- Summer Therapy
- Beyond Therapy, Couple of the Century, Rafta, Rafta and Reasons to Be Pretty
- By Richard Seff
There’s not a lot going on in New York right now. No, that’s not true; this is the city that never sleeps, and there are plays, cafés, musicals opening all the time, even during the July-August off/season. The custom remains, however, that the big ticket items wait till the kids are back in school, and Mom, Pop and the family have returned from their summer holidays. It’s a great time to seek out the smaller gems, or the larger ones I may have missed in the hurly-burly of the height of the season. So here’s what I’ve been up to.
Invited to spend a couple of nights in Wainscott New York, I took advantage of Sag Harbor’s proximity and arranged to see the revival of Chris Durang’s 1981 effort, Beyond Therapy. I’d never seen it, and with a cast that included Kate Burton, Katie Finnernan (who’d been marvelous in Mauritius on Broadway earlier this past season), Matt McGrath (a fine young actor whose work I’d admired since way back in the Circle Rep days of the late 1980s) I knew there was little risk of a bad evening.
The play requires that you arrive prepared not to resist Chris Durang’s off the wall approach to life. In this play, he’s seeking revenge on all the psychoanalysts he’d ever encountered or in whose care he’d ever placed himself. His comically deranged mind is getting an airing through July 27 at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island. On the weekend of July 12, I sat amongst a packed house. It pays to know that you’ll be entering a world of lunacy, and if that’s not one in which you are comfortable, beware. But if you have a taste for the slings and arrows of a caustic and comical playwright, you’ll be satisfied at evening’s end.
Wisely set in its original time and place (New York City, 1981), its take on psychiatry as a tool to help the emotionally challenged remains perfectly relevant today. Its references to Plato’s Retreat, Three’s Company, Joyce DeWitt and other 80s icons will seem quaint to young ears, but they don’t blunt the wackiness built into the play’s six characters. Take two psychiatrists, three lovestruck young lovers, add a waiter who requires gun shots to make him appear, and you’re off on a merry romp. Of course in this Wonderland the doctors get hit the hardest. With Kate Burton playing one of them and Darrell Hammond (of Saturday Night Live) playing the other, they are in the best of hands. Just watch Ms. Burton find her way from “porpoise” to “patient,” from “dirigible” to “secretary,” in searching for “the word I want!”. It alone is almost worth the price of admission. Ms. Finnernan and Darren Goldstein (playing an ardent bi-sexual) who meet via a dating service, ground their work in reality, then let themselves fly in the best tradition of farce. Matt McGrath, as Goldstein’s male partner, sort of slides into the play late in the first act, and sidesteps caricature in creating a character we ultimately understand and root for. Bryce Pinkham rounds out the cast in the tiny role of a waiter, and he has the funniest entrance I think I’ve ever seen. Proof? He gets a huge laugh, which builds, and leads to applause! (You had to be there.)
Under Alex Timbers’ adroit direction, this Bay Street import from the Williamstown Theatre in Massachussetts, spins smoothly along for two hours of fun poking at marriage, homophobia, commitment, psychotherapy and other areas stumbled upon along the way. Not for conservatives, one or two of whom could be seen fleeing at intermission. For the rest of us open minded and adventurous people, a good time was had by all. Perfect summer fare, seasoned, prepared and served to perfection.
An old friend, William Fowkes, playwright, was having a one-performance only production of his newest play Couple of the Century at the Cherry Lane in the Village. It was part of the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival, and just getting it on was an achievement, for it was fully staged and learned by a remarkable cast of four stalwarts. Two years ago I acted in The Dakota, a two-character one-act play of Mr. Fowkes, so I know how “remarkable” this achievement was – for our play was 35 pages long, this one was almost 100, and I had to resort to the late John Barrymore method of line-learning, which meant bits and pieces of speeches were scattered hither and yon about the set to help keep me on the mark.
