atlantictheater.org

Running Time: 1 Hour, 50 Minutes, including intermission

Closes: October 13, 2013

"You Never Can Tell" - Simply Delightful

By Judd Hollander

The Pearl Theatre Company starts its 30th anniversary season in high style with a sparkling production of Bernard Shaw's rarely performed work You Never Can Tell. Presented jointly by the Pearl and the Gingold Theatrical Group, the play offer a hilarious look at love, courtship, family ties that bind and a gentle poke at the Oscar Wilde classic The Importance Of Being Earnest. The connection between these two plays explained in the You Never Can Tell show program. 

In an English seaside town at the turn of the twentieth century Valentine (Sean McNall), a "5 shilling dentist", is pulling the tooth of Dolly Clandon (Emma Wisniewski), a flighty and repressive young girl, who's about to come of age. She also changes subjects at the drop of a hat while chattering on continuously about everything under the sun. These personality traits are shared by her twin brother Philip (Ben Charles), who enters Valentine's office shortly thereafter. Taking a liking to Valentine, the siblings invite him along for lunch, where they will be joined by their older sister Gloria (Amelia Pedlow) and their mother Margaret (Robin Leslie Brown). Margaret and her brood have been living in Portugal for the past 18 years where Margaret has become something of a celebrity, publishing books about life, love, etiquette, etc. as it applies to 20th Century morality. Margaret also becoming a sort of spokesperson for the cause, a position for which Gloria is being groomed to take over, Gloria being every inch the modern woman.

However lunch plans go completely askew when Valentine's guest, one Fergus Crampton (Bradford Cover), invited sight unseen to the luncheon by Dolly and Philip as Valentine already had a previous engagement with him, turns out to be the children's long absent father and Margaret's husband. Margaret and Fergus' marriage being a long-simmering wound that has never healed. There's also the matter of Valentine and Gloria, who become instantly smitten with one another the moment they first lock eyes, thus adding to a bit of romantic tension to the proceedings.

Light as a soufflé, sharp as a satirical bee sting - with a two and a half hour running time that just zips by - this production of You Never Can Tell is a winner from start to finish. Much of the credit being due to the direction of David Staller, the only person to have directed performances of all 65 of Shaw's plays. Here, Staller knows exactly what he needs to do to make the story come completely alive, having the characters play their roles completely straight but with just a touch of physical exaggeration in their movements and gestures. Or in Valentine's case, with leaps onto the couch. These directorial decisions moving the play into the arena of gentle farce but never into complete parody.

Many of Shaw's favorite topics and themes are present in the text. These include poking fun at the legal and medical professions, the consciousness of one's class status and an exploration of just what marriage entails. That last point illustrated here with both a marriage unfulfilled and one which may or may not succeed depending on what happens before the "I dos" are said - if they are said at all.

The cast is superb throughout. McNall is wonderful as Valentine, at first seemingly a hard working and honest fellow, who lost his two previous practices because he dared to tell his patents the truth rather than what they wanted to hear. But when Valentine sees Gloria and love strikes him right between the eyes, as well as in the heart, McNall launches into one of the most perfect reverse courtships ever seen on the stage; begging, pleading and changing course time and again. All the while accepting Gloria's not always kind compliments and putting himself down - all done with hyper kinetic energy - so she doesn't know which way to turn. Although Valentine isn't above a little jealousy at times, be it warranted or not. Pedlow is great fun as Gloria, a so-called modern woman - a common fixture in many of Shaw's play - who finds her well laid out life upended when reality gets too close. It's a testament of the actress's performances that she makes an often stereotypical role seem fresh and human, so one can easily emphasize with what she's going through when she experiences love for the perhaps the first time.

Brown nicely carries off Margaret, an older, wiser and at times surprisingly less cynical version of Gloria. She's also someone on the run from a failed marriage who was forced to reinvent herself in order to survive. Cover is very interesting as Fergus, perhaps the most shaded character in the piece. A hard and irritable man when we first meet him, and someone with old-fashioned values, Fergus clearly has unresolved issues regarding his marriage, although he is quite willing to take his share of the blame for the failure of said union. The scenes between Fergus and Gloria, with one or the other making awkward attempts at reconciliation, are surprisingly intimate and ultimately touching, allowing for a sort of quiet reflection in the midst of all the chaos occurring around them.

Wisniewski and Charles are very good as Dolly and Philip, siblings on perennial overdrive. They are also two of the hardest characters in the play to bring off properly, as they could have easily come across with an aura of sameness in their conversations, or simply felt downright annoying, their constant chatter and antics disrupting the flow of the story. Instead, the actors make their characters not only completely endearing but also fun to watch. It also helps that the two have great comic timing together and play off one another perfectly.

Dan Daily does a perfect job as Walter, a waiter. An English gentleman through and through and who probably sets some kind of theatrical record for saying "sir" the most times in a performance, Daily offers up a strong mixture of dry wit and common sense, as well as a reminder of the class consciousness that quietly permeates the play. An issue nicely explored with Walter's interaction with the rest of the characters, including a scene with his son Walter (Zachary Spicer), a well-regarded barrister, who's called in to help the family through the various legal troubles that arise after their unexpected reunion. Son Walter doing a nice job combining a cool head with just a bit of the bombastic in an attempt to allow everyone to come to a sort of understanding about what they think they want. Dominic Cuskern is fine in the role of Finch, the family lawyer, retained by both Margaret and Fergus for all these years. Finch is a man with a quiet way of speaking who turns out to be no match for the more fast-talking people around him. Cuskern does however, get off some wonderful double takes, along with an occasional air of befuddlement and who, like the audience, finds himself carried along by the conversations and events that are unfolding.

Staller, as mentioned above, is simply letter perfect in his direction. The various costumes by Barbara A. Bell are wonderful to behold, the outfits alternating between bright, beautiful (especially some of the garments Gloria and her mother wear); and in the men's cases - sharp and clean-lined. Lighting by Stephen Petrilli is very good, as are the various sets by Harry Feiner. Sound design by M.L. Dogg works well, as does the dancing by Wisniewski and Charles, which is used as a sort of transition between scenes, adding nice touch to the proceedings.

You never call tell what's going to happen in life, as the elder Walter mentions more than once. However there is absolutely no doubt that one would be hard-pressed to not completely enjoy the Shaw production currently holding court at the Pearl Theatre Company space. Simply delightful in every way, this is a production that should definitely not be missed. So don't miss it!

You Never Can Tell

by Bernard Shaw

Featuring: Sean McNall (Mr. Valentine), Emma Wisniewski (Dolly Clandon), Ben Charles (Philip Clandon), Robin Leslie Brown (Mrs. Margaret Clandon), Amelia Pedlow (Gloria Clandon), Bradford Cover (Walter Boon), Dominic Cuskern (Finch McComas), Zachary Spicer (Walter Bohun)

Scenic Designer: Harry Feiner
Costume Designer: Barbara A. Bell
Lighting Designer: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Designer; M.L. Dogg
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Casting Director: Stephanie Klapper Casting
Production Manager and Technical Director: Gary Levinson
Presented by The Pearl Theatre Company and the Gingold Theatrical Group

The Pearl Theatre
555 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-563-9261 or www.pearltheatre.org

Running Time: Two Hours, 30 Minutes (including one intermission)

Closes: October 13, 2013