The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Norfolk Summer Play Fest Continues

Too Many Eulogies Slow Down The Eulogist

Chip Fortier’s The Eulogist, third and final offering in the Generic Theater’s New Plays for Dog Days series, begins well, with much dark and deeply funny wit at the expense of the funeral industry, among other victims.

But mid-way through the first act it begins to waver, and we’re not certain if the play is meant to be taken seriously or as a farce.

By the time it ends, it’s looking a bit like a tidy sit-com. The hero gets the break he’s given up hope for, things are promising with the girl, and the best friend continues to be the jerk he’s always been.

All in good fun. Or is it?

Death and funerals, of course, are an unavoidable part of life, forcing even the most cheerful to pause for a moment of reflection. But death jokes are a booming business, as well, as Mr. Graves the mortician well knows.

He’s the unscrupulous undertaker who’s burying Walter Page’s father, who has just died as the play begins. Walter is a screen writer who hasn’t yet sold a script. He lives with his best friend Artie and struggles with self-esteem.

But we soon learn that Walter is a secret connoisseur of famous eulogies and can quote from them at length, as he demonstrates for Artie through several examples—eulogies for Winston Churchill, FDR, John and Bobby Kennedy, and a few others. Too many.

In any case, it is Walter’s family duty to prepare and deliver a eulogy for his father, which he accomplishes with eloquence and emotional sincerity. This gains him attention. Women come on to him, and soon he’s asked to write eulogies for paying clients.

Room mate Artie, sniffing money (and women) to be made on eulogies, jumps in as Walter’s partner, and the play takes off. Or it should.

Instead, problems begin to accumulate. There are many scenes, some quite short, alternating for the most part between a Catholic funeral sanctuary and Walter and Artie’s living room. Because the changes are complicated, they also take time, slowing the pace of the action.

But the action has already slowed in uncertainty about where the play is going. Is it still a farce? Or is it about Walter’s misery over his father’s death and where it has taken him?

A supporting ensemble of six portrays a variety of mourners, each delivering a portion of a eulogy as Walter and Artie turn them out like packages of cream cheese on an assembly line. But do we have to taste so many to get the idea?

The concept of an unsuccessful screen writer making a hit as a eulogist is very evocative. It could go in any number of interesting directions, from farce to sentimental romance to drama for mature audiences. But as it stands now, albeit with plenty of healthy laughs along the way, The Eulogist is a play with promise in search of clarity. And brevity.

The cast of ten, led by Jeff Anderson as Walter and Marcus Richardson as Artie—and studiously costumed for every change of scene by Celia Burnett—displays a singular commitment to the production. No one who has never done a play can conceive of how many hours of preparation it takes, on and off the set, before the audience is invited in. This cast, with crew, seems to have put in those hours (long scene changes and botched lighting cues notwithstanding).

The Eulogist continues at the Generic this weekend, Sat., July 22, at 8, Sun., July 23, at 2:30, and next weekend, Thurs.-Sat., July 28-30, at 8, closing Sun., July 31, at 2:30. For more information, click here.

The Norfolk Summer Play Fest, in which the Generic’s Dog Days series is participating, moves next to The Venue on 35th on Aug. 5, when Core Theatre Ensemble will open its latest new work, You vs.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

At Little Theater of Norfolk

Two New Plays Tested in Staged Readings

Little Theater of Norfolk hosted two staged readings of new plays, the fifth and sixth in the Norfolk Summer Play Fest 2011, with P.A. Wray’s Love Songs for the Road read on Friday, July 15, and Jean Klein’s Refractions of Light on Saturday, July 16. Both playwrights are members of the Virginia Playwrights Forum, centered here in Hampton Roads.

Wray’s Love Songs has been through several revisions over a number of years, its most recent, previous incarnation as a staged reading at The Venue on 35th in September, 2009. (My critique of that version remains posted in the Thinking Dog Reviews archives.)