Not so here. Three Equity actors (Wendy Peace, Janice Mann and John Blaylock) and one non-union man (Jerry Ferris) performed as though they’d rehearsed for a month and completed an out-of-town tryout or a series of previews. Actually they’d rehearsed for about a week, there were no previews, and Ms. Peace told me she’d taped 3 separate episodes of her current soap opera (“One Life To Live”, on which she plays a cop) on the very day of this play’s performance! All four actors were remarkably in tune with the material, and Ms. Peace and Mr. Ferris, who appeared in virtually all of the play’s eight scenes, used interplay, improvisation, innuendo, eye contact and good listening to enrich their work. Janice Mann, in a smaller role, reminded me of the young Mary Louise Parker, with all of that star’s freshness and quirkiness and appeal.
The play is delivered to us backwards (more or less) with Scene 1 set in April 2005, moving in reverse time back to May 1994, and in the last scene moving forward to June 2005. This is not a new device, and in this instance I found it a tad confusing, for one of the scenes moves from April 1997 to ‘an hour later’ in the next scene. Without a compère to keep us posted, I found myself spending too much time wondering “just when is this going on?”. But Fowkes, who turns out one or two plays a year, is developing as a playwright, and this one contains at least 4 scenes that engage, inform, surprise – scenes that allow his actors to probe, seek and find subtleties in their characters. His dialogue is rich and stageworthy. Personally, I found the central idea in this play – sexual incompatibility between two people who do love each other – too limited for an entire evening. I knew little of the back stories of the characters, and I needed and wanted to. But in talking with the playwright briefly about this, he informed me that some 25 pages of script had to be cut for this Festival showing, because 90 minutes was all that was available to each writer. Perhaps some of my reservations would be removed were they returned to the script. It’s always a joy to see talented writers stretch and grow, to see gifted actors sink their teeth into interesting characters. I have such respect for all of them, and for Ms. Peace and Nic Tyler who ‘co-staged’ it all. The music and lyrics (and the recorded voice) of Jack Woodbridge added immeasurably to the sense of place and time of this late-twentieth, early twenty-first century dramedy.
One night last week I accepted an invite to see Rafta, Rafta about which I’d heard little. I was in England in March/April when it opened, I had no idea what its title meant, and I’d never heard of any of the cast or its author. Scott Elliott was the director, and that should have tipped me off that it would be, at the very least, interesting and provocative. I’d vaguely heard of the British play from which it was adapted (All In Good Time by Bill Naughton) but I was basically in the dark when I discovered it at The Acorn on Theatre Row.
As the lights dimmed, a blast of Indian music brought the packed house to full attention. Lights up on a cluttered, vividly designed house in Bolton, Greater Manchester, UK, the home of Eeshwar and Lopa Dutt and their sons. A poem in the program tells us that “Rafta, Rafta” means “Slowly, Slowly”. Within minutes of the opening musical chords, the playwright introduced us to what seemed two dozen family members and friends (actual count was only ten). They tumbled all over each other as they hit the stage on their return from the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Dutt’s son Atul to Mr. and Mrs. Patel’s daughter Vina.
The first few minutes were difficult, for all 10 seemed to be talking at once, and I understood about every fourth word. But as my ears became accustomed to the accents and the pace, I began to realize that the overlapping was part of Scott Elliot’s plan; this was to be a ‘slice of life’ play, unedited, uncorrupted by theatrical tuning. The first of two acts (three scenes covering the wedding night plus six weeks of marriage for Vina and Atul) left me hooked, but anxious merely to find out ‘what next?’. The second act stunned me however, and when done, I realized I had seen a thoroughly textured, very funny and very moving family play right up there with August: Osage County and Dividing The Estate. As adapted by Indian playwright Ayub Khan-Din from the British comedy, the authenticity is evident. What surprised me was how universally understandable its characters turned out to be. Again and again I was reminded how much like my own father the father of the groom was (as I tried to capture him in my play Paris Is Out!) ; he was a specifically Indian version of so many bombastic and curmudgeony dads behind whom there is a woman who knows “what every woman knows.” The fun part was in being introduced to Indian ways, Indian food and attitudes, and the great bonding that happens in all (reasonably) functioning families. A good time was had by all, and this play certainly deserved its extended run. I’m so glad someone wiser than I insisted I give this charming and vital play a hearing.
