Monday, June 16, 2008

Intermission Talk: June 11, 2008
by Tony Vellela

Photo: Joan Marcus

The Windy City continues to blow great talent eastward. Steppenwolf’s provocative “August: Osage County” will undergo a few cast changes, including Molly Regan, joining the ensemble in the role now being done by Rondi Reed. Regan, one of the acclaimed theatre company’s founding members, delivered a knockout performance a few seasons back as the desperate Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie.” Also coming aboard is Estelle Parsons as the family’s medicated matriarch. Parsons has great credentials as a substance-abusing grande dame, cutting her teeth for those cutting remarks at Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre in their 1961-1962 season as Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Another Steppenwolf founder, Joan Allen, returns to Broadway next season, after a two-decade absence, to co-star with Jeremy Irons in Michael Jacobs’ new play “Impressions,” with Jack O’Brien in the director’s chair.

Another successful return, the first full revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, pays attention to detail the way Lincoln Center productions usually do. Director Bartlett Sher’s complex staging, without making an obvious point of it, takes care to separate black and white Seabees most of the time, which was the prevailing practice during World War II, and remained so until Harry Truman ordered the Armed Services desegregated. [And does the magazine one of the nurses peruses while Nellie is washing that man out of her hair feature Ethel Merman on its cover, as Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun?”] Nellie fails to rinse and repeat, of course, becoming the surrogate mother of Emile’s children, a pattern that R & H repeated twice more, in “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music.”

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies" His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
Paper, $13.95
Order online, or call the Drama Book Shop at (800) 322-0595

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Play of the Week: June 2, 2008
Henry Flamethrowa

Yvonne Woods and Tim Daly in Henry Flamethrowa Photo: George McLaughlin

Henry Flamethrowa
by John Belluso

For nine years, after a mysterious poolside accident, a beautiful young girl named Lilja has lain in comatose, enshrined in her room. Her father, a deeply religious Catholic, believes that Lilja had been visited by the Blessed Mother because the crucifixes in her room “bleed” holy oil. Hundreds of the infirmed or dying visit Lilja and pray for miraculous healing; many claim to have been healed.

Beth, a journalist with her own agenda, arrives to do a “fair and unbiased profile” of Lilja. As she searches for the truth behind the miracles, she becomes romantically entangled with the father and entrapped by his 16-year-old son, Henry, a poet who finds guidance in Dante’s “Inferno”.

Beth must confront her own assumptions about faith and the intrinsic values of life and death when she uncovers Henry’s plan for Lilja’s demise -- something far darker and more terrible than a mere gentle pulling of the plug.

Henry tells her, “I want you to stop me. I want you to tell me a reason why I shouldn’t do this.” What will it take to stop him, and will she find out what really happened at the poolside, where Henry stood above his sister’s body for twenty minutes?

The play is suspenseful with superbly complicated characters. I found it to be a “can’t-put-it-down” mystery.

Oh! I didn’t mention … Henry writes e-mails to the Devil: “Signed with respect, your friend, Henry Flamethrowa.”

Cast: 2 males, 1 female.

Scenes/Monologues: Good two-character scenes and some downright scary monologues for Henry.

Recommended by: Bill

Henry Flamethrowa by John Belluso
Acting Edition, 2008. $7.50

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Thurgood Gets Bullied

Laurence Fishburne in "Thurgood". Photo: Carol Rosegg

Michael O. Smith in THE BULLY PULPIT. Photo Credit: Rick Teller

a review
by Tony Vellela

With apologies to Charles Dudley Warner,  "Politics makes stage bedfellows."  Two current offerings, both solo outings, bring us into the political and personal lives of giants in American history -- President Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  But the scales of justice have tipped the balance in favor of the executive branch.

"Thurgood," by George Stevens, Jr. stars Laurence Fishburne in the title role, at the Booth, on Broadway.  "Bully Pulpit : Quality Time with Teddy Roosevelt," written and performed by Michael O. Smith, is on view at the Beckett on Theater Row. At this moment [endless as it seems] in our country's examination of all things political, both these offerings use the biographical vehicle format to help us peek behind the great events of the eras their central figures' actions influenced so greatly, TR during the last century's first two decades, and the century's midpoint for the Justice.

The key word here is 'actions.'  Both men were giants, revolutionaries in their respective universes, but only 'Bully Pulpit' shows instead of tells how its hero accomplished so much.  The stage is not a classroom, and probably that central tenet is what dooms "Thurgood" to its thudding presentation.  Stevens sets us up as audience members as the revered Civil Rights champion delivers an address near the end of his life at his alma mater, Howard University.  So we HEAR about what this paragon has accomplished, with an occasional twinkle in his eye when a personal anecdote approaches risque territory.  But the only action, the  only movement that Fishburne's director Leonard Foglia coaxes out of him consists of taking off and putting on his suit jacket, and the extraction of a few papers from a handily-placed briefcase on the solid oak table.  This winds up playing like something close to an automatronic theme park dummy -- looks like Thurgood, sounds like Thurgood, guess it IS Thurgood.  Not even the rear projections take on any life until the final moments, when color is added to the images.  While his legacy is so central to the issues of black versus white, that is not enough of a reason to extend the abstraction to how the play is written and presented.

On the other hand, and it is a hand that is mostly in motion, Michael O. Smith delivers a performance so lively it often seems like a set-up for a musical number.  This was, of course, a man with an outsized, public persona, against which almost no one can stand being compared to.  Smith, under the fluid direction of Byam Stevens, also takes a retrospective approach, as the 26th president of the United States celebrates his 60th birthday at his Sagamore Hill home on Long Island.  It's 1918, Wilson is in the White House, and TR is not.  This script, too, enlightens us on the personal adventures and historical events that shaped the man and his era.  It engages us, provokes us, entertains us, and amuses us, and in the process, humanizes him.

Charles Corcoran's deftly-appointed living room set, which cleverly incorporates an elevated hallway at the rear that doubles as a pulpit when called for, provides the right, warm setting to tell tales, to spin yarns, and to contain (barely) the complex, gregarious Renaissance man that is still counted as one of our most visionary Presidents.  This piece shows us (rather than tells us) why that is.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies" His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by The Drama Book Shop.)