by Richard Seff
An odd little evening at 59E59, one of the most user friendly theatres in New York, proved a small treat. This theatre sponsors several festivals in summer, and this one was called Summer Shorts 2.There were two programs, and I caught Series B. It was like playwrights playing in summer camp, sketching for possible future expansion. A short Keith Reddin play opened the evening, something called Our Time Is Up, and though predictable to some, I thought he spoon-fed us very artfully and I didn’t get where he was going until just about the time he got there. A two-hander involving a psychiatrist and a patient, all I can tell you is ‘stay tuned’ as they change roles in the course of the fifteen minutes this charming play asks of us.
John Augustine was up next with something called PeopleSpeak and I kept thinking this is very Chris Durangish, only to learn that Augustine and Durang have been life partners for many years and they certainly share the same cockeyed view of the world. Director Robert Saxner was on the same page as the playwright and he guided his small cast deftly through the rough waters of satirical farce so that we laughed a lot and still cared about what was going on. It’s certainly a ‘now’ play, dealing with people’s obsession with cell phones. A miserable near suicide, a gay waiter who’s got a hopeless crush on a married man and the potential suicide’s boss, all written and played broadly (earning their many laughs) but with compassion, did nicely to keep this short play spinning merrily.
On Island gave us a very loving pair of brothers, with one of them, nervous at the prospect of getting married in 5 minutes on a beach in Martha’s Vineyard, is comforted by his sibling, but to no avail. It takes the bride-to-be herself, to kick him over the goal. Not a lot here, but the writer Michael Domitrovich has a way with dialogue that is compelling, amusing and incisive all at once. This must be noted, for it’s a rare talent. He must find himself more challenging material into which to insert it.
Terrence McNally was billed as book writer to the evening’s finale, Plaisir D’Amour but he might just as well have stayed home for I think I counted four lines of dialogue in the entire piece. His contribution seems to be something he phoned in between rehearsals of The Visit in Washington and rewrites on Catch Me If You Can, which he is preparing for Broadway under Jack O’Brien’s direction. Plaisir is a bittersweet piece about a boy (Sam) and a girl (Ruth) who fall instantly in love and take us along on their life’s thirty year journey. It’s relevant, at least to those who look at life realistically through grey colored glasses, and it was beautifully performed by Jonathan C. Kaplan and Stephanie D’Abbruzo.
The immaculate and well run small theatre upstairs in this 59th Street complex was ideal for these short plays, and the set designed to ingeniously serve all four of them gave polish to all four productions. Well done! [Summer Shorts 2 has closed.]
An early start to the new season is offered at Playwrights Horizons with the opening of Nicky Silver’s Three Changes. Darker than most of Silver’s work, this one’s roots are in earlier plays like Guest In The House, Night Must Fall, with a dash of Albee’s A Delicate Balance (remember those friends who drop in unannounced and decide to stay?). Here we have a prodigal brother, once a tv producer of some success but no distinction, more recently a jailbird because of a slipslide into poverty and antisocial behavior, now homeless and drifting, returning to his brother’s home asking for a little time to collect himself. Reluctantly brother and brother’s wife agree to take him in. Wrong! By the time this play is over, you will (or should) promise yourself to find any excuse in the world to say “No!” no matter how fond you are of him or her who begs for shelter. Here are my notes from the preview: Dylan McDermott of “The Practice” plays the difficult older brother very well, and Scott Cohen has all the charm to keep us, at the start, from suspecting he just might be a psychopath. Maura Tierney as McDermott’s wife is arresting if a bit low in energy. Brian J. Smith plays a hustler with complicated ties to the Cohen character. At first contact, I thought Smith should learn to listen onstage, for he did not do so. But in time I decided no, that was his choice. It was his character, Gordon, the hustler, who didn’t listen. Smith was arresting, always, and very different than he was as the young man in last season’s Come Back Little Sheba at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Well staged by Wilson Milam, who captained The Lieutenant of Inishmore to success at the Atlantic Theatre, Silver’s play leaves lots to discuss on the way home. It’s a step forward for him, and very welcome. He’s joining Lillian Hellman, Tracy Letts, Edward Albee and Horton Foote in prying the truth loose from its hiding places in family dramas. [Three Changes runs through October 3rd.]
