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
 

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The Elephant Man (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

“If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”

The most important part of a play is whether or not the story is being told. Don’t get me wrong – I love big sets and lots of production values – but at the end of the day it all boils down to the story, and if the acting, set, and direction support the telling of it or not. CATCO’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is a brilliant example of a play that works, beautifully written with challenging and touching scenes that need no more than to be performed by capable actors. This production has talented performers on board, so it is disheartening when the staging and set get in the way of the story being told.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick)
 

The Elephant Man premiered in London in 1978 before opening to acclaim on Broadway in 1979, garnering Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Direction of a Play; an Emmy-winning television adaptation was broadcast in 1982; a theatrical film directed by David Lynch was released in 1980, but it was not based on the play; and Broadway revivals in 2002 and 2014 starred Billy Crudup and Bradley Cooper, respectively. It is about the true story of Joseph (“John”) Merrick, a severely deformed man who was a side show attraction in the late 1800s in England. He suffered much abuse and ostracism before being rescued in a sense by Dr. Frederick Treves, who studied and made a home for him at The London Hospital. He experienced being a part of high society and receiving compassion for a time before his death in 1890 at the age of twenty-seven.

The Elephant Man is widely recognized as a classic; a tearjerker in the best sense of the word, and a grand challenge for any actor as the deformity of Merrick is suggested rather than presented realistically with prosthetics. I was fully prepared for an emotional experience upon attending this Steven C. Anderson production, and yet I was unmoved. Thinking perhaps I was suffering from a foul mood, I saw it again later in the week and again was emotionally dry. Staged in a three-quarter thrust setting, I saw it from the left and then the right with different elements catching my attention both times.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Each scene is introduced with a title projected on a backdrop comprised of a line of dialogue from the forthcoming scene. The support beams in the octagonal raised platform obscure parts of these titles from being read from nearly every seat save for the extreme angles on the far left and right sides. A printed list of these scene titles is included in the program, and an announcement is made before the production commences about the issue. But here’s the thing – they aren’t necessary. They telegraph the action, break up transitions unnecessarily, cause a lot of leaning on the part of the audience to see them around the support beams, and are the cause of audible shuffling of the paper inserts throughout the show.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Sarah Dandridge (Mrs. Kendal)
 
The first time I saw this production was to the left of the action, and the performances that stood out to me were by Ben Gorman as Dr. Frederick Treves and Sarah Dandridge as Mrs. Kendal, an actress who befriends Merrick. Mr. Gorman is adept at projecting concern and, ultimately, paternal feelings for Merrick, while Ms. Dandridge is especially touching when her countenance melts as Merrick says, “Sometimes I think my head is so large because it is filled with dreams.” She understands fully the layers of her part (she is an actress playing an actress playing a friend), and during that scene I could see as her eyes began to tear that Merrick’s words were slicing through those walls to get to her core. From that point on, Ms. Dandridge adjusted her performance to be consistent with her emotional awakening, and it was a beautiful sight to behold. And yet, Connor McClellan as John Merrick, the key to the play, struck me as distant and cold, partly because I mostly just saw his back.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Ben Gorman (Dr. Treves) and Christopher Moore Griffin (Ross)
 
My second viewing of this work was on the right side, and this time I was more responsive to Mr. McClellan’s performance while also being impressed by Christopher Moore Griffin as Ross, Merrick’s abusive manager, who eventually robs and leaves Merrick for dead. Mr. Griffin is gruff and distinct with a hint of Alfred P. Doolittle in him, a biting embodiment of the cruelty to which Merrick has become accustomed. Mr. Griffin then appears solemn and pious as Bishop Walsham How, so opposite his role as Ross that I wasn’t entirely sure he was the same actor. And as for Mr. McClellan’s performance as John Merrick…

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick)
 
