Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "How I Spent My Summer Vacation...Part One"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Thursday 24 July, 2001: "How I Spent My Summer Vacation --- Part ONE"

I was very glad that Willy G. Biggers ( Twice! ) and then Jim Hickey took advantage of The Mirror to register their thoughts and evaluations of the 22 short plays given at the Abbott Memorial Theatre this year in the Fourth Annual HOVEY SUMMER SHORTS survey of the work of local playwrights. I did manage to see both programs, but in between I was kidnapped, driven all the way to Lenox Mass, dined, wined, sumptuously domiciled, and forced --- Forced! --- to witness four excellent productions by Shakespeare & Co. and part of a Tanglewood rehearsal. And now (with a Publick Theatre production and the second series of Summer Shorts following my brief kidnapping) I'm rushing off to Newton highlands where Shakespeare Now! is doing "Midsummer" instead of even Starting this examination of those Shorts!
Film at eleven............

25 July, Noon:37 p m
Okay, that was yesterday And this morning the usual avalanche of Theater Mirror e-mail included a playwright complaining that Hovey's second program wasn't reviewed. It was. I just forgot to note the fact that it was in QUICK TAKES. And it wasn't my review. Neither was my review, despite a couple people snidely suggesting that "Willy Biggers" was my clever pseudonym. So, before I check for the Afternoon avalanche, here's what I Think about THE SUMMER SHORTS:

First the general:
There are three major new-play showcases here in the Boston area every year. The oldest is the two week PLAYWRIGHTS' PLATFORM SUMMER FESTIVAL, where the playwrights become their own self-producers, putting their works up on the comfortable Tower Auditorium stage at the Massachusetts College of Art. Plays on their program vary in length from "shorties" to full-length, but most of them fall into the 10-minute category.

Then, every April for the past three years The Boston Playwrights' Theater has produced the BOSTON THEATER MARATHON, presenting forty 10-minute plays in a single day, twice: Once on their wide, shallow stage, then repeating that set of four plays in an hour on their tall, thin stage in a sort of two-platoon system. The Marathon assigns each play to a different one of forty theatrical companies working in the region, so it is a showcase for theatres as well as for playwrights.

And then there's the SUMMER SHORTS at the Abbott Memorial Theatre just off Waltham's town square, produced by The Hovey Players --- pound for pound, inch for inch, the best damn theatrical company in this area. (The fact that Hovey mainstay Mark Sickler has often stage-managed the Playwrights' Platform Festivals has a lot to do with the smooth professionalism of the work there.) The Hovey system is fluid: some playwrights act as their own directors, but Hovey sees to it that all plays get the best production possible under pressures of time. And the level of work has, I think, improved year by year. The number of plays submitted jumped about 100% since last year, the quality was damn high, and the playwrights have begun to see inclusion in this annual showcase as a major credit in which to take pride.

The fingerprints of Jerry Bisantz, Hovey's passionate sparkplug, are all over these SHORTS. He didn't act this year, though he has in the past, but he's listed as directing six plays, two of them majors, as well as serving as co-producer, host, and ringmaster. Jerry may have started the SHORTS because he is himself a playwright fully cognisant of the difficulties a writer faces once the words leave the typewriter.

Co-producer Kim Anton directed one play, and added a delicately polished performance to another. Playing all bases is apparently a Hovey tradition.

But to the plays!
You are going to see the word "I" here much more often than you would in any review of a live show. Both programs have been reviewed by others here in The Mirror, the performances are past, and I have had more time than usual to gather thoughts, so I may disagree with colleagues in several places, and I want to make clear that these are One Person's opinions.

Actually, there are three different things that must be reviewed and separated here. The playwright's words deserve attention in themselves, but the input of the director and of the actors have weight as well, and it would be unfair to attribute weaknesses or strengths of any one of these elements to the other. The level of work everywhere was high this year but, for instance, it may be that the second week's program seemed better than the first simply because actors and directors had an extra week in which to improve things. With those constraints in mind, here's what I think:

These quick curtain-raiser comedy skits were perfectly chosen for an audience full of actors, playwrights, and theater lovers. An actor playing an actor auditioning before the off-stage voice of a tyrant, however, is much like shooting fish in a barrel for all concerned. The bits aren't new, the risks weren't high, but Ghod they're funny!

A LITTLE S & M by Lida McGirr
McGirr wisely starred in her own full comedy sketch as the surprised, indignant, painfully punctured acupuncture patient at the mercy of knitting-needles wielded by a maniacal doctor with a German accent, hoping to cure an ailment usually treated by Preparation H. As her own director, however, she unwisely cast Steven Bander, who seemed to disappear into the woodwork, as the flamboyantly arrogant doctor. Half (or even two-thirds) a loaf is never enough in the theater. I thought there was a sound understanding of comic structure, but no great risks or insights here.

