Looped (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

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What’s it about?

It’s 1965, and stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead has seen better days. Suffering the ill-effects of a lifetime of boozing and doping, she is called in to re-record (or “loop”) one line for what would be her final film, Die! Die! My Darling! Based on a true event, Ms. Bankhead makes sure to put the sound engineer and film editor through the ringer before they get what they want out of her, playing up to their expectations of what a quarrelsome and demanding woman she can be. Looped enjoyed a brief run on Broadway in the spring of 2010, garnering Valerie Harper a Tony Award nomination as the beleaguered Tallulah Bankhead.

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Photo: Jerri Shafer – Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead) and Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller)

Is it worth seeing?

Looped is the kind of play where the concept is much better than its execution. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing a comedic piece about a loud-mouthed lush, a star of both stage and screen, showing off her bad behavior? There are plenty of zingers to be had in Matthew Lombardo’s script, but at nearly two hours with an intermission (placed at a particularly contrived moment within the play), there doesn’t seem to be enough there to justify that much of an investment. However, Looped is that rare play that improves greatly in its second half, even if it gets rather maudlin and embarrassingly overwrought dealing with a discussion of homosexuality in the era. Mixing comedy with drama is tricky, but luckily the moments where the balance is completely off are brief and don’t sink the show. This is far from a great work, but, with the right crowd and performers, it’s more good than bad.

Vicky Welsh Bragg makes a fine Tallulah Bankhead, sounding a great deal like the actress, speaking in a low register that must be a challenge. Ms. Bragg is engaging if less biting that one might expect playing a drug-addicted alcoholic, but she is consistently interesting to watch and embodies the proper spirit to make her part work. Jon Osbeck as Danny Miller, the put-upon film editor struggling to corral Ms. Bankhead, performs as beyond irritated from the get-go, not allowing much room to grow all that much more frustrated with Ms. Bankhead’s shenanigans without yelling expletives that I doubt any studio employee would use towards a star, even a drunken one. Part of the problem is in the writing, but Mr. Osbeck is to blame for his entirely false crying scene near the end of the second act. It often feels like Mr. Osbeck thinks that he is part of a duet when it is quite clear that Ms. Bragg and her character is the star here.

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Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller) and Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead)

Technically, the show is quite impressive, with a detailed black, white, and gray set by Jeffrey Gress complete with a boom mike that looks right out of that era. Nitz Brown’s lighting is detailed down to the ever-so-slight reflection of the film being projected (which we don’t see) for Ms. Bankhead to use as a reference for her vocal performance. Rebecca Baygents Turk’s costumes, from Ms. Bankhead’s improbable red gown (looking much like Bette Davis’s frock in All About Eve) to Danny Miller’s high-waisted slacks and slick shoes impressively represent a 1965 as one might imagine it from seeing sitcoms of the era; too perfect to be real, but too defined and attractive to ignore.

Ultimately, Looped misses its target, but not by as much as it could’ve had Evolution’s production not had such a proficient design team and game cast. At its best moments, when Ms. Bragg’s lines elicit honest laughter and Mr. Osbeck‘s exasperated look relaxes a bit in intensity, the production is quite enjoyable, though it takes someone with an appreciation of the era, film making, and that special kind of smoky female brashness to hang on through the more awkwardly written moments (like the ending that feels right out of Casablanca). Note to other playwrights: exercise caution when including excerpts from vastly superior works (in this case, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire) into your script.

My rating: ** 3/4 out of ****

Looped continues through to September 24th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Standing Room Only [SRO] – Columbus, OH)

“You just never know about anyone else’s marriage, including your own.” I remember hearing this quote attributed to Nora Ephron on “The View” years ago, though for the life of me I can’t confirm it now; heck, I’ve probably badly paraphrased it. Still, the sentiment of that statement stayed with me, and it comes to mind now after seeing Standing Room Only’s solid production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the 1962 Edward Albee play about the games a married couple play with (and on) each other that are misunderstood by their young guests in the wee hours of a Sunday morning after a party.