On the very hot days (and we’ve had them), I’ve been curled up in a favorite chair by the air conditioner with Charles Strouse’s new memoir, “Put On A Happy Face.” He, the composer of Bye Bye Birdie, tells tales of the origins of that one, his first show and his first hit. For me, it was fascinating for, as I represented Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke in the show, he covers much of the material I do in my own book, but this of course is from his point of view. I had no idea that he had such confidence problems, that he still has them, and I congratulate him on how much of himself he reveals to us in this excellent debut in a new field for him, the use of words without music. He includes the stürm und drang that seems to be inherent in the production of every new musical, and all these years later it’s fun to learn of the backstage shenanigans that accompanied Golden Boy, Applause and even Annie to great success on Broadway.
He describes, again in painful but enlightening detail, how the “sure things” like I and Albert and All American and It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s .. Superman!” can go irretrievably wrong in the early stages of production.
I will bring you, in my next column, a conversation I had with Mr. Strouse, for he has a remarkable track record, he has humor and insight and we’re lucky that he’s used all those qualities in writing his book.
One more show to tell you about. I caught the final New York performance of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty at the Lucille Lortel on Christopher Street. I’d stayed away because, though I admire LaBute’s way with words, his characters had always so turned me off, I’d thought I’d skip his latest diatribe against women, (and men too for that matter.) I think he’s fond of animals. But word of mouth on this latest play of his intrigued me, so I took a chance on a cool Saturday night over the July 4th weekend. I’m glad I did.
The opening moments filled me with dread, for bang, right at the opening bell, there was Alison Pill, she of the very shrill voice when screaming (I still remember her scary performance in Blackbird), giving it good to poor hapless Thomas Sadoski, who was looking very much like Thomas Sadsack. From what I could gather between her relentless hammerings, he’d been bantering with his friend Kent, discussing some good looking girl, and he’d said that Steph (Ms. Pill’s character) was no beauty, at least not a beauty like that other girl they’d been discussing. His friend had told his girlfriend Carly, and Carly hadn’t kept her mouth shut, so poor Greg (the Sadoski character) was getting it good. The screamfest went on for a very long time, but on looking back on it, it was clearly necessary, for Mr. LaBute is telling us in this play that people are very sensitive when it comes to image, and women are even more skittish than men on the subject, though men need reassurances too.
In a late scene monologue, Greg tells us he’s come to realize that life and certainly love are about more than skin deep beauty, that love requires feelings about the whole person, not just his/her face. Now I don’t think that’s particularly news, but along the way, in eight or nine scenes set in two acts, this gifted but very angry playwright does present to us four very well drawn characters reflecting very 21st century values and God knows 21st century language, and manages to get us to care about them.
If the “f” word hadn’t yet been discovered, if the “s” word was still verboten, Mr. LaBute would have been Mr. LaMute, for his characters know very few other words with which to express themselves. And though these words grow tiresome quickly, the constant repetitions begin to have an effect upon us – sort of like that of a small hammer tapping on our head for 90 minutes or so.
Reasons to be Pretty has had a successful run Off/Broadway, so a group of stalwart producers are bringing it uptown to the Main Stem next February. I’m not a critic, merely an observer, but my observation is that this is not a wise move. Yes, it’s powerful, the acting by Alison Pill, Piper Perabo, Thomas Sadoski (particularly Mr. Sadoski, who is by far the most appealing character up there) and Pablo Schreiber is honest to the core, and Terry Kinney’s direction is bang on, but in my opinion it’s going to be rough finding a sizable audience willing to plunk down $100 (or close to it) to spend a couple of hours with these very unhappy and inarticulate characters, honestly drawn or not. These people are trapped in their little world, and abusive language and noise are two of their most available weapons. They don’t listen to each other, they hurl invectives, and as their boiling points are low, they hurl them a lot. Yes, it is Neil LaBute’s most compassionate play, and he ends it honestly and satisfactorily, though it is by no means a happy ending. There is truth up there on that stage, but it’s ugly truth and I don’t see matinée ladies or theatre party chairpersons or casual theatergoers for that matter opting for an evening in this play’s ‘outlying suburb’, in which sad, lonely, trapped people are trying desperately to find some joy in life, without much success.
I began this piece by telling you that “not much is going on.” Wrong.
See you next time.
- Richard Seff is 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.
- DCTS Podcasts featuring Richard Seff:
- Interviews with and about Chita Rivera, Love and Love Alone
- Interviews with and about John Kander, With Complete Kander
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway
- Inside Broadway: A Return Visit with Richard Seff