RAIN DELAY by Jerry Bisantz
I've seen this play in workshop and in performance at Playwrights' Platform, and it has improved on every outing. Sheila Stasack directed it this time (and her son Maxfield Reynolds did a walk-on as a venal Fenway Park usher so well he nearly stole the show). At the center of the play were Jerry Kaplan as a father violating restraining orders to take his son (Max Bisantz) to a baseball game, and trying to act like a father even though it's pouring, even though the kid hates the RedSox, baseball, and maybe even his own dad. Dad's been sued or indicted for some high-publicity shameful act he swears he didn't do, but when officers (Paul Horn & Leigh Berry) come after the boy the deck seems stacked. Berry delivered the final, metaphorical line of the play, "You need more than talent, you need luck --- and the RedSox ain't got no luck at all." I think this play has legs.
(And let me admit here that should Leigh Berry elect to read stock-market quotations on any stage I would eagerly pay hard cash to be moved by the event. I only hope she uses the easy money she can earn from screen or tube to keep working on the stage, where her work will be much more unique and meaningful. I hate to lose the good ones... )

ONE FIERY LEAF by Geralyn Horton
The playwright directed June Lewin and Chandra Pieragostini in this family drama wherein mom advises restraint when her daughter admits she'd like a divorce. People can change, she says; my late husband did --- though it took his first heart-attack to make him stop and smell the roses (or thrill to the fall colors in even a single leaf).
The play can get preachy, and I saw what I thought a much better production before. Since several other people complimented the performances, I conclude I saw a best-night then, a worst-night (opening) this time. The play demands a lot of awareness of subtext and backstory, and iron concentration from both actresses. I just didn't see them here.

INTERMISSION by Jerry Kaplan
Kaplan directed, and played (with Shari Pitkin, Mark Sickler & Bill Spera) one of the four audience members --- two couples --- watching, then discussing a play, and when their mates go for smokes two strangers bond over their shared insights on the play. Neatly crafted, the play had great charm, but little bite. I wonder if things about the play, which the audience only hears in a snippet of first-act finale, could be made to tinge every line of the intermission exchanges with double-meaning. I think it would be worth the work needed to make it so.

This satiric sketch had a prologue and an epilogue in which television people (Kent Miller [I think] and then Jennifer Doyle) interviewed a famous producer (Steve Lillis [?]) and then prepared to interview a Pulitzer Prize playwright (Jason Myatt). In between, the meat concerns the playwright demanding, pleading, threatening, even threatening suicide to get this producer to even Read his play. The message here is that, having accidentally found a great playwright, the totally incompetent (though successful!) producer slammed the door on any new playwrights regardless of the value of their work. At sketch's end, the great and produced and famous playwright is on death row because rather than gain fame and immortality by killing himself, he killed the producer.
Director Jerry Bisantz turned his crew of seasoned professionals loose on this slice of satirical truth that couldn't fail before this audience. I wish there were a venue, somewhere on television, for sketch-comedy as neatly turned as this.

FARE THEE WELL by Michael Bettencourt
Michael Bettencourt is an intensely committed, unique theatrical craftsman whose work leans heavily on ritual and invocation of subtle mythology. He has gone to New York, where I hope he finds sensitive directors and developers who can give him the audience he deserves. I expect him back for the regional premieres of all his plays, which I hope to see soon.
This play --- which I feel was under-rehearsed by Director Kristin Hughes --- began puzzlingly with contests centered on naming euphemisms for or telling stories centered around women's breasts. Only later should it dawn on the audience that this circle is a support-group helping a member say goodby to her mammaries before cancer surgery. It's purpose is didactic, its audience specific, but given work it could --- as can be said of most of Michael's serious plays --- raise consciousness and instil sympathy. I think the cast (Lily Allen, Moira McCarthy, Anne Secrest, Wendy Feign, Teresa Goding & Lisa Burdick) skated on the surface of lines that demanded a lot more work than they could get with such a short rehearsal schedule. At bottom, though, this is not a play for general audiences.

The title actually says it all, in this brilliantly zany sketch which Robert Mattson directed and also took a role: The guys are the quartet whose faces are on Mount Rushmore, and the actors (J. Mark Baumhardt, Tom Berry, Mattson & Dave Sheppard) could move only from the neck up! They occasionally freeze when tourist-parties invade their privacy, moan about eagles nesting in a nose, and wile the hours by trying to guess the utterers of the worst (and at sketch-end best) quotes from past presidents (and from one present one!) Once more, the place for such inspired bombast has disappeared in our tube-obsessed society. (You want to look for a congenial bar with a back room? I'm with you!)