“Merrick’s face was so deformed he could not express any emotion at all,” states Mr. Pomerance in the introduction to his published play. “His speech was very difficult to understand without practice. Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play.” Mr. McClellan appears to be working very hard to emulate Merrick’s posture and frozen visage, so much so that a lot of the emotion doesn’t come through. It doesn’t help that the set and staging works to make nearly every seat in the theatre partial view for extended periods of time, even the center section. Mr. McClellan comes off as so focused and technically accomplished that at times I was acutely aware that it was a performance in a play, impressive as hell, but with invisible barriers. Perhaps some of this is intentional, as he seems to relax his tight grasp as the play goes on, and it helped to see so much more of his face when I saw the play for the second time from the right. And yet, when I finally was experiencing more of Mr. McClellan’s effort, I missed out on what touched me so in Ms. Dandridge’s performance when I viewed the play the first time from the left. It was almost as if I had to cut between both performances I saw from different angles in my mind to get the most out of the play; no doubt seeing it for a third time from the center would reveal even more that the work has to offer, but why should that be necessary if it is staged and presented so that everyone has a clear view of the pertinent action? The answer: it isn’t.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick) and Sarah Dandridge (Mrs. Kendal)
 
There is only one scene that I found to be poorly played; it is when Mrs. Kendal “exposes” herself to Merrick. In the 1982 television version of the play, the scene implies nudity by showing her slowly unbuttoning and unlacing her blouse and corset, her bare back to the camera. Her gaze stays fixed on Merrick, and her warning, “If you tell anyone, I shall not see you again,” is said with weight. It is a tense, sexually charged moment in that production, but here it comes off as comical as Mrs. Kendal merely shows a bit of her corset to Merrick, smiling as if it is a game. I don’t think bare breasts need to be shown, but without any skin on display the reaction of Dr. Treves upon entering the room made little sense.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
CATCO’s production of The Elephant Man is ultimately a mixed bag. There are some extremely good performances, but design and staging elements work against the storytelling. I saw the play twice and had a different reaction each time, but both experiences fell short of reaching the potential of the material. There is still a lot to admire here, and it is a very handsome production overall, but I walked away feeling less affected than I had expected.

** out of ****

The Elephant Man continues through to November 8th in Studio Two at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/the-elephant-man

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Red Herring Productions – Columbus, OH)

“Did you ever think you’d come back from your splendid life, walk into your living room, and find you had no life left?” That’s the question Stevie Gray asks her husband Martin after learning of his infidelity in Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?, a daring dark comedy involving infidelity, betrayal, love, and beastiality, presented by Red Herring Productions in the Studio One Theatre at the Vern Riffe Center for just two weekends. This is the kind of play and production that in less than two hours can provide fodder for days of debates.

Martin Gray is a successful and celebrated architect, with an engaging wife, Stevie, and child, Billy, and something troubling on his mind. When his best friend, Ross, comes over to interview him for a television show, Martin is distant, eventually divulging that he is having an improbable affair with a goat named Sylvia; and thus begins a chain of events that rock his world and the world of those around him.

 

Photo: Matt Slaybaugh – Tim Browning (Martin) and Sonda Staley (Stevie)
 
Tim Browning plays the conflicted and troubled Martin Gray, and he is dangerous on the stage; he is so real and present in the part that he could easily turn the play into a one-man show, something that I could see happening without such a strong supporting cast around him. Mr. Browning is honest and thoughtful, so appealing that he is able to wrangle the audience’s sympathy for a character who admits to performing quite an unsympathetic act, probably because of his skill of instilling such humanity into his performance, one without judgement. Mr. Browning plays Martin as completely normal, not as quirky like I saw Bill Irwin do in the same part on Broadway in 2002 (with Sally Field as his co-star; they were both part of the replacement cast once Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl had left the original company), and the net result is a performance with far more nuance and emotion than I experienced with the play previously. So touching is Mr. Browning that I found myself revising my opinion of the material, as I originally thought of it as substandard Albee – not so anymore.

Sonda Staley as Stevie Gray holds her own next to her onstage hubby, quick on her feet with an immediacy to her responses that propels every scene that she is in forward. She’s also good with props, even when things go slightly awry (I had the pleasure of attending both the dress rehearsal and opening night performances, witnessing Ms. Staley deftly navigate minor snafus on both occasions, the audience oblivious to any problems). “How could you love me when you love so much less?” she asks of her husband, the same question surely anyone who has ever been cheated on has thought; when Ms. Staley asks it, you want to comfort her because she is so affecting, though she proves as the play goes on that she has strength enough to face this situation on her own.

