Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "Lost Plays"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Tuesday, 23 March, 1999: The Lost Plays

Up to today, I've seen 24 productions this year, but not all of them were reviewed. Sometimes I get to plays on closing night, and a review would be nothing but an academic exercise. Sometimes I think the play or the production is not worth a review.

But who's to know which is which? I try to send a note to the director if I really think a show is not reviewable, but I'm going on 67 this year, and feeling that there's so little time and so much to see these days.

I just started writing out my list of shows I've seen this year, and so I have a good idea of which ones I've said nothing about, and it's about time I set the record straight about why. Here they are, by date:

17 or 24 January: ORPHEUS DESCENDING by The Boston Actors' Ensemble @ Tower Auditorium.
This was a re-mounting of the play by many of the same actors, under an Equity plan that encourages professionals to hone their craft by attempting difficult plays that won't compete with other for-money shows. Those reviewers who nominated or voted for the previous production at B.U. should have waited for this much more successful pass.

Donna Sorbello directed this time out, with several cast changes, and emphasized the scruffier aspects of Tennessee Williams' play. G. Warren Steele's dying Jabe Torrance was a much more earthy, crusty, vindictive old curmudgeon than the Jabe that Michael Bradshaw played originally. He seemed to be willing himself not to die out of sheer spite. And his running-dogs Neil Gustafson and Joseph Zamparelli Jr. were also gruff, dirty-minded giggling village louts ready for violence if the word was given. These small scene-swelling roles added greatly to the backwater ambience in which the play unfolded.

Dan Donoghue was also new as the sexy no-longer-young blues guitarist trying to put his hustling life behind him. The actor could indeed play his instrument, and he served as the tool Donna Sorbello's Lady Torrance needed both to defy the dying husband she hated and to re-create her murdered father's successful dance-hall. Both as actress and director, Sorbello did a lot to deepen the emotional conflicts, and her complicated affair with this younger man.

Ken MacDonald and Christopher Noel Hall, as Sheriff Talbot and his mystical painter wife, also worked to make these very different characters more comprehensible, and to make their interrelationship clearer as well. His sheriff was an understanding though no-nonsense peace officer somewhat embarrassed by his wife's passionate unreality. And she had a much better painting (by Ann Kingsbury) to talk about as well.

Alisha Jansky and Peter Bubriski, playing brother and sister Carol and David Cutrere are both big, interesting characters that pretty much belong in a different play. I think Sorbello was at a loss as to how to direct them so as to include them in the action --- and probably the sanest though cruellest tack a director could take would be to cut Carol's entire character totally. David Cutrere's scene with Lady Torrance adds back-story and motivation to her character, but Carol, no matter how well-played, is just a distraction.

The idea Equity has here, of letting often under-employed Card-holders here in Boston toughen their acting chops with these Ensemble productions is a wonderful opportunity for them to tackle new challenges, and for theater-junkies like me to see good plays that would never come to Boston otherwise. I hope the series continues.

23 January: THE HERO, THE VILLAIN, THE EMPRESS AND HER DOG, by Webphantom Productions, @ Old Cambridge Baptist Church
This was the final performance of "the blah-blah-blah play" in which a cast of four played thirty named characters with never a word of comprehensible dialogue whatsoever. The scenes and gags and schtick were mostly live-action cartoons pitched to both the kids and the grownups they brought with them. Directed and largely written by Dan Milstein, with music written, played and improvised by Peter Bufano, and played by an accomplished cast headed by Marty Barrett as (Hissss!) The Villain, Helen McElwain as The Hero, and Kristin Baker, Wanda Strukus, and Courtney Graff as nine to eleven different characters apiece, the show was neat, inventive, and hilarious. So what if I caught the cold of death from the kid in front of me.

27 January: TENDERLOIN, @ The Turtle Lane Playhouse
This was a shallow, silly, unconvincing musical that the musical team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick could not save from the indifferent book-making of George Abbott and Jerome Weidman. It allowed a cast of saucily corseted ladies to cavort with salacious abandon as 1890s hookers, but that's about all. Choreographer Patricia Strauss and Director Paul Farwell moved people around the stage quite well, but nothing they tried pumped any believability into the story. I thought it was a show that should have closed out of town.

26 February: OLEANNA @ The Vokes Theatre.
This was my biggest disappointment so far this year. The Vokes Players do excellent work; I've seen Milton Coykendall direct unforgettable productions; Jason Taylor acted in a play I nominated for a Best New Play last year; and I've seen Laura Yosowitz bouncing from an original musical to readings from Shakespeare to The Publick over the past year. How could so many good people come up with such an awful show?

Well, in my opinion the problem here was David Mamet's play.

I'd never seen it, but it showed up in the listings of plays in The Mirror so often I was looking forward to it, despite the misgivings of a lot of friends. And after I saw it I again talked to a number of people who were familiar with the play, trying to figure out what had gone so disastrously wrong here. It's the play.

Mamet's pauses are dictated in the script, and he's even written a book insisting that all actors need do is read the playwright's words well, and that's it. Apparently Coykendall took him at his word, and had Yosowitz stammering and stuttering through most of the first act --- to the point that there was nothing at all solid in her lines with which to define a character.

Then again, Jason Taylor is a young man who would look right at home as the young firecracker in "American Buffalo" but was never quite believable as a college professor up for tenure and trying to close a deal on a bigger house over the telephone. This is a play in which two people talk, but not really to each other, and never really listen. The professor is distracted, full of buzzwords and platitudes, sunk in his own rhetoric. His pupil merely wants to pass what she expected would be a gut course, and she hasn't understood a single word either of his lectures, or his responses to her pleas. The whole first act is a frustrating exercise in missed communications.

For the second act, though, the woman returns with a formal accusation of sexual harassment and backed by a vindictive cabal of militant feminists. Her line of triumph, late in the play, is an imperious demand: "Don't call your wife 'baby'!" The addle-headed prof has no idea what could have happened in act one to set her off, but discovers her unfounded accusations have ruined his entire career.

Rather than either act here, what I'd like to have seen most is a play David Mamet is apparently incapable of writing: the entre-act in which the stuttering featherhead is inveigled and empowered to roar back and confront her mentor loaded for bear. I don't think anyone can convey the impact of that unwritten second-act with nothing but subtext to work with. The professor's major sin is simply ignoring his student's humanity, and that's hard to get across in a play where neither character is listening at all.

I do think the play might be done in such a way that the student's state of mind and the reactions she has to her pompous mentor's condescending indifference would be believable. Trouble is, Mamet's script makes the cast and the director do all the work he's ignored. And I really do wish he'd write that second act!

10 March: HEY, THERE'S FREE FOOD IN THE CONFERENCE ROOM, by A.C.E. Theatricals @ The Improv Asylum
This series of short business-world comedy skits, created and performed by half a dozen actors mining their day-jobs for material, is designed as a shock-of-recognition exercise best done as comic relief for business-oriented retreats. In a theatrical rather than a business milieu, they seemed as cute but as thin as those little slice-of-life jokes on single subjects that filled a few pages of every issue of MAD Magazine. There wasn't anything wrong with anything these people did, but there wasn't really anything astonishing either. I missed a skewer through their shishkebab --- perhaps clearer identity for the recurring stock-characters in these stock situations, so that the fabric of the whole could be better knitted into a whole. Everything, to my eyes, had an "almost" quality that never went past each punch-line.

But I liked the food.

And that, so far, is the roster of Lost plays so far this year.


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