The Last Five Years (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

The Last Five Years is one of those rare musicals that has achieved major popularity without hitting Broadway, its status cemented by an excellent cast recording of its brief 2002 off-Broadway run. The show was revived off-Broadway in 2013 and adapted into a film in 2015, and it continues to have a healthy life in licensing across the country in regional and community theatres. Now it is time for Columbus’ own Short North Stage to present the show, replacing the previously announced The Flick in their season schedule. This production is a great example of how so many quite good elements can combine to result in something that just doesn’t quite deliver in a way one should expect from a show of this stature.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine) and Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie)
 
Jason Robert Brown’s ode to a relationship between two people from their initial blush of attraction to the sputtering embers of their separation is reportedly autobiographical, borrowing major elements from his first marriage. It is a sung-through piece with the leads, Catherine and Jamie, singing alternating songs; Catherine’s story is told in reverse chronological order while Jamie’s starts at the beginning. Seating is arranged on The Garden Theatre stage on opposite sides of the action; this allows for the audience to be quite close to the performers, but it also drastically limits seating capacity. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) and Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 
There is no fault to be found in the singing abilities of Melissa Hall as Catherine or Jarrad Biron Green as Jamie; these two sound terrific, especially in their one duet, “The Next Ten Minutes,” which closes the first act. Music director Andrew Willis summons clean and full-sounding instrumentals from his small ensemble, and Edward Carignan’s set helps create a certain kind of mood necessary for this piece; a rotating platform maneuvered by the cast becomes a bridge as well as many other things with a pool of standing water and some plants in the rear, and a park bench is opposite it framed by long drapes. Sophia Gersing’s animated art for “The Schmuel Song” brings to mind a similar use of animation in the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; the use of limited animation was a delightful part of that film just as it is a welcome addition here. The sound design is a bit off in this environment as the voices of the actors always come from the far left or right depending on which side of the stage you are seated; this is quite disconcerting whenever the performers sing downstage as their voices are amplified coming from the opposite direction. Still, the orchestra sounds quite crisp and full, only occasionally drowning out Mr. Green’s singing. The lighting, while often quite beautiful, also appears a bit off as Mr. Green is illuminated in one scene from just his chest down; another scene shows Ms. Hall with a hard light bisecting her forehead, leaving her hair and the top of her head in darkness. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) – Art by Sophia Gersing
 
The main issue I have with this production is that it is acted without the arc written into the material. With the structure of the show being what it is and being sung through, it could seem easy to pull off with limited means when in fact it probably puts more stress on the performers to act more in their singing. We should see Catherine go from being a broken woman (“Still Hurting”) to incredibly optimistic (“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”) as well as seeing Jamie transform from an ambitious author who just met Catherine and is excited (“Shiksa Goddess”) to a philandering husband who leaves her (“I Could Never Rescue You”). In lieu of this, director Nick Lingnofski gives us a Catherine who always looks like someone just stole her puppy and a Jamie who remains a narcissistic jerk throughout (he sneers out some of “Moving Too Fast,” making some of the words unintelligible). It’s difficult to hit any real emotional depth when neither character seems like they are playing with a full deck, making their one duet sound great but feel empty. It is difficult to believe that this Catherine would ever have found anything to like in this Jamie, who from his entrance appears like he wants to flip off the audience. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 

The Last Five Years is alternately depressing as well as hopeful, and its score is full of gems that are relatable to most anyone who has ever been in a relationship on rocky ground. While this production didn’t get to me in my gut like other productions I’ve seen of this work, it is far from being terrible. Hearing this score live bests listening to a recording of it any day, and being seated so close to the performers only adds to the experience. While I had hoped for a deeper emotional connection this time around, Short North Stage’s The Last Five Years is pleasant enough even if it misses the bull’s-eye.

**/ out of ****

The Last Five Years continues through to May 22nd in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/535

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A View from the Bridge (Gallery Players – Columbus, OH)

 

Leave it to Arthur Miller to tackle the kind of deep topics that would’ve been impossible to discuss openly in the repressive 1950s. First performed with another one-act play in 1955 on Broadway that closed after only a few months, Miller’s A View from the Bridge was revised and expanded to two acts, eventually finding success in productions staged in England as well as in the form of several Broadway revivals; now this important piece about immigration and the perils of too much love is being presented by Gallery Players with a talented cast in a production that is largely successful.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – (left to right) Sonda Staley (Beatrice), Eliya Smith (Catherine), Mike Writtenberry (Rodolpho), Brian A. Palmer (Marco), and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 