 

Photo: Matt Slaybaugh – (left to right) Jesse Massaro (Billy), Tim Browning (Martin), and Todd Covert (Ross)
 
Jesse Massaro plays the Grays’ son, Billy, a gay teenager with angst to spare. Though I’m not a fan of the eye liner and emo look given to the character, Mr. Massaro is strong yet vulnerable, a tough duality to play without coming off as unstable or trite. Todd Covert is Ross Tuttle, Martin’s best friend who betrays his confidence, often voicing the opinion of the audience when confronted with anything outside of his comfort zone. Mr. Covert has the least material to work with out of this ensemble of four, but he manages to firmly stand his ground in this cocky and judgmental part, quick to summarize everything into a sound byte, as if everything were so easy. If Martin’s infidelity were with a woman, would Ross have kept the secret? Would he if it was with a man? We know where he stands on the subject of goats.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III
 
This extraordinary cast is guided by director Michael Garret Herring, who has a firm grasp on what does and doesn’t work, even extending to the mostly black, white, and gray color scheme of the costumes and set; it’s as if Mr. Herring is daring us to see all of the gray between what is right (white) and wrong (black). Aided by terrific lighting by Jarod Wilson (pay close attention to the use of colors on the backdrop and how they comment on and forecast the action) and clear sound by Dave Wallingford (the people who make sure we can hear what is going on are too often overlooked), this is an all-around quality production.

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? covers topics so dire and in such a dramatic fashion that it crosses over into dark comedy, so abhorrent in content that one can only laugh in response. This isn’t a play that advocates acceptance of beastiality or any other socially unacceptable conventions; it is a play about betrayal, the kind we can perpetrate against others as well as ourselves given just the right circumstances. Martin Gray surely never saw his infatuation with a goat as being a viable option, let alone something that could derail his life so completely. It begs the question: how well do we know those around us, and how well do we know ourselves?

Highly recommended – catch this one before all that is left of it are the discussions it will provoke.

**** out of ****

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? continues through to October 10th in the Studio One Theatre (4th floor) at the Vern Riffe Center located at 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.redherring.info/the-goat-or-who-is-sylvia/

A note about the title: As licensed by Dramatists Play Service, Inc., it is The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Other resources, such as Ibdb.com, playbill.com, and nytimes.com (a review of the 2002 Broadway production), give the title as The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Other resources remove the comma entirely or, better yet, include one before and after the “or”. The advertising for this production follows the lead of the Dramatists Play Service for the title, even though the program alternately lists it without a comma on the cover as well as with a comma in the earlier spot on the insert. The Collected Plays of Edward Albee: 1978-2003 lists the title as The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? as well, and so that is the way I referred to it in this essay.

Don’t Drink the Water (Licking County Players – Newark, OH)

 


It certainly speaks well of the writing when a topical play is still being performed nearly fifty years later; Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water opened in the fall of 1966 on Broadway, ran for a year and a half, and was made into feature films in 1969 and 1994. Now Don’t Drink the Water closes the forty-ninth season of the Licking County Players, a comedy that still holds up even though there are some references that will fly past anyone not above the age of sixty. But don’t let that scare younger people off; this stuff is funny!
 
Photo: Alison Gordon – Alison Gordon (Miss Kilroy) and Richard Farmer (Ambassador Magee)
 
Don’t Drink the Water is about an American embassy in a foreign land somewhere behind the “Iron Curtain” in the mid 1960s. Ambassador Magee (Richard Farmer) leaves his bumbling son Axel (Sam Driscoll) in charge, passing over his obviously more capable assistant, Miss Kilroy (Alison Gordon). Almost immediately an international incident occurs when a bumbling family of tourists from New Jersey, the Hollanders, trespass on and photograph a classified area and are chased by the Communist police headed by Krojack (Zac Marquart). The Hollanders seek asylum at the embassy until they can leave safely, creating havoc at every turn. The title Don’t Drink the Water is a warning often given to people traveling out of this country to certain foreign lands; in this case it is the foreign land that needed to be warned: “Don’t let in the stupid Americans!” No, not all Americans are as obnoxious as Walter Hollander (Chris Gordon), but enough are that we all can recognize and relate to having to deal with them.

 

Photo: Alison Gordon – Chris Gordon (Walter) and Cheryl Nelson (Marion)
 
As directed by Travis and Katie Kopp, most of the comedy of Woody Allen’s play lands just fine, though the pacing seems a little off; the first act clocks in at eighty minutes with enough pauses to be a detriment to the comedy. When the pace quickens the laughs also pick up from the audience, and this material demands a near breakneck pace to keep from falling apart.

Set Design: Alexis McCullough

Alexis McCullough’s set design is on pointe and notable especially for the size and perspective of the doors, altered to help create the illusion of depth in a limited space. Ms. McCullough also plays the small role of a drunken Countess Bordoni, a guest at the embassy. At the performance I attended she was perhaps a bit more method than usual, knocking over a table during her exit causing goblets to crash to the floor; Tom Ogilvie as Kasnar, her escort, was quick to ad lib, “Watch out for the table, dear,” a genuinely funny moment even though it was followed by an impromptu added scene of a maid sweeping up the glass so that the play could resume.

 

Photo: Alison Gordon – Wendy Hartman (Susan)
 
Three women in the cast are reason enough to see this production: Wendy Hartman as Susan Hollander, Cheryl Nelson as Marion Hollander, and Alison Gordon as Miss Kilroy. Ms. Hartman is vivacious as the youngest and least offensive of the Hollanders, and she is to be commended on her sterling costume design for the production, perfectly matching the period with patterns and fabrics nicely suited to the characters and setting. Ms. Nelson is slightly dotty in a lovable way as Marion, and quick to respond as well; her stage hubby told her to wear “snickers” instead of sneakers, and she exclaimed, “Snickers?!” It takes someone to be in the moment and committed like Ms. Nelson to turn an awkward moment like that around to get a laugh. Ms. Gordon wears spectacles, pumps, and knockoff Chanel like she’s dressed for battle as the ever efficient (yet accident-prone) Miss Kilroy; she has a good voice and stage presence for theatre.

 

Photo: Alison Gordon – PJ Gassman (Father Drobney)
 
Other standouts in the cast are PJ Gassman as Father Drobney, the Catholic priest living in the attic who practices magic and dreams of escape; Helen Lawrence as the chef, seemingly taking inspiration from the Swedish Chef on “The Muppet Show”; and Zac Marquart as thickly-accented Krojack, delightful as he barely contains his frustration with the Hollanders.

 

Photo: Alison Gordon – Sam Driscoll (Axel Magee)
 
Some of the performances puzzled me, such as Sam Driscoll as Axel Magee and Chris Gordon as Walter Hollander. Mr. Driscoll has a curious habit of slightly mouthing the lines of the other actors, almost as if he was a ventriloquist and throwing his voice for everyone else in the cast. He has a kind of awkwardness that works for the character he’s playing, but I never felt like he was fully present. Mr. Gordon is appropriately all bluster and grouse as the most difficult Hollander, but his line readings were full of all kinds of strange pauses where they wouldn’t be ordinarily in life. Maybe he was trying to remember his lines, I don’t know, but it was very unnatural where his breaths would come in sentences, and he often would jumble words together. Still, neither Mr. Driscoll or Mr. Gordon wrecks the show; it’s just that their idiosyncrasies stood out in a mostly solid cast of players.

 

Photo: Alison Gordon – Zac Marquart (Krojack)
 
Of particular note is the quality of the sound, something I find quite inconsistent from theatre to theatre. I’m happy to report that technical director Eugene Haney does an excellent job of making sure everyone is heard, and I was impressed by the directional sound effects used for some key moments. Nothing is too loud or too quiet, a difficult balance to achieve. The only caveat is that there was an electronic buzzing sound that was coming from the extreme right at various points, sometimes disappearing entirely; it was at its worst just before the sound effect of an explosion when the white noise rose to such a level that I was worried that we were about to be blasted by feedback or distortion. We weren’t though, and the loud buzzing quickly disappeared after the sound effect played out.

