I’ve been asked by a few people to compile my picks for the best central Ohio theatre in and around Columbus in 2015, and so that’s just what I’ve done. I didn’t start writing about and trying to see as much local theatre as possible until June, so there are some reportedly very good productions that I unfortunately didn’t get to see. This list is based on what I saw for the second half of 2015 with one exception – Short North Stage’s Psycho Beach Party from January 2015. I didn’t write a review for it, but the fun I had at that production is still vivid in my mind year later.
For a thorough rundown of my thoughts on each show, I have linked my reviews to open by clicking on the title of each play.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
I mainly knew of Dial “M” for Murder because of growing up viewing the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly; I went through all of the Hitchcock films before getting out of grade school. The film is considered second tier Hitchcock, still better than first rate most anyone else, and I had always enjoyed it. The Frederick Knott play from which the film was adapted premiered on Broadway in the fall of 1952 and ran for nearly a year and a half; it closed just a few months before the film version was released. I saw the restored film projected in its original 3-D at the Wexner Center for the Arts this past March, so I had the story fresh in my mind when I attended the Weathervane Playhouse production of Dial “M” for Murder this past weekend. I’ll admit that I was tempted not to go as I had just seen the film again, and that would’ve been a mistake; Dial “M” for Murder perhaps works better as a play, and this is a solid production with its own flavor different from the film.
The story concerns how Tony Wendice, a former tennis pro, coerces a former classmate, Captain “Lesgate” (he has several names we find out), into murdering his adultering wife, Margot. You see, Tony knows about the affair Margot has been carrying on with television writer Max Halliday, and he knows enough about his former school chum to make him compliant in the idea of murder. However, Tony doesn’t plan on how things end up turning out, or that a certain Inspector Hubbard may hold the key (no pun intended) to unraveling the plot.
Patrick Clements plays Tony as all suave and sly, almost too slick to believe. He looks remarkably like Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride, and I was glad to see him as the lead after his clowning around in The Pajama Game a few weeks back. His interpretation was a little too slippery for me as he has to come off as genuinely affectionate towards his wife and above suspicion for the piece to fully work, not like a used car salesman with some nefarious clauses hidden in the fine print. Molly Griggs is Margot, closely hewing to Grace Kelly’s interpretation though perhaps even more vulnerable; her cultured accent is particularly good, and she wears her complicated hairstyle with confidence. Clay Singer, who was Sid to Molly’s Babe in the aforementioned The Pajama Game, plays her beau again as Max Halliday, making the most out of the slight part. Layne Roate is poor, coerced Captain Lesgate, coming off as a real ne’er-do-well while also owning it. Jason Samples as Inspector Hubbard is adept at bringing the audience along to follow his train of thought, quite important in the resolution of this piece. The actor who played the role in the film confused me when I first saw it, but Jason’s lines sprout naturally as he takes in the scene; he genuinely seems to care that the audience be along with him for the ride.
The entire play takes place in the Wendice apartment, elaborately designed by Jeremy Hollis; it is perhaps the most important character in the play. The apartment looks lived in, albeit by affluent tenants, and the requisite window, desk, and doors that open out into the hall are all there as needed by the plot. Great attention appears to have been played in decorating the set as well and including props where they would naturally be found, not as obvious instruments needed for the script. Director Tim Browning and lighting designer Jennifer Sansfacon work well together in creating a tense murder scene with shards of light piecing the outline of the double doors that slowly open to reveal Layne entering the apartment with murder on his mind. The scene is stylish in a way that would only work on stage, and the audience didn’t dare breathe during it.
I will say that the best place to sit for this production is in the center section, even if you’re in the back rows. I moved to the front right for the second half of the show and missed seeing the faces of the actors during some critical moments. Another patron commented that the desk and chair blocked her view when she was seated in the left section, so aim for as close to the center as you can.
There were a few snafus at the performance I attended, though I was told they they only occurred at that Saturday matinee. There is a scene in the first act that requires both doors to the apartment be open so that the placement of a certain key is visible, but this was hidden from most of the audience because one door remained shut, apparently locked in error. The murder scene also played out a bit awkwardly as the scissors fell off of the desk to the floor during the struggle. I have to hand it to Molly and Layne for integrating into their performance as well as they did; Molly lunged off the desk for those scissors with a determination that made me chuckle. I knew the play couldn’t go on unless she got them to defend herself and she surely knew it too, but I’m sure the audience didn’t notice; they were too wrapped up in the proceedings at full attention to notice anything that may have been off.
For someone quite familiar with the movie, I didn’t expect the play to be so enjoyable or engaging. Some of the plot points even played out better in this setting, as I think it was easier to follow just where Tony went awry in his plans in the play. It can’t be easy to stage such a play when a popular film version exists, but director Tim Browning and his fine ensemble have succeeded in making it stand proudly on its own quite capable feet.