Until He Wasn’t (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

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What’s it about?

Until He Wasn’t concerns four strangers connected by one man: Colin Bayley. Colin is attentive, sexy, sensitive – the perfect guy to each of his former lovers commiserating about their time with him; that is, until he wasn’t. As the evening progresses, each member of the group divulges just how deep their connection to each other goes – all because of one man.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Tenille (Jenn Feather Youngblood), Will Macke (Gavin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

Is it worth seeing?

When I first entered the MadLab Theatre to see how the seating had been completely rearranged to present this show in the round, I knew Until He Wasn’t was going to be special. I didn’t plan on how involving the piece would ultimately be, as the writing by Patrick McLaughlin can be interpreted as either dramatic or cynically comical all depending on the way the audience chooses to interpret it; there were many moments were certain groups would laugh at a particular moment whereas other parts of the audience were solemnly quiet. The set pieces are minimal and never in danger of blocking any of the action, and director Audrey Rush takes care to spread the action out so there doesn’t appear to be a bad vantage point.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Rob Philpott (Colin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

This is one hell of a cast working through some rough material, and it’s quickly apparent that this is not their first time at the rodeo. Laura Spires could be whiny as Raya, the wife who was married to Colin for years, but she isn’t; Ms. Spires isn’t keen on hearing of his infidelities, and so she comes off as naturally defensive of what she believes were those special years before the trouble started. Kasey Meininger makes Natalie, Colin’s lover while still married to Raya, quite aggressive, exhibiting a natural inclination towards physicality that fits the role and the actor playing it; a semi-dream sequence in the second act requires Ms. Meininger to fling herself around in a way that would send most of us to the chiropractor, but she manages it all in stride.

Jenn Feather Youngblood as Tenille at first glance might seem like the stereotypical “sexless, quirky best friend of the lead who never gets the guy,” but she is so much more than that. At times able to connect with a beat that jolts the audience with laughter and at other times uncomfortably vulnerable, Ms. Youngblood is able to turn the perceived stereotype on its head, showing more than anything that we all seek love and acceptance and don’t necessarily question it when it comes in an unbelievably attractive package. Will Macke’s Gavin definitely stands out in the otherwise female group, his swagger and sexual innuendos definitely meant to shock and disarm; still, Mr. Macke has a way of letting the audience in to look past his brusque facade, most shockingly during an intense sequence in the second act.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya) and Rob Philpott (Colin)

It takes a special actor to be able to generate chemistry with four very different people in the same play, and Rob Philpott is just such a special talent. As Colin, Mr. Philpott is disarmingly suave and appealing, but he performs at a much higher level than one might expect from what seems like a typical pretty-boy role. His Colin says the right things at the right time, and the heat he generates with each of his on-stage lovers (no matter the gender) is electric and dangerous. Without a special person for each of the four main characters to pine for, Until He Wasn’t wouldn’t work; with Mr. Philpott as Colin, it works so well that I bet it could make members of the audience wonder if they might also be taken in under his spell if they encountered him in the same circumstances as did Raya, Natalie, Tenille, and Gavin.

Until He Wasn’t is one of those two-act plays where the first act ends with a big revelation, one that I didn’t see coming. This big moment lays the groundwork for the second act, as thrilling and tense as anything I’ve seen in years. At the end of this two and a half hour journey, I was exhausted yet exhilarated by the ride. Highly recommended!

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

Where can I see it?

Until He Wasn’t continues through to October 22nd in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North 3rd Street, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/until-he-wasnt.html

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The Visit (Lyceum Theatre – NYC)

I had just finished watching the 1964 film version of The Visit starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn a few hours prior to seeing John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Broadway musical adaptation with book by Terrance McNally. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that as both the film and musical are adaptations of the original 1956 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, and they surely have changes exclusive to each version. Maybe it influenced how I felt about the musical unfairly, I can’t say for sure.

I can honestly say that I greatly enjoyed the film, and it actually made me look forward to the musical even more. I have a few friends that swear by the show and score as it had been performed previously at the Signature Theatre. Not being familiar with that incarnation, I wonder if whatever captured their devotion is to be found in the version of the show currently playing at the Lyceum Theatre.

The basic story is the same in both the film and the musical: Claire Zachanassian (Chita Rivera) is returning to her financially-strapped hometown as a rich woman offering up a fortune to the people and the city on one condition – that her ex-lover, Anton Schell (Roger Rees), be killed. She more than has her reasons, and what is interesting in both the film and musical are how Anton’s friends and neighbors start off indignant but get closer and closer to acquiescence.

The musical takes place on a unit set representing what looks like a decrepit large train station with a ledge, broken glass panels, and pillars covered in ivy. It looks great and sure sets the mood. The staging is such that I would often be watching some character to the far right sing and out of the corner of my eye see Chita Rivera walking quietly along the ledge on the set to the far left. The show has style to be sure, but I wonder if the vaudevillian approach (familiar to a lot of Kander & Ebb’s work) was the proper way to tackle this story. Claire’s henchmen in the story have white kabuki makeup and bright yellow shoes and white Mickey Mouse-looking gloves, looking rather ridiculous next to her in her fur coat and the townspeople in their heavily stained and worn clothing. Any seriousness in the dialog or lyrics seem to be undone by some of the stylistic choices made here.

Even so, there are most definitely some songs of note. “I Walk Away” is a story song for Claire explaining how she got to be so rich that is terrifically delivered by Chita; “You, You, You” is a sensitive ballad for Claire and Anton as they reminisce about their youthful romance (as a young Claire and Anton embrace and dance). As the show went on, and the audience reaction (or non-reaction) at the performance I attended would bear this out, less seemed to happen in the story. It was as if the gears were going slower and slower, and the haphazard attempts at comedy landed with a thud. Chita and Roger Rees don’t just lack chemistry; there seems to be a kind of negative chemistry at play here, as their interactions come off as so forced and rote.

The musical is performed without an intermission, and I had expected it to run for around ninety minutes. It was closer to a hundred minutes according to my clock, but it felt like well over two hours. While watching the film I could see scenes and situations that would lend themselves well to musicalization, and there is a LOT of music in this show as is, but it felt like sometimes the wrong scenes were set to music. Chita Rivera got her rapturous applause, which she would’ve received had she decided to sing the dictionary, but the comments I overheard exiting the theatre let me know that I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. I feel like there IS a great, dark musical lurking in the material, but I didn’t see it come to fruition that day at the Lyceum.

** out of ****