A View from the Bridge takes place in the 1950s within the Brooklyn apartment of the Carbones, an Italian family made up of Eddie, a longshoreman; his wife, Beatrice; and their orphaned niece, Catherine, a teenager. Eddie has specific ideas about the kind of life he wants for his niece, his affection for her causing alienation between him and his wife. The situation only grows more complicated when cousins of his wife, the brothers Marco and Rodolpho, arrive to stay with them as illegal immigrants. As Rodolpho and Catherine’s friendship grows, Eddie’s concern for his niece’s well-being only grows, generating a series of outbursts that affect not only the lives of those in his household but the whole community.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – (left to right) Brian A. Palmer (Marco) and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 
Standouts in the cast are Richard Napoli as the hard-working but troubled Eddie; Mike Writtenberry as Rodolpho, the immigrant from Italy; Brian A. Palmer as Marco, Rodolpho’s imposing brother; Eliya Smith as Catherine, the innocent teen; and, last but not least, Sonda Staley as Beatrice, Eddie’s ignored wife. Mr. Napoli, sounding a bit like Stallone in Rocky, is excellent at making his point known using the script as written with its veiled allusions to homosexuality; this type of writing demands someone with the proper swagger and demeanor to pull it off with a modern audience used to far more explicit and direct works, and Mr. Napoli fits that bill. Mr. Writtenberry holds firm to his accent and expressive mannerisms as Rodolpho, perfectly demonstrating the kind of behavior that riles Eddie; their “boxing match” (choreographed by Ryan Metzger) is intense and squirm-inducing. Mr. Palmer doesn’t have a lot to say as Marco, but that’s because there is no need; his imposing stature and use of silence and a stare says more than enough. Ms. Smith as first seems too naive to be a girl on the cusp of adulthood, but that is precisely the point; her youthful energy grows into a woman’s resolve through this performance, even though her slip is still showing along her hemline throughout. Ms. Staley has a matter-of-factness as Beatrice that makes her performance all the more touching in the scene with Ms. Smith where she gently lets her know that it is time for her to grow up; when she asks her husband, “When am I gonna be your wife again?” one can feel her loneliness. Ms. Staley can only be faulted for her lackluster sweeping skills, an ability that surely would be second nature to a housewife of this era.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – Richard Napoli (Eddie) and Sonda Staley (Beatrice)
 
Director Nancy Williams guides this production with a firm understanding of the material and at a pace that ensures no moment out stays its welcome. Ms. Williams missteps with her choice of underscoring music for two pivotal scenes in the second act; the music during the raid sounds like a scene out of The Maltese Falcon, and the violent attack at the end sounds like the rumble in West Side Story. The rest of the music in this production is well-placed and appropriate, so why have these two scenes play out with such obvious cues that dissolve the tension in their respective scenes? It’s almost as if the director doesn’t trust her talented cast to carry these moments on their own. Another unfortunate decision is casting Nick Baldasare as Alfieri, the lawyer and narrator of the story. Mr. Baldasare cuts a handsome frame, but his vocal modulation and speed make quite a bit of what he says unintelligible even though he is quite loud.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – Eliya Smith (Catherine) and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 

A View from the Bridge is absorbing theatre, and even with some notable flaws this production is worthwhile. There is a kind of palpable charm that comes through in the material and time period that is inviting and even a bit dangerous. This is the kind of play that can speak to empty nesters as well as anyone who has ties to family that can prove to be harmful if not properly nurtured and checked.

*** out of ****

A View from the Bridge continues through to May 22nd in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/

You Can’t Take It With You (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
“Life is kind of beautiful if you just let it come to you,” says Martin Vanderhof, the patriarch of the unconventional Sycamore family; he also states, “The world’s not so crazy – it’s the people in it!” There is a lot of wisdom in Mr. Vanderhof’s words, and the “crazy” he speaks of might just be his own family of misfits; they are the focus of the delightful classic comedy You Can’t Take It With You, currently enjoying a splendid run courtesy of Curtain Players in Gahanna, Ohio.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 