WINCHESTER by Patrick Cleary
Again, I saw this better played elsewhere. It's a curious intertwining of lectures about the peculiar obsessive habits of the wife and heiress of the Winchester firearms fortune with the obsessive habits of a woman raped as a child who still hopes her continually arranged furniture will make a recurrence impossible. Making clear both strands of this odd tale eluded Holly Vanessa and Michael Tomasulo, who played her lecturer-husband. Again, I think short rehearsal time resulted in less than perfect results for Cleary, who did his own directing. Even at its best, though, I felt it an oddly elaborate build for a one-note payoff.

Once more, I saw a good production of this bit of inspired froth in this year's Marathon, but in this case the new production blew me away entirely. Leigh Berry and Tom Berry (newly wedded actors) here played a couple in their fifth year of engagement recounting the recent off-stage bedlam caused when the lady fought like a demon to catch the tossed bridal bouquet --- which triggers her fiancÚ's acute hay-fever. (The subtext, of course, is that it's more than posies he's really allergic to.)
John MacKenzie, Hovey's technical miracle-worker, directed this pair in what for me was the triumphant cap to an excellent night of excellent theater! This is also a play with legs, one that will inspire actors everywhere to sink their teeth in and shake laughter and recognition from audiences everywhere. It is already a classic, and this was the perfect pair to do it --- but I can't wait to see what Richard Snee and Paula Plum will do with it!

NOTE: Okay, it's 6:38 p m and I've finished with the first program --- that means I'm only Half Done!
And I need a break!

9:52 p m
Now, where was I? Oh yes........

DRINK SAMPLER by Patrick Brennan
This is a sort of homage to paranoia, with a deceptive team of agents getting blood samples from a Gulf War vet by giving him a wicked-sharp glass for his third comradely free drink. Gina Colombo and Bill Spera were the conspirators, and did a fine job of pretending to be a blind date and a sympathetic overhearer, so when Kent Miller ripped his lip open and rushed to the john to stop the gush, their unmasking had real bite. Joe DeGuglielmo directed another show I'd seen once before, seeing to it that each layer of the onion got pulled back deftly and smoothly. A carefully crafted play.

This is a bewildering bit of infectious fluff, involving a veteran and a new initiate in a secret society dedicated to frivolous surprise. The aim this morning is to bring a sense of unexpected drama into the passengers of a commuter-train pulling out of the station by jogging beside it as it gains speed --- totally nude. The League's oldster, John Carozza, explains everything to neophyte Jason Yaitanes, painting a picture of countless humdrum lives invigorated by the unexpected sight of a streaker slowly dropping behind as their otherwise dull train speeds ever onward. Stimulating others is made to seem a calling, with even an oath that is, unexpectedly, never the same. And the final kicker is that, once the streaker is off, tossing his towel from the wings as he departs, our smiling veteran adds an unexpected twist of his own by making off with the young man's clothes. This is an astonishing laugh-machine, tuned by Jerry Bisantz' direction. And, because of the sheer unexpected audacity of it all, it just may have legs.

This play may also have a life after summer, dealing as it does with a straight/gay pair of guys breaking up at semester's end when one forces the other to reveal his carefully suppressed longings. Ian Dowell was the macho game-boy winner loving and leaving girl after girl, and annoyed when his bill-paying patsy would rather play virtual hockey than try to get laid. Tom Berry fought an aching rear-guard action, trying to maintain however an inadequate friendship even across the chasm of his grudgingly admitted preference. The dialogue is crisply, smoothly crafted with opportunities for both actors to bite down deep and hard, and Director Michelle Aguillon saw to it they did precisely that.

ED(TED) by Courtney Graff
Courtney runs the Shadow Boxing playwriting group in Cambridge, and I wonder where this bewildering comedy came from. There are two patients in a hospital room, one a comatose kid, when a raucous and foul-mouthed Patton Tank of a woman rolls past the after-hours desk first mistaking the conscious one for her kidnapped son Ed --- one of twins her protective husband (she says) insisted on naming Ted and Ed. His name's Ted the other patient insists --- and has to admit under cross-examination that his own name is.... Frederick. Mom is demanding and self-pitying and scathingly deprecatory of everyone by turns, flouncing in and then out absconding with the kid and leaving scorch-marks on everyone and everything in her wake. Eunice Ferrera was an unstoppable tornado, and Director Nat McIntyre a bewildered straight-player hoping only to protect himself from mayhem. The revelations of this self-important harridan's life spilled out in continual hints and assertions, contradicting every one of her self-serving assertions, as the play took on a quite astonishing life of its own.

