Tag Archives: Paul Gibson

Hatem’s “Confidence (and The Speech)” Loses Its Way but Delivers a Poignant Ending

Review:  Confidence (and The Speech)

Nathaniel Gillespie, Jonathan Hoskins and Greg Parroff in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

By Perry Tannenbaum

Say what you want about Jimmy Carter, he wasn’t about lining his pockets with money or telling other nations what to do, and he certainly wasn’t about cozying up to the Russians. Among his more controversial – and principled – actions, President Carter slapped a grain embargo on Russia in response to their invasion of Afghanistan and pulled us out of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In the midst of an energy crisis, Carter faced a TV camera inside the Oval Office and, wearing a drab cardigan sweater, urged a nationwide audience to turn down their thermostats to 68ºF. After the turmoil of Nixon, Cambodia, and Watergate, President Carter was barely in office two days when he granted blanket amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders. Probably his most egregious faux pas was reminding wasteful and self-indulgent Americans that we were wasteful and self-indulgent, that two-thirds of us were so apathetic that we didn’t bother to vote, that there was a growing distrust of government and the press, and that our nation’s self-confidence was slowly eroding. Free spending and trickle-down Reaganomics proved to be far more palatable to our shrewd electorate.

Actor Jo Hall plays President Jimmy Carter in CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

Using the pivotal “Crisis of Confidence speech of 1979 as her ground zero, with occasional traces of animus from the shocking 2016 election result, playwright Susan Lambert Hatem reappraises Carter’s leadership and courage in Confidence (and The Speech). Hatem’s sister, producer Anne Lambert, is directing a workshop production of the new play at Spirit Square with the company she founded, Charlotte’s Off Broadway. Taking us to Camp David, where Carter took an extra 10 days to refine his address – convening a domestic summit where he gathered ideas from “business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens” – Hatem also trains a critical eye on how much input and impact women had on the deliberations. Seven years after Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” it wasn’t exactly a roar.

To look at the Camp David process pointedly from this outsider’s angle, Hatem erects an unusual framework. For her eyes and ears, the playwright recruits a somewhat disillusioned history professor, Cynthia Cooper, who served as a White House intern when Carter’s national address was being crafted. We’re not exactly sure when young Jonathan Rollins approaches Cooper after one of her lectures (not until the end of the evening, anyway), asking her for her reminiscences on Carter, but his persistence is rewarded. There is one catch: Cooper will take us behind the scenes at Camp David only if she portrays President Carter in the retelling. Rollins will need to switch genders as well and portray the young Cynthia.

Josephine Hall takes on the challenge of rekindling our affection for Carter, and she captures 39’s dignity, determination, and quiet uprightness rather well, but the hours she presumably spent watching YouTube videos of Carter have been wasted. She hasn’t listened well enough to produce Jimmy’s distinct Georgia sound, producing a generic drawl that London and New York would deem adequate for their most pallid Tennessee Williams revivals. Nor does Hatem take the opportunity to shine a bright light on the difference a woman in a pantsuit and heels might have made if she had been standing in Carter’s shoes. Unexpectedly, Hall does her best work during her technically impossible private scenes with Rosalynn Carter and in the equally impossible town hall segment when Jimmy listens to the voice of the people and responds. These responses are improvised at every performance, for three audience members will be chosen to give input to the President on key questions facing the nation.

Berry Newkirk, Greg Paroff, Paul Gibson, Maxwell Greger and Josephine Hall in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018.JPG

Subjected to unwanted advances when he becomes Young Cynthia – and relegated to typing up notes and brewing coffee – Jonathan Hoskins drew a more revelatory role as Rollins. The harassment and abrasive sexism come from pollster Pat Caddell as Cynthia gathers information and works with speechwriter Hendrick Hertzberg. Hoskins gave us enough prissy drag comedy mincing around in heels to effectively contrast and underscore those serious moments when Young Cynthia was being ignored, patronized and disrespected. Another fine episode lies in wait for Hoskins at the end when Rollins sheds his importunate and demure pretenses to reveal his true identity. These are the moments when Hatem is most successful.

Focusing on the polls, the process, and the pragmatism of aligning the speech with Carter’s re-election prospects, Hatem neglects the content of the speech and how it responded to the crises it addressed. It all seemed so promising and convincing in the playwright’s rendering of the first staff meeting at Camp David. In addition to those already named, press secretary Jody Powell, chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, communications director Gerald Rafshoon, and Vice President Walter Mondale all seemed professional, intelligent, and capable. All were agreed that the speech originally for July 4 had been a disastrous snooze and that Carter had been wise to postpone it at the last minute and regroup. The thrust of the message, the stakes, and the pitfalls were briskly and excitingly laid out.

After we grasped Carter’s motivations, process and practicalities stifled the flow of ideas vying for inclusion in the final draft. Rafshoon and Jordan remained thinner than cardboard and as Mondale became little more than an ominous negative voice, Powell became a glib appeaser to a press corps hungry for substance. The play veered along a similar path for us with its gender-bending protagonists, sidestepping the meat of the speech. Deepening the portraits of Rafshoon, Jordan, and Mondale would be one way for Hatem to go – leaving Maxwell Greger to ably provide comic relief as the unctuous Powell. But I suspect the better path might be for her to parade more fleetingly developed characters into the mix – those teachers and preachers and businessmen and politicians that Carter talked about in his speech.

Actor Josephine Hall as President Jimmy Carter and Actor Lane Morris as First Lady Rosalynn Carter in COB's CONFIDENCE Sept 2018Yes, I’d advise doubling and tripling the roles of the staffers. Then Josh Logsdon would have more to do than Mondale’s brooding fatalism, the criminally underused Berry Newkirk could more fully display the full spectrum of his talents, and Paul Gibson as Jordan could flub a more interesting variety of lines. That tack would also present ways of sneaking in more background info about 1979 America and let us outside of the White House West Wing bubble that Hatem creates. With those enrichment opportunities missed, Greg Paroff as Hertzberg, both avuncular and ambivalent, emerged as the most compelling performer in a supporting role while Nathaniel Gillespie was convincingly cringeworthy as Caddell.

Technically, the Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production also disclosed its workshop status. The upstage screens weren’t utilized nearly enough for projections, furniture occasionally boomed or rattled backstage, and on one unfortunate occasion, a folding table failed to become Young Cynthia’s bed for a bedroom scene. But the Lambert sisters’ efforts eventually made a favorable impression on me with a new resolution that Hatem wrote in response to the catastrophe of Election Night 2016. I really shouldn’t reveal what happens, but I will say that it brought tears to my eyes – for a poignant reason I’ve never experienced before: knowing that what I was seeing and hearing onstage couldn’t possibly be true.

 

Advertisements

“On Golden Pond” Is Still Sugary at CP, but Never Cloying

Review:  On Golden Pond

By Perry Tannenbaum

Although I had not seen the original 1979 Broadway production – and had staunchly avoided playwright Ernest Thompson’s 1981 Hollywood adaptation – I thought I knew all I cared to know about On Golden Pond when it finally caught up with me at Theatre Charlotte in 2006. Through unsolicited excerpts flashed at me on TV, I had become all-too-familiar with Henry Fonda’s crustiness as Norman Thayer Jr., Katharine Hepburn’s gritty steadfastness as his wife Ethel, the whininess of Jane Fonda as their daughter Chelsea, and the gooey honey that bound them all together.

Were there other characters in the script? That was one of the unexpected delights I discovered as my first full encounter with On Golden Pond, like so many others with The Sound of Music, turned out to be better than I feared. Yet as I also find with that Rodgers and Hammerstein evergreen, there’s a recoil effect that comes with intervening years, and I was dreading On Golden Pond once again as it opened at Central Piedmont Community College.

Directed by Marilyn Carter, the stage version proved to be somewhat sweeter than the film; largely because Elyse Williams gives a sunnier, more domesticated rendering of Ethel; dispelling the hardy Yankee, outdoorsy Hepburn effect. Williams and Tom Scott are less iconic and godly as the elder Thayers than Hepburn and Henry, so Amy Pearre Dunn as Chelsea seemed far more sensible and far less petulant than Jane. Toss in the other people who enter the Thayers’ summer home in Maine, and the story seems less about age-old family animosities and far more mundane.

After many years of estrangement, Chelsea, with her dentist fiancé and his son, arrive to celebrate the dour Norman’s 80th birthday. The betrothed couple presumes to impose twice upon their hosts’ hospitality, sleeping together in the same bed and then – with Norman’s grumbling permission – dropping off Billy Jr. for a month while they fly off to Europe. The Billy invasion has unexpected results, shifting the story away from centering exclusively on the Thayers and their parenting. Ultimately, it also takes in the tribulations of Norman’s aging, his surprising capacity for growth, Ethel’s sweet forbearance, and the realities of a successful marriage.

This is the penultimate show at Pease Auditorium, which will be demolished after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap plays there this summer. It’s hard to think of any script that has ever fit Pease’s squat stage better than Thompson’s rustic yarn, for James Duke’s set design takes fine advantage of Pease’s panoramic width, and the dwarfish staircase up to the Thayers’ bedrooms hardly seems to matter. I can’t remember if there ever was a curtain drawn across this epic stage, but a curtain would have been largely redundant when the elderly couple arrived, for all the furnishings were covered in drop cloths until, one by one, the Thayers lifted and folded them. Thompson showed a fondness for such elaborate episodes of stage business to kick off his scenes, but it grew less effective in subsequent scenes, where the scurrying business veered toward farce.

The sweeter Ethel in the CPCC Theatre production allows Scott, as a retired Penn professor, to venture close to maximum orneriness – because he’s the one formidable figure onstage. His words stung when Norman and Chelsea had their long-delayed showdown, but part of their impact came from Dunn’s stunned reaction, so I could believe that Norman was being almost casually honest rather than intentionally hurtful. Spoken by Scott instead of a cinematic icon, Norman’s inbred racism also counted for more.

The big dramatic moments of On Golden Pond, as well as most of comedic moments, come because Norman is such a thorny force to be reckoned with – and so insistently morbid. In his confrontations with Chelsea, her fiancé, and Billy, Scott not only wore Norman’s armor well but also showed that it could be pierced. With Ethel, he could be more vulnerable and yielding, which made the climax of the final scene very moving.

Williams was more than sufficiently cheery as Ethel for Norman to spout all his morbid thoughts in self-defense. Sugary, yes, but never cloying. What surprised me most about Williams’ performance opposite Scott was her consistent strength paired with one of the most robust acting voices in town. She was not only as audible as Scott in combat with Pease’s wayward acoustics, she was more consistently intelligible, for Scott occasionally softened his projection or toyed with a regional accent. There was easily enough force from Williams for us to grasp that Ethel was the decider of where things belonged in the house, yet the nuances of her deference toward Norman and its impact upon her relationship with Chelsea were also preserved.

I didn’t get the impression that Dunn was in her early forties, so I missed the overlay Chelsea’s missing her child-bearing years in her bitterness. Unresolved issues with her parents seemed nettlesome rather than crippling, with Scott taking on more of the animosity between father and daughter. Chelsea’s grudges against Mom and Dad were more evenly split here. At her point of aging, Dunn didn’t seem as desperately in need of healing as Norman did, facing the deterioration of his memory. Paul Gibson as Bill really did seem to be the adult upgrade Chelsea needed for her second marriage, showing his mettle when Norman tested it, tellingly enriching our portrait of his perspective father-in-law.

We would hardly miss mailman Charley Martin if Thompson had surgically removed him from his scenario, but Todd Magnusson makes him winsome enough, a garrulous exemplar of local color and a longtime admirer of Chelsea, though he could have been a tad surer in picking up and remembering his lines. Stepp Nadelman has more onerous difficulties to overcome in his first big Charlotte outing as Billy, and the youngster made himself better heard than many older actors have at Pease Auditorium, especially when it counted. Nadelson is no longer at an age where merely standing there and smiling would make him appealing, yet Thompson lavishes a considerable amount of texture upon Billy, commensurate with his ultimate importance to Norman. Although there were occasional drop-offs in his projection, Nadelson’s acting never flagged.

Writing Tips and Serial Seductions

Theater Review: Seminar @ Spirit Square

20160809166652467

By Perry Tannenbaum

We all know that politics, connections, and strategic socializing often figure into securing Hollywood production budgets and achieving Hollywood stardom. We’re apt to think of the proverbial casting couch as Tinseltown’s exclusive domain. But can the same tools also work in the literary world, where writers aspire to lucrative publication and enduring prestige?

 

You better believe it, playwright Theresa Rebeck tells us in Seminar, a surprisingly steamy — and sometimes dark — comedy that brings Three Bone Theatre to Spirit Square for the first time. The veneers of artistry, aesthetics, and collegiality rapidly disintegrate in successive encounters with a famed writer and his very exclusive fiction-writing class. Izzy, Douglas, Martin, and Kate all scrape together $5,000 apiece for the privilege of being praised, critiqued, berated, and mentored by Leonard in weekly sessions at Kate’s posh Upper West Side apartment.

Kate has been honing her story about a narrator obsessed with Jane Austen for so long that cleverness and craft are all that remain. Izzy’s writing, on the other hand, is so laced with sensuousness and sexuality that it rouses mighty urges in every man in the room — and she knows exactly what she’s doing. Douglas arrives with a fine literary pedigree, key connections, and a manuscript that is already under consideration by The New Yorker.