You Can’t Take It With You premiered on Broadway in 1936, ran for two years, and was adapted (and extensively rewritten) into a 1938 Academy Award-winning film by Frank Capra starring James Stewart. Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the play revolves around the Sycamore family, a rather unconventional group of people that explore their hobbies with gusto but are traditionally unemployed; that is, except for Alice Sycamore (Madison Garvin Lee), the only household member with a regular job. When Alice gets serious with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Jack Miller), it becomes time for her family to meet her beau and his family; after all, a man doesn’t just marry a woman – he marries her family too. Think of it as a less vulgar version of Meet the Parents, the 2000 comedy film starring Ben Stiller, which owes a lot to this play. The requisite mayhem ensues as the Sycamore clan clashes with the Kirby society folk (or is it the other way around?), but the real joy is seeing how everything will play out. Martin Vanderhof, Alice’s grandfather and the wise patriarch of the household, justifies his family’s pursuit of their passions by stating, “You can’t take it with you,” referring to money (the preoccupation of the Kirby family) as well as time. His daughter writes plays, his son-in-law creates fireworks in the basement, one granddaughter is a budding (but uncoordinated) ballerina, his grandson-in-law enjoys playing with his printing press – everyone has a hobby that means something to them even though it may seem strange to outsiders.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
The aforementioned Martin Vanderhof is played by Larry Cole as gentle, loving, understanding – essentially every quality one would want in a grandfather, but perhaps without the snakes he collects. He is matched on the other end of the spectrum by Doug Browell as Tony’s blustery father, Mr. Kirby, who says more with a scowl and glance than many performers could get across in a full page of dialogue. Mr. Cole and Mr. Browell are the two stage veterans that anchor this production, and they hold their own alongside some of the best character actors in the area in the many supporting parts of this piece.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Standouts in the supporting cast are Julie Emmert-Silvius as Penelope Sycamore, the playwriting matriarch of the household; Kirsten Peninger as Essie, her would-be ballerina daughter; Jeff Kemeter as Ed, Essie’s doting printer/xylophonist husband; Sean Coffman as Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s Soviet ballet instructor; and Linda Goodwin as Mrs. Kirby, the disapproving mother of the potential groom. Each of these supporting cast members threaten to upstage each other at any moment and yet don’t; there are more than enough wacky and uncomfortable moments to go around, and these supporting players are particularly gifted at playing it all honestly without mugging, which only makes it funnier. I don’t mean light giggle funny; I’m talking laugh-out-loud funny, especially the moments when Ms. Peninger suggestively stretches and arches, blissfully unaware of how inappropriate she looks doing so.
 
Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Director Kate Tull has her hands full with this cast of sixteen but makes it all work. Even though the characters are often saying and doing odd things, they play it quite seriously, free of the mugging and sly glances that show that they are in on the joke, a consistent problem I find with stage comedies. Being blissfully unaware of how their eccentricities look to those around them helps every comedic moment come across to maximum effect. Another observation I had was that if the play were to be set in the present time surely most of the Sycamore family would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome; it seems everything that diverges from the norm nowadays needs to be labeled.

Having seen the 1938 film and a production of the play in college, I had no idea how funny the play is because it wasn’t until now that I have witnessed it being performed properly. Minor quibbles are the extended scene changes with music that sounds too dramatic for this material as well as the sound effects of the firecrackers and explosions being quite timid in impact and volume (I have heard that this has since been corrected).

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 
Booth Muller’s set is award-worthy, with furniture and decoration extending out to the far corners of the stage (set decoration by an uncredited Ms. Tull and the cast). Somehow it never looks cramped, even when sixteen different characters are on stage all at once. It really looks like a living room of the period, though with humorous touches I don’t want to spoil by detailing here. Try to count all of the clocks on the stage, each set to a different time, a visual metaphor if ever I saw one. So much thought and care has gone into representing the interests of each of the characters in this set that it only serves to reinforce the reality of the situation; the set and its decoration is an unflinchingly honest as the characters who live there.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 

You Can’t Take It With You is a real gem of a play, dated only by its reference to there being forty-eight states, the presence of a rotary dial phone, and the now politically-incorrect use of the term “colored.” It makes sense that for many years this was the most-produced play in American high schools. There is a kind of optimism in the Vanderhof household free of the tinge of cynicism that seems to taint all of our entertainment nowadays. Even if you’ve seen the Oscar-winning Frank Capra film, you owe it to yourself to see the original play. The innocently naughty humor and unabashed honesty of the material is brilliantly presented in Curtain Players’ production; this isn’t one to miss.

*** 3/4 out of **** (yes, that’s 3.75 out of 4)

You Can’t Take It With You continues through to April 3rd in the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/5_cant_take.php
 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 

Mothers and Sons (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

I remember Oprah quoting a guest on one of her shows dealing with forgiveness. “Forgiveness,” she said, “is letting go of the hope that the past could have been any different.” It was this quote that came to my mind after experiencing CATCO’s production of Terrance McNally’s Mothers and Sons, a touching portrait of a woman stuck in the anger phase of grief and a man who forged ahead after sifting through the ashes.