With this latest version, Wray hoped to eliminate some of the problems audience members identified in 2009 during a talk-back session after the performance. In that effort she was somewhat but not entirely successful.

I’ll skip the plot summary, which appears in the earlier review, saying only that, with her story of romantic love between a widowed grandmother and a truck driver twenty years her junior, Wray taps into a rich vein of social and psychological material, red meat for any writer. Added to that is the stimulation of intrigue, as the widow’s meddling children, insisting they are doing the best thing for Mother, plot to break up her romance and, essentially, take her into protective custody, powerless to exert her own will as they wait (and perhaps hope) for her to die.

Thus the play is, foremost, a cry for senior liberation from the social stereotypes and resulting restraints put upon elders by the generation they gave birth to. Particularly destructive is the denial of the freedom to love again. These themes come across quite clearly. There is nothing muddled about them.

It seems to me, then, that Love Songs is at core a political play about civil rights for seniors.

Problems arise, though, in repeating loops of dialogue and in the development of the characters, whom Wray attempts to present as rounded human beings when they also represent different sides of a debate.

For that reason the play drifts about rudderless at times, with a character like eldest son Martin coming across as a villain of melodrama, shamelessly bullying his weaker siblings into betraying their mother, while the lovers gain our sympathy as sincere and believable human beings. Foundering between political parody and psychological realism, which way should the play go?

Personally, I think the best bet is to go with a Brechtian-style parody with clear-cut villains and heroes and good and evil plainly marked. That is where the strength of this play has always been. But as currently written, the stage time spent on explaining real-world motivations, legal maneuvers, and double-crosses among family members bogs down the action. Suspending realism for parody might eliminate the need for much of that.

But parody may not be what the author has in mind. In that case, my advice is to identify more clearly each character’s emotional center. The place to begin is with Martin, whose despicable actions drive the plot. Where is his vitriol coming from? What is his vulnerability, his soft spot?

Wray has provided one possibility without particularly focusing on it. It’s that Martin can’t stand to think of his widowed mother with a lover, especially one close to his own age. (Is the conflict oedipal?) Conceivably, then, all Martin’s actions can be explained—and satirized—from that point of reference, where he is not evil but, for a variety of reasons, scared stiff by his mother’s unconventional behavior, which threatens the fragile balance of his own unstable world.

With Martin’s character settled, the clarity of the others’ should emerge with more ease.

The assembled actors for Love Songs were genuine troupers, giving dedicated performances under director Aliki Pantas.

Candy Dennis and Andrei Fedyszyn were convincing as the more youthful Ellie and her love, Jim. Bobbie Hite and Mike Hoover were committed as Ellie and Jim after they’d aged, but those roles need refining, particularly in the second act. What makes Jim come back? Is Ellie faking her dementia or is it real?

Bill Armstrong is a hoot as the evil brother Martin. But his characterization also raises the issue of whether this play is a drama or a melodrama.

With that fly in the ointment, Jason Martens and Elizabeth Dickerson, who play brother Stu and sister Carol, are left with mushy identities to work with, initially following Martin like sheep, then shifting into principled rescuers to facilitate a happy ending. Meanwhile, Jon Hite’s role as a policeman has potential as farce, but his role as Brock, attorney-to-the-rescue to defend the lovers, is probably not necessary to a firmed-up plot.

Also unnecessary are Ellie’s four offstage children. The three onstage brats are quite enough to make the case.

We as a society don’t understand the elder years, largely because so relatively few people up to now have experienced them. Making matters worse is our glorification of youth and marginalization of age. We are still an ageist culture. Love Songs for the Road lays the groundwork for a fresh look at those prejudiced attitudes.

Jean Klein’s Refractions of Light deals with a double-dose of prejudice—anti-Semitism and American racism—which are woven into a common bond established between a Jewish-American holocaust survivor and an African-American survivor of a state mental hospital. The two realities, Klein suggests, are equally shattering.