Martin has had the toughest time scraping up the necessary cash for tuition, so tough that he has been evicted from his apartment. He wouldn’t need to pay any rent if he could crash in one of Kate’s many extra bedrooms, but he’s oblivious to the possibility that Good Samaritan impulses might not be the primary reason why Kate says yes. There are more than a couple of things that Martin is oblivious to, and he’s very guarded about showing his writing to anyone, so he’s a useful person for Rebeck to have around for expositional purposes. So much must be explained to him until he becomes central to the story.

Meanwhile, it’s Izzy and her serial seductions that stir the pot and drive the plot. There’s actually an admirable amount of balance in Rebeck’s script, but in the Broadway production directed by Sam Gold, the important character seemed to be movie star Alan Rickman as Leonard, while the students often seemed to be mundane minnows swimming in his orbit.

Leonard is a revered writer who is still globetrotting on reporting assignments despite his literary decline, so Rickman’s aging celebrity was not amiss. And Rebeck delves so deeply into the mysteries of teaching and mentoring writers that our fluctuating assessment of Leonard’s efficacy emerges as more important than any other subject Seminar tackles. But Rickman’s aura, for better or worse, made Leonard appear above the politics, the exploitation, and the literary logrolling.

With Michael Harris in the role (and probably in the best form of his life), the fault lines in Leonard’s character — and his redeeming humanity — are more readily evident. Three Bone director Steven Levine doesn’t have the luxury of imposing a huge gulf between Leonard and his students from a celebrity standpoint, so we also discover who Leonard’s costar is a bit earlier in the game. Rickman’s fame — and stage presence — really didn’t allow for an equal in the Broadway production.

A subtler aspect of Rickman’s magisterial stature on Broadway was the stylish domain where Leonard held court. Ryan Maloney’s set design for Kate’s living room, flowing silk sheets for walls and simple furnishings, has an unmistakable elegance, not a word I’d apply to any of Three Bone’s previous efforts in NoDa over the past four years. But it’s Maloney’s evocation of a ratty artist’s apartment later in the action, complete with its telltale writer’s clutter, that had me flashing back to the Broadway production.

Outside of ivied university walls and politically correct quads, taboos against student-teacher hookups obviously don’t apply, but with Three Bone’s comparatively leveled playing field, it’s easier to see that Izzy is playing the guys to her advantage — and actually less apparent that Leonard is playing her. Karina Caparino augments the difference by emphasizing Izzy’s wantonness and her frolicsome spirit. The Asian who played Izzy on Broadway was a little brainier, cosmopolitan. This Izzy is Bohemian with more raw and exposed emotions.

That chimes well with Harris’s more vulnerable approach to Leonard. I found myself paying far closer attention to Leonard’s big monologue, where he addresses his past disgrace. For me, it was less of a rueful confession and more of a bitter outcry of victimhood this time around, accentuated by some deft lighting cues by designer Carley Walker. Unexpectedly, it’s the previously meek Martin who pushes the esteemed writer to open up.

Michael Harris and Scott Miller in Seminar.

So yes, I can declare that Martin, in his painful — at times, infuriating — evolution demands a performance on a par with Leonard’s, and Scott A. Miller certainly delivers. I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence that Levine elicits an outing from Miller that’s as extraordinary as what we see from Harris, arguably eclipsing Miller’s stellar work earlier this year at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in the title role of Danny, King of the Basement.

I’m only wondering how Levine did it. It’s easy to suppose that Levine enabled Miller and Harris to look inside themselves and find things they had never discovered before. That’s a typical mythology applied to directors. But here I suspect that Levine opened up new depths in Rebeck’s text, for I must admit that I thought it was a far slicker piece when I left John Golden Theatre in 2012 than I did at last Thursday night’s opening.

Beth Killion’s costume designs for Douglas aren’t as loud as those I saw on Broadway, making the well-connected student less of an object of derision. I found that new twist as enjoyable as the others, but with three of Charlotte’s best actors bringing their A games to this local premiere, Paul Gibson’s shortcomings as Douglas were more glaring than they might be otherwise. To mesh better with this ace cast, Gibson’s cue pickup needs to be swifter and his delivery surer. When he settled down — conquered his opening night jitters? — Gibson offered us a nuanced rendering of Douglas’s sense of entitlement and his nonchalant insider’s knowledge, not cartoonish at all. But his difficulties had come when he needed to dominate.

Our hostess Kate has more complexities than Izzy, and she can be even more irritating than Martin with her stubbornness and preciousness. Becca Worthington is better at Kate’s priggishness than she is at projecting the embarrassment of her privileged wealth, but there are hidden dimensions to this Kerouac hater that go undetected by Martin until the scene changes — and Worthington is marvelously attuned to those devastating surprises.