OUT TO LUNCH by Jim and Jean Anton
Here Jason Yaitanes played a silent, haughtily uncooperative waiter ignoring Jason Myatt's polite attempts to get just another refill of water, while everyone else at the table --- Kate Mahoney, Lisa Burdick, and Wayne Vargas --- spent the entire time talking (between bites) on their cell-phones. The conversations overlapped with silences in such a way as to offer a kind of call-and-response fabric of intertwined leitmotifs, hinting then denying that speakers might be talking to one another. And throughout it all, Myatt sat, silent and ignored, trying to juggle credit-cards to share the bill. Here Director Kim Anton orchestrated this delightful quartet-for-cellphones so adroitly as to make her work invisible.

THE TEST by Paula Kaplan
This bitter play opens with two men and a Bible, the older trying to explain why "THOUGH I walk THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death" is so hard for the younger to read. They are Black men on death row, the younger facing an I.Q. test to determine if he is defective enough (below 75) not to understand his crime or punishment. And of course the heartbreaking triumph is the boy's pride at scoring a 79 on the only test he ever passed --- making his execution a certainty. Dennis Roach and Keith Mascoll were the players, and the writer directed her own play. Tightly compressed and achingly human, it withheld a perhaps predictable end by the vigor of these eloquent performances. In this mostly White, largely comic spread of plays, I was glad to see a reminder that other experiences can be dramatically moving as well.

FUTURE PERFECT by Ginger Lazarus
What a surprise! This was a time-travel science-fiction vignette of such deft subtlety that every revelation came as hinted-at awareness rather than an overt statement. Here Jason Yaitanes sat, pouring a third straight vodka, mumbling over the insults he had exchanged with his boss, marvelling that he'd not been fired yet, and calling offstage to an unseen fellow dishwasher. Into all this, thick notebooks in her arms, stumbled Kim Anton as a hesitant, bumbling, reticent questioner dressed in "pyjamas" and making mistakes in all her tenses. She is, she must finally admit, a grad student back in time to research the most-likely-to-succeed who didn't. And her subject demonstrates his gifts in an eloquent prose-poem on the joys of warm suds. There isn't time for any deep revelation of his drift from one dead-end job to another, or much illustration of anything about her except her ineptness. But though she wipes his mind of any recollection of her visit, he demands a boon, and while pouring his last drink smirks to know he will make a killing betting the much-despised "Titanic" will, against all odds, win the best picture Oscar that year.
The director here was Jason Myatt, who held it to a spiderweb delicacy that made it all the more believable.

Doyle is indeed English, and acting as his own director decided to reunite three from the cast of a Hovey triumph, "Crossing Delancy": Angela Blackman, Richard Sherburne, and himself --- but to drop them all into a London local pub. Blackman was the young barmaid; Doyle wandered in later as a noisy soccer-hooligan; Sherburne was an American computer person admitting his true passion wasn't sport but community theater --- an odd, unpaid obsession to the football-loyalist. But as they talked about the difference between stage and reality, they had a flash of fantasy that they were characters on a stage with ... an audience watching! Only for a mo' y'see, but real enough to send the fan back to remember and recite a soliloquy he'd learnt back in school --- and do it jolly good, too! --- before they went separate ways.
The accents might just tempt a generation of community theater wanks to try this neat little conceit themselfs, just for the tricks it plays with theatrical reality, and for the barmaid's crossword that's always getting clues answered by the ends of the other two's sentences. A bit of fun for all concerned, it was.

TOP OF THE WORLD MA! by David Kruh
Put a painted canvas drop-cloth around an A-ladder and you have a mountain summit, around the edge of which come the struggling, triumphant arms of the omnipresent Jasons --- Myatt and Yaitanes! They are the only survivors of an Upward-Bound style corporate motivational exercise gone awry, Yaitanes crowing over the fallen bodies of promotion rivals, Myatt aware that all the equipment they'll need to get back down fell with their unlucky comrades. Oh, it's a dog-eat-dog world, business is, and Director John Carozza saw to it that every red tooth and claw in this raucous satire was amply displayed.

1:32 a m
Okay, I got it all said, spell-checked and re-punctuated. Them's me thoughts, take 'em as you will.
Of course, the precise flavor of a night in that downstairs theatre with 52 sitting and any number of past or future actors standing about in the darkness --- it's truly hard to capture. And it would take a novelist I'll never be to catch the full-out flair of a Hovey cast-party --- the honest admission of a gifted actor that he feels a need for vocal training; the wry admission that "this is the only place they'd let me drop my pants in public" that keeps him coming back; the physicality of the dancing; the lip-synched mime mark Sickler does to "I Am Woman" that laid us all in the aisles, and the glowing appreciation of all the hard effort of everyone working at the limit of their potential, acting and interacting better here, backstage or on stage, than they could anywhere else. It's a place I know I have a role --- that of audience --- that is vital and important, and appreciated. Glen Doyle's playlet points out that no one makes a dime, that most pay or give just to be part of it. But there is something at Hovey I haven't even hinted at that makes it magical, and every time I leave I hope they'll let me come again.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide