Friday, August 9, 2019

"The Rainmaker" at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Now through August 18


Real honest-to-goodness thunder, lightning and rain created premature authenticity outside the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the evening I attended and where N. Richard Nash’s classic 1954 play “The Rainmaker” is having a terrific revival. Nature’s fateful, perhaps playful trick, may have actually been conjured up by the almost full week of performances given prior to my post opening visit.

It is more likely attributable, however, to the magnetic performance by Anthony Marble playing travelling con-man Bill Starbuck. You will as likely as any of the play’s characters fall for his story-telling as he brags how he can bring rain to the drought-beset western town. This by “pitching sodium chloride up to the clouds, electrifying the cold front, neutralizing the warm front, barometrizing the tropopause and magnetizing occlusions in the sky.” Our skeptical heroine Lizzie (Monette Magrath) says “bunk” to his grandiose claims -- at first.

Because this play deals in magic and believing in yourself, I would like to believe that it was Starbuck who produced the change in the weather and eventually the changes that occur in the down-to-earth people with whom he comes in contact. This touching and tender romance between a rather plain ranch-girl who is fast approaching spinsterhood and a glib dreamer who teaches her to create a new reality by dreaming out loud, is just as inspiring a thesis on inner transformation today as it was 65 years ago when it first opened on Broadway.

Bungling constantly in their attempts to get Lizzie a husband, her father and two brothers become temporary victims of an outrageous con-game which surprisingly turns out to be a blessing. Here then is a non-violent western about people who are tough, funny, and willing to try make it rain.

STNJ’s Artistic Director is holding the reins firmly on this production and keeps the action moving at a fast clip. All the performances are detailed and sensitive enough to fully realize the truths behind each of the character’s own and very specific reality. Starbuck tells her he intends to stay a while saying “You look up at the sky and you ask for a star. You know you’ll never get it and then one night you look down -- and there it is -- shining in your hand!” Now that’s romance.

Combining  virility and tenderness isn’t easy but this Starbuck did it. And just-plain Lizzie manages the feat of actually letting love make her beautiful before our eyes. Robustly winning are Mark Elliot Wilson as the father, Benjamin Eakely, and Isaac Hockox-Young as his two feisty sons. Nick Plakias as Sheriff Thomas and Corey Sorenson as deputy File are giving outstanding portrayals, the latter having a late-awakening hankering for Lizzie.

The unit setting as evocatively designed by Monte nicely accommodated the farmhouse living room, outside tack room as well as the sheriff’s office. Also in keeping with STNJ’s high standards is the expert lighting by Matthew J. Weisgable, the attire by designer Hugh Hanson and especially the sound design by Steven L. Beckel. Amidst its deluge of laughs and mist of tears, “The Rainmaker” delivers a full shower of entertainment - suitable for the entire family.


Friday, July 19, 2019

“The Wake” through July 28 at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center on the Kean University main campus in Union, N.J.

BWW Review: THE WAKE at Premiere Stages is an Outstanding Family Drama
L. to R. Kathy McCafferty, Kelley Rae O'Donnell, James Gushue, Wayne Maugans
Photo credit: Mike Peter

Once again blood proves to be thicker than water and certainly true in the wake of the hurricane that will batter the lives of the four harried characters in Tammy Ryan’s dramatic comedy, the winner among 659 submissions to the Premiere Play Festival, For all the wind that is whipped up on the stage from both humans and from nature, “The Wake” regrettably also puts into question the quality of the other 658 submissions. 

Despite drowning in more themes and dramatic genres that it can reasonably handle, it nevertheless holds a strange fascination for the observer. That Ryan’s play also exists uneasily in a space that exists somewhere between the eerily metaphysical and the plane of magical realism doesn’t help us connect to it. This does not to imply that the four actors thrown into the wake, under the direction of the theatre’s producing artistic director John, J. Wooten, have not faced their fate with gusto. 
As a fan of Ryan’s previous plays “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods,” and “Soldier’s Heart,” both of which were produced at Premiere Stages, my disappointment largely springs from anticipation. This play is set in a beach house rental in Florida, a short driving distance from Universal in Orlando. It is here is where two estranged sisters Maggie (Kelley Rae O’Donnell) and Rosemary (Kathy McCafferty) have decided to meet in a semblance of peace and forgiveness to scatter the ashes of their sister Coleen.