But that’s giving away the ending. Before then, the play tells the story of social change from 1924 to 1980 as it manifests in the refracted light of a stained glass window in the parlor of an elegant house in the Berkley section of Norfolk.

It can’t pretend to critique the script in any meaningful way. The play was a staged reading only in the sense that it was a reading of a play on a stage, bare except for a rectangular stained-glass window suspended from above. It was up to the actors, with little rehearsal, to walk through the play miming everything—telephones, tea cups, the darkness of night, knocks on the door, even a live baby—and with scripts in their hands much was lost in translation.

Still, the story is clear enough, if also a little odd. A young white woman, Rose, agrees to raise the child of her friend, a young black woman, Lily, should Lily die. She does die, and the child, Nettie, grows up in Rose’s house with the stained-glass window.

Twenty years later Joe, Nettie’s black sweetheart, comes back from World War II with the idea that racial equality’s day has come. He wants to marry Nettie and, funded by the GI Bill, buy Rose’s house and go to college to become a lawyer. He realizes that last dream, but Nettie, already pregnant with Joe’s child, disappears, and Rose, now an old woman fading into the other world, hedges on selling Joe the house because of the tensions it could cause in a respectable white neighborhood.

Four years later Rose has died, and Harry, a German Jew prospering in America as a neighborhood grocer, has bought her house. He hires Joe, back from law school, as his lawyer. End Act I.

Act II takes place in 1980, with Harry, now in his 60s, holding out against city developers who are tearing down the old houses on his block to make way for gentrification. Joe, still his lawyer, can’t block Harry’s certain eviction. To say more would be to say too much, but the house, which black, white Protestant, and Jew all at one time called home, binds them together in a warm embrace of common humanity, even though the bulldozers will soon arrive to tear the house down. What we do with that ambiguity is left to us.

Does it work? Under the extreme minimalist conditions of this reading, it’s impossible to judge. Too much was left to the imagination. It was like watching a first rehearsal, with the secrets hidden in the words barely activated.

But even if a number of points in the script may need clarification, the play’s through-line is secure from beginning to end. There are just moments of confusion when something seems to be missing.

One of those moments recurred for me several times, whenever the light shining through the stained-glass window was mentioned. Clearly the window is meant as a unifying motif, referenced even in the play’s title. But I thought the house was the leading symbol.

An energetic cast did a credible job of bringing the story alive with no technical enhancement. Francis Mitchell, Jennifer Kelly-Cooper, Philip Wrencher, Brittney Harris, and Cliff Hoffman, all acting largely on instinct, carved out some interesting rough-draft characters. James Bryan directed and read top-of-scene stage directions. LTN Artistic Director Brendan Hoyle led the post-show talk-backs for both staged readings.

The Norfolk Summer Play Fest continues at the Generic Theater next weekend, July 22-24, with the premier of Chip Fortier’s The Eulogist.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Norfolk Summer New Play Fest Continues

Barking Dog Days and CEOsDon’t Be Surprised If It Bites!

Which is better? To succeed in the competitive struggle to reach the top floors of the corporate tower or to be unceremoniously dumped down the stairs and shown out the door?

According to the play I just saw at Norfolk’s Generic Theater, neither will bring Jack or Jillian fulfillment. In fact, there’s no telling what will bring them fulfillment.

But a commitment to rising in the corporate tower is definitely a life purpose they share. (Well, there’s also alcohol.)

Jack and Jillian, a substantive, two-scene comi-drama by Norfolk playwright Denise Dillard—the second production in the Generic’s New-Plays-for-Dog-Days summer season—pokes satirical fun at corporate existence, but it’s not all funny. A lot of it is pointed and poignant.

Jack, a successful executive in the corporate command structure, is surviving very well. But he’s not living. In fact, he’s miserable. He longs to escape. If only he could persuade Jillian to marry him and run away together. Barring that, he’ll fantasize riding his motorcycle into the sunset with Joy, a bohemian hitch-hiker of his imagination.

Jillian, for her part, thinks Jack has lost it. She has no intention of leaving her job. She’s committed to the corporation. She has responsibilities—and ambitions. She doesn’t even want to get married. It’s not necessary to their relationship, she says.

Complicating Jack’s relationship stresses is Barry, his buddy, a drunkard with little faith in Jack’s judgment. He wants Jack to go out with him for a few beers and forget his troubles. But Jack is past the point where that’s going to help. He’s stuck, fantasies and all—at the top.

That’s Scene One. Scene Two rises on Jillian in a state of disintegration because, we gradually learn, she’s been fired from the corporation where Jack is now stuck at the top. Supporting her through an abyss of insanity is Michelle, a big sister figure who’s been there, done that, including the twelve steps of AA.

When Jack arrives, as he must, to comfort Jillian, something of tenderness passes between them, though now it’s Jack who’d rather stay single. As the story ends, we have an eerie feeling similar to Sartre’s No Exit, though with velvet gloves.

The cast’s devotion to the material in this premiere production is much to be admired. It’s not an easy script, and there’s a volume of clever verbiage to string together with just the right subtlety to deliver the barb with the tickle of a feather rather than the jab of a needle. This cast has met that critical marker, a credit to them and to the author who created the rich text.

Nick Ventura as Jack, the successful alpha male, makes clear the mix of confusion and longing underlying his character’s bullying surface, as his unfulfilled fantasies drive him to the brink of a major freak-out.

Barry, his drinking buddy, played (with some understatement, I thought) by Brian Cebrian, is quite credible as Jack’s link to a fading adolescence but could have been given more from the script to justify his loyalty to Jack.

Jillian is the most interesting of all the characters, as played by a fiery Anna Sosa. Her ambitious self, on display in Scene One, is as haughty and school-principaled as any pure bitch can be.

But in Scene Two Sosa is let loose to chew up the set, reaching a crescendo when her girl friend Michelle, played by Melanie Hudnall with just the right touch of sympathetic irony, guides her on a nightmarish trip through her personal underworld.

Director Jason Martens deserves considerable credit for calling these performances out of the actors. What the play needs and deserves now is some time and space to grow in order to perfect the rhythms and the nuances the actors have discovered in the script and to investigate possible revisions. (Two weekends is hardly enough, but in our culture of the neglected arts it’s a generous token.)

Structurally, I found Scene One the least satisfying. I wanted more clarity in the relationship between Barry and Jack, and the heated back-and-forth between Jack and Jillian about practical reality vs. self-indulgent fantasy begins to echo itself in a repeating loop.

Scene Two, on the other hand, has more vitality. The relationship between Michelle and Jillian is clearer and deeper, the dilemma more keenly felt. Having lost a job myself as a paid reviewer now turned to a blogger writing reviews for free, I recognized the reality of Jillian’s position and the manic-depressive cycling through her dark night of the soul. This for me is the strongest part of the play, conveying significant dramatic truth within its absurdist framework.

So which is better—to succeed like Jack or fail like Jill in the bloodless corporate world?

In the end, playwright Dillard doesn’t answer that question. It’s probably best she didn’t try. In the hollow lives of Jack and Jillian there is no better or worse. It’s all insane.

That seems to be the final word in this romp through the corporate culture where the pain is real, even if all the rest is absurd and delusional.

Jack and Jillian continues at the Generic tonight, July 9, at 8; Sunday, July 10, at 2:30; and next weekend, Thursday-Saturday, July 14-16, at 8 and Sunday, July 17, at 2:30. Thursday tickets are $7, all other performances are $10. For reservations call 757-441-2160. The Generic Theater is located in the underground of Chrysler Hall at Brambleton Ave. and St. Paul’s Blvd.

Meanwhile, Norfolk’s Summer New Play Fest continues next weekend with two staged readings of new plays at Little Theater of Norfolk. Love Songs for the Road by P.A. Wray will be read July 15 and Refraction of Light by Jean Klein on July 16. Show times for both is 8 p.m. with audience talk-backs to follow.