After premiering regionally in 2013, Mothers and Sons enjoyed a brief spring run in 2014 on Broadway starring Tyne Daly. McNally wrote the piece as a follow up to his 1990 television play Andre’s Mother, which was about a woman attending her son’s memorial service after he succumbed to AIDS. Katharine Gerard is Andre’s mother, and she is unable to commiserate with her son’s boyfriend Cal over the loss. Flash forward twenty years and Katharine is back in Manhattan after her husband’s death, visiting Cal unexpectedly to return Andre’s diary to him. She finds Cal living a happy family life with his husband and son. Throughout her visit she and Cal rehash the past, conjecture on what might have been, and work to find some peace with the way things are.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Jacqueline Bates embodies Katharine Gerard as rather brittle, asking questions for which she doesn’t really want to know the answers. Ms. Bates plays her as guarded but trying to venture outside of her comfort zone, grappling with the loss of her identity as a mother and a wife. Her Katharine isn’t one generous with smiles, but she isn’t a heartless harpy either; she believes things are either black and white, right or wrong, but that’s her generation. She’s firm in her conviction that someone else is to blame for her son Andre being gay and then dying, neglecting to see the part she played in turning cold to him and being absent in his final days. Ms. Bates approaches the part without judgement, and so her evolution throughout the piece feels natural and rings true; she doesn’t mean to come off the way she does – she just doesn’t know of any other way.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will), David Vargo (Cal), and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
David Vargo is Cal Porter, attempting to placate his deceased partner’s mother while also staying true to the life he has now as a married man with a child. Mr. Vargo is noticeably uncomfortable with Ms. Bates’ bouts of silence, and his trying to fill the void is quite endearing and accurate to life. The part requires Mr. Vargo to walk a fine line between appreciating his past with Andre without undermining the present, something he balances beautifully. He is able to drudge up genuine pain and heartache when talking about the AIDS crises he lived through in the 1980s, and he is able to swing back at anything callous Ms. Bates throws at him. It’s unfortunate that some of the most touching moments between Cal and Katharine have underscoring piped in over the sound system, making those sequences feel more like excerpts from a Lifetime movie; Mr. Vargo and Ms. Bates are talented enough not to need any instrumental accompaniment to get the point of their emotions across.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will) and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Joe Dallacqua plays Will Ogden, Cal’s writer husband, and a very sweet Lucas Cloran is their son, Bud (alternating in the role with Elliot Hattemer). I’ve enjoyed Mr. Dallacqua in several other productions, but unfortunately as Will he has adopted an affectation that I find off putting. Granted, the part is written with some bite, but must it be played with such a feminine demeanor? Gay doesn’t always mean fey; it was hard to imagine Cal being attracted to – let alone marry – someone with such an attitude. Mr. Dallacqua has next to no chemistry with Mr. Vargo, and it’s really a shame; had Will been played as being a doting father and a loving husband who just happened to be gay, it may have made all the difference.

 

Set Design: Michael Brewer
 
The set for Cal and Will’s apartment looks ready to move into thanks to Michael Brewer’s design, though it looks a little too put together to be the home of a six-year-old (a carefully placed View-master on a table doesn’t quite cut it), and there appear to be no mirrors or television set anywhere. Perhaps these Manhattanites are too classy for a television in their living room, but wouldn’t they want a mirror to primp in front of before going out? Still, Darin Keesing’s lighting is effective in shifting from early evening to sunset, creating just the right shadows at the correct angle to match the picture window that serves as the forth wall through which the audience sees the action.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) David Vargo (Cal), Lucas Cloran (Bud), Joe Dallacqua (Will) and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Terrance McNally’s dialogue sounds natural even if some of his plot points strain credulity; are we really expected to believe that neither Cal or Katharine read Andre’s diary as it passed between them over the course of twenty years? Wouldn’t they have been just a bit curious and peeked? When Will flippantly opens it to read a passage, Cal and Katharine don’t offer any resistance to finally being privy to some of Andre’s secrets, even though that is what supposedly kept them from exploring it previously. The denouement, one in which Katharine realizes she must forge ahead with an identity made up of more than just being Andre’s mother or Mr. Gerard’s wife, is quite touching; that is until it dips quickly into icky sticky territory at the very end when Bud tells a sappy story at which even the most naive preschooler would scoff.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will), David Vargo (Cal), Lucas Cloran (Bud), and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Still, Mothers and Sons works because of its two leads and their chemistry, and the fact that even second-rate McNally is better than first-rate most anyone else. CATCO’s production is very professional, and it is ultimately a pleasing ninety-minute glimpse into the lives of two very different people and how they took separate paths dealing with the death of one they both held quite dear. 

