The Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, under the artistic direction of Mark Lamos, has been trying to clarify its mission since Mr. Lamos replaced Joanne Woodward as guide at this prestigious and newly renovated barn theatre.
Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall founded the theatre in 1931 by remodeling a red barn tannery built in the 1830s. The Langners had a home in Westport, and as head honchos at the Theatre Guild in New York they thought it would be a fine idea to have a theatre in which they could have a summer look at potential plays for the Guild to mount in the approaching fall seasons. They sprinkled those seasons with a goodly number of revivals, often of classic quality, and they were able to lure theatre stars of some luster for “a few weeks’ holiday in the country”.
Eventually everyone showed up there — Olivia DeHavilland, Helen Hayes, Tallulah Bankhead, Walter Hampden, Joan Fontaine, Myrna Loy, Christopher Plummer, Jason Robards and so many others. Green Grow The Lilacs, a play by Lynn Riggs, was put on because Ms. Marshall thought it might make the source for a musical — and indeed it did. A little number called Oklahoma! emerged because Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II agreed with her.
The past season or two hasn’t unearthed any major wonders — one of Fred Ebb’s posthumous musicals, written as always with composer John Kander, was put on a couple of seasons back. It was called Over and Over and it was based on material in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth. Thus far, no takers from the Broadway scene. And some of the revivals have lacked luster.
Now we have a world premiere of a play by Chad Beguelin who’s had lots of action in the musical theatre world — Tony nominated for his book and lyrics for The Wedding Singer, and lyrics for the Broadway musical Elf, which broke box office records at the Hirschfeld Theatre in 2010. It was so popular during its holiday run, it will return for another 3 months in November 2012. But this month we are introduced to Mr. Beguelin – the Playwright. His Harbor is a very contemporary piece with 4 actors.
Kevin and Ted have been married for ten years, and are unexpectedly visited by Kevin’s older sister Donna and her 15 year old daughter Lottie. We have reached the point in time where the fact that these two lads have been married is of little concern to us – it’s just a given. What drives this play is what happens when a straight woman, pregnant with her second child, plops herself down in the middle of their rather conventional living room to propose an arrangement that will leave none of the four where they were at play’s start.
Following their journey is suspenseful and fun. Beguelin has written all four characters with insight and humor, seasoned with contrast and complication. The proposal that Donna makes for the rearing of her unborn daughter is attractive to one of the men, then to the other, but each choice is accompanied by anguish, doubt, frustration, and each one serves as a catalyst that unearths very basic needs in all the characters. The resolution struck me as totally honest, and for me, somewhat surprising.
The play is structured somewhat sloppily, showing some of the signs of a writer not totally aware of the pitfalls of the straight play vs. the musical book. Short scenes in sets needed only briefly (the front seat of a car, a quiet corner in a public place where a cell phone can be put to use). Most of the play is set in the men’s home, a middle class sanctuary in Sag Harbor, New York, where one of them is employed, the other more of a homemaker and house husband. Lottie is more grounded than her mother Donna, and as she approaches womanhood in the many months covered in the two acts, her growth is apparent, and satisfying. Donna is equally well drawn, and the male couple have reached a point in their happy marriage where change is necessary for happiness to continue .
Beguelin’s handling of this delicate family mess is adroit and mature and makes for very good theatre.
He’s aided by a first rate cast under Mr. Lamos’ sure direction. Bobby Steggert, who moves comfortably from musical (A Minister’s Wife, Ragtime, Yank!) to play (The Grand Manner, Master Harold … and the Boys) is once again appealing and interesting and up to the growth of Kevin in this play. His partner is played by Paul Anthony Stewart with great charm and authority. He too moves easily back and forth from musicals (The People in the Picture) to plays (Twelfth Night), and his confrontation scenes in Act Two with Steggert are powerful and very moving. Alexis Molnar and Kate Nowlin bring freshness to the Mother-Daughter relationship that is constantly evolving, and these two excellent actresses surprise us again and again during the evening with the acting choices they make.
It’s a brave choice for Mr. Lamos — this very contemporary theme cannot be everyone’s cup of tea in a theatre that caters mainly to white upper middle class audiences, some of whom disappeared during the intermission. But those who remained (the great majority) seemed to find it as absorbing, arresting and provocative as I did.
I’m certain you’ll be hearing more of this play, and if it comes your way, give it a chance. If you like good theatre that reflects a little known aspect of most of our lives and times, this is it.
Harbor by Chad Beguelin, directed by Mark Lamos. Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, Connecticut. Closes Sept. 15, 2012. Information: westportplayhouse.org or (203) 277-4177.
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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