It becomes apparent quickly that Maggie and Rosemary are embracing a truce and have little in common with each other or for that matter with the men in their lives. They have arrived with plenty of emotional baggage and a minimum of hope and expectancy at the beach where they spent time as children. Maggie is particularly careful with the urn of ashes, the contents of which by consent are to be dispersed into the ocean. Maggie’s slovenly and blustery boy friend Doyle (James Gushue) and Rosemary’s openly condescending husband Ed (Wayne Margins) display just the kind of reticent commitment to the event we might expect.
For most of the play, Maggie and Rosemary are given to raising their shrill voices to renew the mainly strident bickering that has defined them as discontents over a lifetime. They only have in common what one did and one didn’t do for their foot-loose/alcoholic sister who died from cancer. Ed and Doyle are seen mostly at loggerheads baiting each other with their opposing ideologies. Ed is revealed as a corrupt accountant for a company that makes its money by fracking. He makes no bones about how he feels about nature-loving Doyle’s conservationist posturing.
Far from battening down the hatches until it is too late, there is virtually no serious consideration given to dealing with the impending hurricane-- except opening bottles of wine and ignoring the posted evacuation that has incredulously gone unnoticed on the front door.

Once these four finally pay heed to the alerts, they discover that the hurricane is named Colleen. ooooh. Of course, we are meant to surmise a mystical cause for this as it presumably serves to re-unite the sparring sisters. This becomes more apparent with a flurry of attacks on the house by a blue heron and the appearance of other sea creatures. More realistically, one might ponder upon the sheer reckless parenting of Rosemary and Ed who have no qualms about having left their two teenage children to fend for themselves without supervision or a day at Universal with a hurricane brewing. This, while they fulfill what they perceive as their obligation to Rosemary who has been Colleen’s care-giver in final last days. 

Maggie is fueled by a repressed guilt that is bound to surface before the play ends; Maggie is filled with a festering rage that is directed mostly at Ed and resigned to ignore his sexual philandering. Doyle, who, in his garb and tooth-challenged smile, could be mistaken for a shipwrecked pirate, seems perfectly at home preparing for the worst and explaining to all the unexplainable.

Although these characters are over-loaded with back-stories, neurotic personalities and socio-political agendas, they neither, through dialogue nor deeds, inspire our empathy. Neither do they conspire to create a credible dramatic conflict to warrant our concern. Despite the  very effective set designed by Bethanie Warnpol Watson, “The Wake” realistically only puts to rest a play about four hapless people of interest only to that one ill-fated blue heron. It is definitely worth experiencing by anyone interested in the development of dramatic literature. It could wash up again on regional stages but only after a lot more work by this definitely up and coming playwright and a tough dramaturg.

“The Wake” is For tickets and performance information call 908 - 737 - 7469 or

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

"The Bridges of Madison County"- Post closing review based on performance on 06/29/19 at SOPAC

Photo Flash: BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at SOPAC this Weekend

Jennifer Ellis and Bryant Martin

“The Bridges of Madison County” may be the most purely romantic musical of our times. As re-envisioned by book writer Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother”) with a score by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”) it is, like the novel upon which it is based by Robert James Waller, totally concentrated on a brief and passionate four-day love-affair. Nothing and no one of consequence interferes with its telling. Despite winning the Tony for Best Score in 2014, its run on Broadway was unfortunately brief for reasons not essential to this review. 

The recent production given by the American Theatre Group in residence at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) was also brief. . . so brief that my review is being posted after the final curtain.