*** out of ****

Mothers and Sons continues through to February 28th in Studio One at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/mothers-and-sons

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

Clever Little Lies (Westside Theatre – NYC)

I remember hearing Jack Lemmon discuss his part in the classic Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot, divulging that a core ingredient of the best comedies is an element of deceit, some facade just waiting to unravel. The time between when the lie begins and it falls apart is fertile ground for all kinds of funny things to happen, the suspense of waiting for the moment when “the jig is up” adding to the effect. Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies, in its final week at the Westside Theatre after opening last fall, takes infidelity, one of the most tried and true wells for comedy (see the sitcom “Friends” and Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break!” argument that was a running gag for years), and pairs it with former “That Girl” Marlo Thomas and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” lead Greg Mullavey to mine the rather sordid subject for laughs and uncomfortable situations.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Clever Little Lies begins after a game of tennis between father and son in a locker room where Billy confides to his father Bill about an affair that he is having with a personal trainer. Billy, who is married to Jane and has an infant child, swears his father to secrecy, but it doesn’t take long for Alice, Bill’s wife, to sense that something is wrong. Alice takes it upon herself to invite her son and daughter-in-law over to confront the issue, and what ensues is a night of revelations that leave everyone surprised. It turns out that the “lies” of the title are neither “little” nor “clever” after all.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Marlo Thomas plays Alice with a light touch, enjoyably sneaky as she butts in on problems within her son’s marriage but sly enough to get away with most anything. Ms. Thomas knows how to play this material to land every laugh, and the play comes alive only upon her entrance in the second scene when she grills her husband to extract information about her son, knowing full well that he promised not to say anything. She bypasses this by throwing out all kinds of guesses, quickly followed by, “Don’t say anything if I’m right!” Ms. Thomas turns a character who could be quite a harpy and unlikable into the kind of quick-witted matriarch anyone would be fortunate to have on their team, insidious as she may be.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Greg Mullavey plays her husband Bill, powerless to resist falling under his wife’s control but instilled with a loyalty and understanding that only comes with time. Mr. Mullavey is just as skilled as Ms. Thomas in eliciting laughter from the audience, some of the biggest using his deadpan expression when faced with surprising facts about his wife and son’s secrets. I really bought Mr. Mullavey and Ms. Thomas as a married couple, and it is their chemistry and delivery that makes the piece work.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
I’m not quite sure what to make of George Merrick as the couple’s son, Billy, or Kate Wetherhead as his wife, Jane. Mr. Merrick is quite attractive, but he acts mostly with a scowl and furrowed brow; his intensity works against the comedic qualities of the writing, and his timing is often off in a way that kills lines that would be funny if played differently. Take for example his first scene in the locker room when he confesses his affair to his father; Mr. Merrick rushes into a forced stage cry where he covers his face, his timing so abrupt that at first it appears that he is laughing. It’s hard for me to believe that two people as enjoyable to be around as Ms. Thomas and Mr. Mullavey could have such a jerk as a son, and that’s exactly how Mr. Merrick comes off. Ms. Wetherhead as his wife seems to think going nasal is a part of playing comedy, her voice often pitched higher than expected, though she at least has more to work with once her husband’s indiscretions are revealed; still, I found her only mildly more bearable than her on stage spouse, a most unlikeable couple that deserves each other. It’s almost as if Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead, who have not a thimbleful of chemistry, are from another play or are performing in some acting exercise in which they were carelessly paired up together.

Director David Saint keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, seemingly knowing that it’s his showbiz veterans that will carry the piece, though it’s hard to understand how some glaring flaws in the production appear to have passed by him unchanged. The scene in the car between Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead is startlingly stale, and the vehicle is positioned at an angle on the stage that doesn’t line up with the rear projection footage. Why bother with having the car and the background footage if it is going to be handled so poorly? At least the set of Alice and Bill’s living room designed by Yoshi Tanokura looks inviting, tastefully upscale with a lived in appearance. The majority of the action takes place on this lovely set, which makes the scene in the car and opening scene at the tennis club locker room feel like cheap afterthoughts in comparison.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Still, Clever Little Lies is a cute, compact show with several laugh out loud moments. Though I think it resolves itself a bit too easily at the end and half the cast was not to my liking, it has the feel of a jumbo-sized sitcom, appropriate as it is a great vehicle for its two veteran stars of popular television comedies from the ’60s and ’70s. At just under an hour and a half in length, Clever Little Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, though it is the crackling chemistry and timing of its stars from yesteryear you’ll remember when it’s all over.