 

Photo: Alison Gordon – Alison Gordon (Miss Kilroy)
 
This was my first time attending a performance by the Licking County Players in downtown Newark, an easy drive less than an hour outside Columbus. Within an unassuming brick building on West Main Street is a surprisingly cozy theatre with comfortable seats and a welcoming atmosphere. Even though the talent varied on stage for the performance I saw, it was comforting to see everyone working together to put on a show and tell a story. It’s obvious everyone is there for the love of theatre and live performance, so even the foibles weren’t enough to derail their efforts. The play was funny, I laughed, and I look forward to attending another show put on by this group.

**/ out of ****

Don’t Drink the Water continues through to August 23rd at 131 West Main Street in downtown Newark (less than an hour from Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.lickingcountyplayers.org/#!dont-drink-the-water/cscb

Reasons to Be Pretty (Shots in the Dark – Columbus, OH)

Unhappy people sure do talk a lot and still not really get across what they mean; that’s what I took away from Shots in the Dark Independent Theatre Company’s production of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty. Oh, and young straight couples can be loud, obnoxious, and superficial – who knew, right? First performed in 2008 and then given a limited run on Broadway in 2009, Reasons to Be Pretty examines the lives of four twentysomething friends and how their lives are effected when an offhand comment is taken the wrong way. Everyone has experienced the feeling of being misunderstood and having stuck one’s foot in one’s mouth, but this group of two couples (Greg and Steph – Kent and Carly) have a lot to learn about saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

Chris Ceradsky is Greg, the well-meaning boyfriend who inadvertently gives a backhanded compliment to his girlfriend in response to his friend praising the gorgeous face of a new co-worker. He says he is okay with the “regular” face of his girlfriend, though he maddeningly doesn’t elaborate on the things he does like about her (like he should have – such a dolt!). Chris is a curious performer, all limbs and gangliness, a cross between Ray Bolger and Alan Alda. His hands are always moving and expressing, though he sometimes comes off as fidgety and lacking for some bit of business to do with his hands. Chris needs to slow down just a bit in his delivery and listen more to his cast members. So much of acting is listening and reacting, and too often it felt like Chris was swinging the bat before the ball reached him. It doesn’t help that he is playing such a weak character for much of the play, but his arc of growth ends up being quite satisfying in the end with a well delivered monologue. He’s the backbone of the play and in every scene; it can’t be easy, but Chris succeeds more than he fails.

Kristin Basore is Steph, Greg’s “regular” faced girlfriend. She starts the play off cussing a mean streak, and she has no problem appearing to be a harpy. She is meant to start off as mousy, dressed in jeans and an unflattering top, and then go through a transformation decked out in heels and a smart skirt, but a pretty girl is a pretty girl. Steph has personality and wit, no doubt cultivated as a result of not relying on being the prettiest girl in the room; still, like anyone, she doesn’t want her perceived shortcomings spoken about so casually, especially by her boyfriend. I believed Kristin in the part, though I can also see the part being modulated more to not always be a ten on the bitch meter. It’s too easy to write her off as a bitch, as Kent does, because it doesn’t require any introspection; Steph is probably like most women – insecure about being insecure.

Jacob Sabinsky plays Kent, the superficial jerk that talks all about body parts but nothing of anything deeper. The character is fairly despicable, and yet Jacob is handsome and appealing – a smart casting choice as he has a way of making what Kent says palatable to a degree. Jacob came off as the most relaxed and confident performer in the play, and he was frighteningly engaged during a fight scene in the second act that was so intense that I looked away. When I looked back, Jacob was yelling at the imaginary crowd (the scene takes place at a baseball field) and making eye contact with me and other people in the audience. Talk about an uncomfortable moment, but it was exactly right and took talent to pull off.

Caroline Rose Thoma plays Carly, the pregnant pretty girl wife of Kent. Her character never has anything smart to say, as if pointing out how her beauty perhaps kept her from developing other parts of her personality. Caroline seems miscast but applies herself well, her character’s insecurity feeling genuine even if her devastation is not. Caroline looks like she is still in high school, smart skirt and pumps notwithstanding, and she doesn’t seem to have experienced a real heartbreak yet, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Her apparent inexperience in acting worked for her in a way; her sometimes stilted line readings gave her an otherworldly presence, perhaps unintended but still interesting.

Reasons to Be Pretty is staged in the round in the wonderfully small Green Room at The Garden Theatre. Director Patrick McGregor II shoots for a minimalist approach and it scores, with the barest essentials needed to convey locations on display when needed. The funniest set piece is that of the bed that opens the show, which is nothing more than a frame with a comforter on it – no pillow, no mattress. Talk about uncomfortable, but I’m sure that’s the point; the hard bed is a perfect visual metaphor for the state of Greg and Steph’s relationship. The limited lighting works well, and I liked the confessional-type area where each of the four main characters have The Real World-like confessional monologues. I didn’t like the music that would play between scenes as it was too on the nose, commenting on the action or mood in a very paint-by-numbers way or just randomly trying to evoke the ’80s-early ’90s. I’m sure some quirky instrumental would’ve worked better and reminded people that it was a comedy, easy to forget when some of the funniest lines fly by at breakneck speed.

Neil LaBute writes dialogue that is often deceptively insightful while also being littered with expletives. In an effort to write more like how people talk, his work can sometimes sound a bit rough and unpolished. Still, Reasons to Be Pretty is a show that nearly demands a discussion afterwards, and it’s the perfect show for couples to attend with other couples. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship will recognize aspects of an ex or themselves in the characters, not exactly a good thing but telling nonetheless. I know I had a long, thoughtful discussion of the characters and situations after attending last night with my friend Jocelyn, and we were both glad we went. It isn’t a perfect production, but it’s thought provoking and entertaining – an admirable effort by a team of young performers still learning and growing.

** / out of ****

Reasons to Be Pretty continues through to July 12th in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://www.shotsinthedarkitc.org/

Jocelyn Nevel and I at Reasons to Be Pretty.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Barrymore Theatre – NYC)

The Curious of the Dog in the Night-Time is based on the 2003 novel by Mark Haddon and came over to Broadway from where it was a hit on the West End. I had heard wonderful things about the play, but it was never really on my radar because it isn’t a musical (yeah, I know) and there is something sci-fi looking about the advertisements and production photos I’ve seen, reminding me of the 1982 film Tron.

The story is about a fifteen-year-old boy named Christopher (played eerily well by newcomer Alex Sharp) who has an unspecified social disorder where he can’t stand to be touched, is immune to subtlety, and doesn’t grasp metaphors. He speaks as if he’s leaping from one cliff to the next, but he is very gifted mathematically and is looking forward to taking a math exam, apparently years before his peers. His mother has been dead for two years, and he is being raised by his single father who is alternatively gruff and impatient and then supportive and firmly on his son’s side.

The play opens as Christopher’s neighbor is screaming about someone murdering her dog, and she assumes that he is the culprit. Christopher is understandably distraught, ends up attacking a police officer, and winds up in trouble with his dad, who isn’t understanding about the situation. Against his father’s wishes, Christopher sets out to solve the crime on his own, gathering interviews with neighbors and clues, but the murder of the dog is just the catalyst for a journey of discovery and personal growth. To reveal more would be wrong, for sure.

The set consists of electronic panels that rise up to the flies on the left, center, and right, and these panels are divided up like graph paper used in geometry. These electronic panels are used throughout to demonstrate Christopher’s thought process as well as to suggest locations, as the story spreads out to far more settings than a basic unit set could convey. There is a very geometric, digital look to the show, but it is all used to tell the story. The effects are never showy, and there are precious few real props. There are often sound effects and miming to suggest phones, books, letters – it’s really an amazingly engaging way to tell this story. A group of actors play many small roles and all alternate places on the stage, and they are all first rate. The show is right, thought-provoking, and demonstrates how personal growth is only possible with some measure of risk. The director, Marianne Elliott, has managed to tell an unusual story in a wholly original way, something that is to be commended and enjoyed.

***/ out of ****