So it is with regret that I cannot urge you to see it, as it was a glorious production (performed the last two weekends of June), beautifully acted, directed and presented with consummate skill and artistry on every level. Writing simply for the record, however, gives me the pleasure to continue thinking about how effectively  Brown and Norman embraced the story. Frankly, I wondered when I first heard that this vocally demanding musical was being presented locally if the powers that run the A.T.G and the director assigned to the production could deliver the essentials. They did and gloriously.

My only wish is that a return engagement might be in order as I suspect word-of-mouth would be positive even just based on the cheering and applause that greeted the cast at the curtain call of the Saturday evening performance I attended. Briefly, the setting is rural Iowa during the 1960s and on a farm where Italian war-bride Francesca Johnson (Jennifer Ellis) has tried to forget Naples if not her disarming accent. For the twenty years she has spent contentedly consigned to her marriage to Bud (Jared Bradshaw) and raising two perfectly normal if constantly testy children, excellently played by Alex Carr and Courtney Martin. 

But I am chiefly going to remember the suburb performances given Ellis and by Bryant Martin, who plays Robert Kinkaid. Kinkaid played the photographer who not only lands in Iowa on assignment to photograph the covered bridges in the county but also lands in Francesca’s bed. To explain...his arrival coincides with Bud and the children’s departure for a four-day county fair. 

In the event you don’t know more of the romance between Francesca and Robert, it is enough to say that an emotional connection arises between them which leads them irretrievably to an affair. The growing and lasting passion for each other that will inevitably withstand separation, the son’s diploma, the daughter’s marriage and the husband’s death  is the pulse that drives the musical. It is an understatement to say that the tall, affable, good-looking Robert finds Francesca’s charm and exuberance attractive. Just let Ellis shimmering soprano voice and Martin’s resonant baritone bring all of the dramatic richness out of their solos and duets and we are all goners. 

It is difficult to imagine any other performers who might surpass them in bringing this story to the fore. Under the fluid and exceptionally well-paced direction of Merete Muenter (also the choreographer), all the supporting characters are nicely enlivened and add more dimension to the action as do the dancers in some lovely shadowy integrated ballets.

Praise is due to the eight musicians who play the melodic and multi-textured score under Keith Levenson’s baton. Maybe it’s also the splendid acoustics of the hall, but the score sounded much more vibrant and pleasurable than I recall. Minimal but functional set decor by designer Bethanie Wampol was enhanced with some stunningly atmospheric projections and by Douglas Macur’s expert lighting. The American Theatre Group has a real task ahead of come up with a show as rewarding, memorable and expertly presented as is this one. Bravo.

Friday, May 24, 2019

"The Curse of the Starving Class" at the Signature Theatre Opened 05/13/19 Ends 05/26/19

Curse of the Starving Clas
(left to right) David Warshofsky and Gilles Geary
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

It is doubtful whether there will be a more spectacularly stunning opening minute for any play this season....and the new season has barely begun. Sam Shepard's “The Curse of the Starving Class” is gritty, grungy and metaphoric. It doesn’t take long to get into the playwright’s mindset the minute our eyes take in the setting: a primitive barely functional kitchen of a ramshackle home somewhere in the southeast. Even before a word is spoken, you can feel the dominating presence, the power of a playwright whose vision and perspective is a reality gone amuck.

Shepard is one of the celebrants in this Signature Theatre season. The ground-breaking “Curse...” is a trenchant mix of the darkly satirical and absurdly logical and shares a kinship with his other family-centered Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Buried Child” and also “True West.” Shepard’s economically as much as emotionally ravaged characters are if nothing else a sight to behold. In this intense production under the excellent direction of Terry Kinney, the company adheres to the play’s purpose to excite and shamelessly amuse us.  

First produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1978, “Curse...” has since made periodic visits. In “Curse...” we get to see a vision of American life both as a horrifying reality and as an illuminated allegory. There is still no contemporary playwright who can touch Shepard’s talent to inject unrelenting grimness with so much blistering humor.