**/ out of ****

Clever Little Lies continues through to January 24th upstairs in the Westside Theatre at 407 W. 43rd St. (at 9th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.cleverlittlelies.com/

Zanna, Don’t! (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

I don’t recommend making a drinking game out of every time the word “love” is said in Zanna, Don’t! as you’d probably need to be hospitalized shortly after the first song had been sung; that would be a shame, as then you’d miss out on seeing one of the sweetest gay-themed musical comedies in existence. As the closing show of Evolution Theatre Company’s 2015 season, Zanna, Don’t! is awash in energy, bold colors, and catchy music, just the right kind of joyful diversion to brighten up a dreary fall.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
I first saw Zanna, Don’t! during its 2003 summer run off-Broadway, and several of its songs (by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris) have been on my mix CDs and playlists ever since. Though the title is a play on the campy 1980 film musical Xanadu, the similarity ends there. Zanna, Don’t! is set in a high school in Heartsville, U.S.A., where everyone is gay and “those heteros” are often ridiculed and feared. This is a campus where everyone is love-obsessed, but not sex-obsessed, which keeps the material cutely innocent and tame. The students band together to put on a play about straights being in the military (remember, this was first performed in 2002) and how they should have the right to love each other, marry, and be accepted; their world is rocked when two of their own are found to be straight and in love.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Director Brent Ries keeps Zanna, Don’t! moving quickly, zipping along in such a way that its two hour running time feels like one. The set by Shane Cinal is deceptively simple with bold graphics and a stage that extends out when needed. Costume designer Jason Guthrie is to be congratulated for pairing so many solid separates together while also creating some wild fashions for Zanna, including a camouflage muumuu and some glitterific shoes and t-shirts. Danielle Mann’s choreography makes excellent use of the Van Fleet Theatre’s space, with the mechanical bull riding dance a particular highlight. Aside from the song “Fast” (which is almost entirely unintelligible due to its pace and the volume of the band), the sound is strong with a good balance between the music and voices, so important to a musical.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Brian C. Gray (Arvin/Bronco), Ricky Locci (Mike), Tahrea Maynard (Roberta), Alex Lanier (Karla/Necca/Loretta), and Jordan Shafer (Kate)
 
The cast includes some of the best young talent in the area, and any casual Columbus theatre fan has surely seen many of its members before in other shows (I know I have). Ricky Locci is terrific as Mike, the boy who is heartbroken when he finds out his boyfriend, Steve (the small but mighty Sean Felder) is in love with Kate (the comically and musically gifted Jordan Shafer). Mr. Locci has the best songs in the score (“I Could Write Books” and “I Think We Got Love”) and performs them beautifully, playing the kind of jilted character to which we can all relate.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Felder (Steve), Tahrea Maynard (Roberta), and Ricky Locci (Mike)
 
Tahrea Maynard plays flannel-clad Roberta, Kate’s rejected girlfriend, with humor to spare and putting a capital B in butch. T. Johnpaul Adams also makes an impression as Tank, perhaps the second most vigorous part in the show as he seemed to appear and disappear all over the place.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – William Macke (Zanna)
 
The centerpiece of the show is William Macke as Zanna, the sprightly matchmaker whose flame burns loud and proud. Though miscast in a part more appropriate for a pocket-sized gay (Zanna is like Peter Pan in that respect), no one can accuse Mr. Macke of not giving the part his all – and then some! Though his turbocharged effeminate gestures and voice can become a bit grating and come off as more of a caricature than a character, Mr. Macke flies free of any restrictions in a bold, committed performance; still, he is at his best in the more restrained, quiet moments when he isn’t trying quite so hard. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Zanna, Don’t! has a spirit that is in the right place, even if some of its songs rhyme “love” with “love” a bit too much for me. It’s impossible not to find oneself smiling and laughing during this show, and every member of the cast is delivering their A game, appearing to be having as good a time as the audience. With all the glitter and colors and dancing, it’s like concentrated gayness – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

*** out of ****

Zanna, Don’t! continues through to November 21st 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