 

Photo: Mick Pennington – Greg Hoffman (George) and Gail Griffith (Martha)

Gail Griffith is Martha, the loud and brash daughter of the head of the college at which her husband teaches. She laughs and drinks and curses a lot, and Ms. Griffith is up to the challenge. It can’t be easy to be so thoroughly difficult, so caustic and in-your-face, but you wouldn’t know it to see how Ms. Griffith performs in the role. Her Martha isn’t all harridan as the part is often played, but she’s far from sweet also; there is a deep pain at the heart of her Martha, and her acting out is her way of dealing with it.

Greg Hoffman is Martha’s husband, George, playing him alternately as submissive and then sneakily dominant. He is an associate professor in the history department, often finding himself the butt of Martha’s one-liners as he dotes on her. Mr. Hoffman is fine in the part though he sometimes speeds through his lines quickly during the most intense scenes, which perhaps contributed to a happy accident at the performance I attended. There is a scene in act one where George and Nick are alone and asking each other questions. “How many kids do you have?” asked Nick, to which Mr. Hoffman said, “That’s for you to know and me to find out.” The correct line is, “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” but the pronoun slip-up during a scene all about how George is finding out information about Nick’s life to use against him is quite telling and clever. Mr. Hoffman owned the altered line and marched on with confidence; it may not be what Albee wrote, but it fit with the intention of the moment.

 

Photo: Mick Pennington – (left to right) Anthony Guerrini (Nick), Greg Hoffman (George), and Gail Griffith (Martha)

Anthony Guerrini plays Nick, the studly new professor in the biology department, and Amy Rittburger is his giggly wife, Honey. They have the misfortune of arriving at George and Martha’s home and becoming a part of their vicious interactions. Mr. Guerrini comes off as uneasy, which works for the part in some ways, eventually relaxing into it during the second act. Nick isn’t a particularly likable character, and it feels like maybe Mr. Guerrini is tentative in showing that, like he is afraid to not be liked on stage. Ms. Rittberger has the least to do in the underwritten part of Honey, but she’s great at reacting to what is going on around her. There were many times during the performance when I would glance back at her and to see how she was right there in the moment, listening and present even if she had nothing to say. Though Honey’s breakdown in the third act is played more like she is suffering from physical pain (Ms. Rittberger grabs her stomach and rocks on her knees) rather than the pain of embarrassment and betrayal (which is the reason for her outburst), Ms. Rittberger makes an impact in a part lesser actresses might sleep through.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington – Set Designer: Andrew Weibel

Andrew Weibel’s set for George and Martha’s living room looks and feels just right, vintage turntable console, drab artwork, stained walls, and worn chairs and couch blending right in. It’s easy to suspend disbelief and become involved in the play with such an accurate, lived-in backdrop. As a fan of the 1966 Academy Award-winning Mike Nichols film and having listened many times to the original Broadway cast recording (it was one of the rare plays recorded in its entirety for LP), I was surprised and delighted to discover so many more moments in this edition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this being a version which Mr. Albee has revised and expanded over the years. The language is more coarse than what they could probably get away with on stage or in film back in the ’60s, but it doesn’t come off as gratuitous; I believe this is just how these inebriated characters would talk to each other, four-letter words and all.

 

Photo: Mick Pennington – (left to right) Greg Hoffman (George), Anthony Guerrini (Nick), and Gail Griffith (Martha)

Don’t bother trying to figure out the title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as it is a punchline to a joke we didn’t hear which was said at the party earlier in the night that apparently was quite amusing to middle-aged couple, George and Martha, as well as their young guests, Nick and Honey. When the title is sung it isn’t funny to us in the audience because we don’t know the joke or its context, the same conundrum faced by Nick and Honey as they see Martha and George argue, attack, and degrade each other. It’s like Martha and George have their own inside joke for which we only see the punchline in the form of barbs and pain.

 

Photo: Mick Pennington – Gail Griffith (Martha) and Greg Hoffman (George)

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a modern classic, and this production has a lot going for it. With three acts and two intermissions, it can seem like quite a daunting way to spend three hours, but it ends up being anything but; there is a lot to take in, and it all flows extremely well. While the film adaptation is terrific, it isn’t the final word on this piece; Standing Room Only brings electricity to Mr. Albee’s prose with intensity and a pretty good cast willing to go the distance.

*** out of ****


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
continues through to February 7th in the Shedd Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org