Shoveling down the last rash of bacon, the mother pays scant attention to her daughter who is raving hysterically over the slaughter of her pet chicken. Even before the belligerent alcoholic father returns home, we are being prepared, through the means of soliloquy and riveting conversation for a play in which tension for better or worse is unrelenting.
Whether the symbolism or socio-political messages are totally clear is of less importance than the provocation. We watch a near poverty stricken family being swindled, cheated and abused first, by an unscrupulous real estate agent then a murderous pair of gangsters is presumably deemed to be like watching the disintegration of the working class and the rape of America. But the true blessing of  “Curse...” is Shepard’s  way of being exhilarating in the midst of all the pain and tragedy set before us.

Maggie Siff as the mother, Lizzy Declement, as the daughter, Gilles Geary as the son, David Warshofsky as the father and a terrific supporting cast including Flora Diaz, Esau Pritchett and Andrew Rothenberg contribute splendidly to the kind ensemble performing that Shepard’s plays demand. Julian Crouch’s awesome set design will be something to be remembered next award season as will the superb lighting designed by Natasha Katz.

Monday, May 6, 2019

"Too Heavy For Your Pocket" at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. through May 19, 2019

Donnell E. Smith as Bowzie.

Although I previously saw this award-winning (2017 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award) play a year ago in New York, it made a lasting impression on me, one that made me eager to see it again now that it is at the George Street Playhouse. Although the play is well acted and remains worthwhile, the current production left me less than enthused. But more about that later.

As a graduate from the Yale School of Drama, playwright Jireh Breon Holder was inspired by his family history. He has created four closely connected characters caught up in domestic quandaries that involve misplaced passion and misguided loyalties amidst the encroaching socio-political changes of the time. Each is integral and well-defined  within a compelling narrative that is mainly revealed through a young man with a mission.

The action takes place in Nashville, Tennessee during the summer of 1961. This is shortly after segregation was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The play focuses on the relationship of two couples. At its center is Bowzie Brandon (Donnell E. Smith), an intensely motivated young black man intent on leaving his home, his wife and friends and leap into the burgeoning activities of the Freedom Riders.

These are the men and women, both black and white, who braved the backlash of racism by riding on buses through cities that did not welcome integration. Standing up to this resistance, the Freedom Riders were denounced as trouble-makers. They were assaulted by masses of intolerant bigots and also brutalized by the local police. Many are arrested, taken to filthy jails, beaten and staying for months unable to post bail.

The extraordinarily bright Bowzie has barely begun his first semester at Fisk University to which he has won a full tuition scholarship when he is recruited into a group of peaceful activists. His change of plans is not received well by his wife Evelyn (Felicia Boswell) or by their best friends Sally-Mae (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) and her husband Tony (Landon G. Woodson) who has been Bowzie's best friend since childhood.

While the play circles around the domestic anxieties of the pregnant Sally Mae and her philandering husband Tony, it is Evelyn's fear that Bowzie's commitment to the movement has replaced his concerns and devotion to her. Director LA Williams has certainly filled that circle with fine actors who do everything they can to inhabit their complex, warmly conceived characters.

There is also no lack in the play itself of a good mix of the comedic and the explosive. What becomes troublesome is the similarity of dramatic tone and resonance in their collective characterizations...not easy to explain as is why the play’s staging lacks imagination while its pace appears more plodding than penetrating.

Although the action occurs primarily in and around the kitchen setting it allows for other locations. More of a distraction rather than creating a feeling of home and kinship, the set, that includes a strangely impressionistic evocation of a roof, looks more makeshift than we are accustomed to seeing at George Street. It has been a long time since I felt that a set actually worked against the efforts of actors to inhabit a place. 

One gets the impression that this is a much better play than we are seeing. At its core, however, we do see how the Civil Rights Movement directly and indirectly enables four people to see their own personal light through sacrifice or self-determination or both.