East Haddam, Connecticut is some two and a half hours east by northeast of New York, but every now and then I find me a willing accomplice and we drive along the beautiful Merritt Parkway to see what’s up. The Goodspeed Opera House on the Connecticut River is a gem. Built in 1877 by William Goodspeed, a local banker and merchant, it was not really an opera house, but rather a venue for presenting plays. Its first production, Charles II opened on October 24, 1877. After Mr. Goodspeed’s death, the theatre was let go to seed. It served as a militia base during World War I, it later became a general store, then a storage facility. The state of Connecticut condemned it, but a group of concerned citizens formed Goodspeed musicals in 1959 to attempt a restoration. The group bought the building from the state for one dollar, with the proviso that they raise enough money to restore and maintain it. That took almost four years, but the Opera House was rededicated on June 18, 1963. The first performance in the gorgeously refurbished building on the river was Oh,Lady,Lady! In the next 45 years, it has become a national landmark, under the artistic leadership of Michael Price since 1968. This main stage offers three productions a year, and its smaller sibling in Chester, Connecticut, offers three more, though in Chester, the musicals are new, not revivals. The Norma Terris Theatre in Chester was opened in 1984. Believe me, the Goodspeed makes a fine center to any trip you might be contemplating in the Old Saybrook, or even the New Haven area. Perfectly situated in the middle of the model village of East Haddam, there are two restaurants within short walking distance, and my companion and I lazily lunched at Gelston’s another historical site, overlooking the river.
So at last we come to Half a Sixpence, the current offering. It was a hit on Broadway in 1966 starring Tommy Steele, who’d had a great success in London with it the season before. It is, according to its current director Gordon Greenberg, “the quintessential British musical. Based on the H.G. Wells novel “Kipps”, it was inspired by Wells’ own financial success. It’s no secret that the British have long been concerned with class and social order. But the joy in Half a Sixpence is in sending up the notions of what creates status or social class.” All of this is true, and much of it has been captured in the lively and colorful production he has put on the stage. Blessed with a gifted “Kipps” in Jon Peterson, whose work I hadn’t seen before, the show got off to a great start with “All in the Name of Economy” led by Peterson and danced by him and his three buddies, each of whom contributed to the sparkle that followed. Choreographed by Patti Columbo in the vigorous manner of Michael Kidd, we were off to the races.
The casting level was quite remarkable considering that Goodspeed, with only 375 seats, is not able to hire the most expensive artists, and it’s a pleasure to report that this cast, some of whom are character people, are right on target, British accents and all. Kipps’ lady friend, “Ann”, who figures prominently in the story of his rise to riches, his fall and rise again, is played by Sara Gettelfinger, who is not physically suited to it. Ann is sweet, stalwart and small town, and Ms. Gettelfinger is very tall, a powerful presence. It’s to her credit that her performance is right on; and for a production in stock, it’s fun to watch an artist stretch, even in a role for which she’s not physically perfect. I remember her work in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway as “Joleen” who is no way related to “Ann”. For the rest, even with an understudy on in an important role, the actors delivered. If I have one caveat, it’s that Mr. Greenberg allowed his cast to race through some of the dialogue, losing much of the book’s humor. For some reason that all improved in the second act; perhaps he’d stopped in for a brush up rehearsal. With colorful sets and costumes by Rob Bissinger and David C. Woolard, the loyal Goodspeed fans went home happy. Goodspeed is not only about what’s on stage however. The town is lovely, the restaurants are special, the Opera House itself is worth very careful inspection. Next up at the theatre is Big River so you might think about driving up to see the changing of the leaves, the building, to have yourselves a fine meal or two, and oh yes, to take in an entertaining musical for dessert. [Half a Sixpence runs through Sept 19th.]
But hold onto your hats. Our New York season is just around the corner, and there are some potential whoppers on their way. Of course the key word is ‘potential’. I’ll keep you posted on who fulfills, and who falls by the wayside.