Tag Archives: Ryan Maloney

Physical Comedy Reigns Supreme in “The Actress”

Review: The Actress

By Perry Tannenbaum

You can certainly find subtler, more poetic titles than The Actress, a bittersweet comedy by Peter Quilter – with judicious snatches of Chekhov – now at Spirit Square. We follow storied actress Lydia Martin into her dressing room as she gives her farewell performance in The Cherry Orchard, electing to retire from the stage while makeup can still mask her flaws and she can still remember her lines.

With two dips into Lydia’s onstage performance and an intermission sandwiched in between, all framed by her arrival at the theater and an impromptu post-performance celebration in her dressing room, we have a neatly symmetrical five-part structure. Quilter adds a nice little wrinkle at the end as Lydia and her ex-husband adjourn to the darkened stage for a final communion. In Ryan Maloney’s set design, about a third of the Duke Energy Theatre is set aside for the Chekhov action, but I could easily imagine how beautifully this last scene would flow on a revolving set. Maloney’s lighting design recovers some of that magic.

Until that point, I found a curious lack of theatre magic and specificity. Although the Three Bone Theatre playbill specifies 1933 as the time of the action, the script doesn’t seem to help director Charles LaBorde to establish a time or a place for Lydia’s farewell. Oddly, the backstage action isn’t theatrical enough to convince me that this is a particularly momentous show. There are no acting colleagues or mentors slipping in to send her off, no reporters or photographers, not even Cherry Orchard castmates before or after the performance.

The only other person involved in the production is the director’s sedulous emissary, Margaret, who relays the unseen director’s notes to Lydia – a patently needless exercise, since it’s doubly impossible that the star will ever make use of them. Yes, there are congratulatory flowers all over the place, some from colleagues and others from admirers, but her dresser, Katherine, still finds it necessary to mist the room with perfume before Lydia enters. Amy Wada digs into Katherine’s uncertainty about whether she means anything to Lydia after a long, long business relationship, but Corlis Hayes seems to accept Margaret as a royal waste of time, mostly motivated by the prospect of leaving with a collectible memento.

Everyone else is a visitor, except perhaps for Harriet, Lydia’s agent. With Lydia retiring, Harriet doesn’t have any business with her client but she does have something to say. When Harriet is persistently shushed and ignored at the little afterparty – while drinking more and more of Lydia’s best brandy, not the swill that she presented as a token gift – whatever she had intended to say is horribly twisted, one of the most dramatic spots in this production. Zendyn Duellman, consistently irritating with her high sycophantic energy as Harriet, becomes even more memorable here.

The rest of the backstage story is largely comedy. Lugging an industrial-strength decrepitude up the stairs to Lydia’s door, Hank West is able to unleash a mighty volley of coughs and wheezes when he gets there as Lydia’s rich fiancé, Charles. Whisking Lydia off to his native Switzerland seems laughably ambitious for someone so old and easily winded, but amid his bodacious wheezing, West endows Charles with a forbearance and determination that ultimately make him a bit endearing.

Ex-husband Paul has considerably more energy behind his persistence, and neither verbal rebuffs nor physical slaps from Lydia discourage his overtures. Bob Paolino definitely tunes into the love-hate relationship between these former intimates, and despite his conspicuous lack of appreciation for the theatre and Lydia’s artistry, brings us a redeeming softness and fatherliness when her career officially ends.

I wasn’t convinced that Paula Baldwin could wholeheartedly throw herself into Lydia’s ambivalent reaction to Paul’s forcible advances. When he called for a 1933 setting, LaBorde may have had those Hollywood films in mind where a leading man might respond, “you can hit harder than that,” to a slap in the face and manfully take it as a woman’s encouragement. That’s definitely the drift here as both Lydia and Paul get mussed up in a physical comedy interlude while the actress keeps her audience waiting.

Trouble is, when Lydia’s daughter Nicole walks through the door, Lydia has an aversion to her smoking – and a guilt about sneaking a cig for herself – that are 60 years ahead of their time. So the demands on Baldwin go beyond ambivalence. She’s actually best in Act 2, when her past faults as a wife, mother, and person come into clearer focus and a warmer, more down-to-earth side of her surfaces. She also manages to convince us that it’s not all about money with Charles.

Nicole isn’t severely messed up or resentful in Robin Tynes’ perky portrayal. We get the idea from Tynes that Nicole is a gentle reminder of Lydia’s past lapses as a wife and parent – also a counterweight against those plans to flit off to Switzerland. But once he puts her before us, Quilter doesn’t invest nearly enough into Nicole. I didn’t detect the English accent that might make her objections to Mom’s proposed move to Switzerland seem petulant and selfish. Sounding totally American, Tynes gave me the impression that Mom’s displacement would be transoceanic. Sure, she seems unsettled, but not enough to be profoundly unhappy.

More substance to Nicole would add more definition to her ambivalence – and Quilter’s serpentine script does wind up being very much about ambivalence. Ultimately, Lydia finds herself choosing between career and domestic comforts, between love and sex, and between familiar family and a new kind of life. So Quilter’s title is subtler than he probably intended. Notwithstanding its setting and the sterling Three Bone Theatre performances that make it come alive, The Actress is hardly about theatre at all.

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Stirring the Pot in a Bronx Soup Kitchen

Theater review: Three Bone Theatre’s Grand Concourse

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Most people, particularly the homeless and the poor, don’t need to be told that soup kitchens are all about feeding the hungry who are beaten down – temporarily or permanently – by the harsh realities of our teeming cities. But to an unexpected degree, Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse, set in one of these missions of mercy at a Bronx church, struck me as a play about soup.

Not to worry, the current Three Bone Theatre production, at Spirit Square through Saturday, occasionally delves into the question of how to best serve the poor. Yet we aren’t out there among the hungry who are gratefully lapping up their free lunches. Instead, we’re behind the scenes – in the actual kitchen of the soup kitchen – so we’re mostly involved with the providers of the meals, not the recipients.

Sister Shelley runs the kitchen, a nun who has chosen to discard the traditional costume and struggles to sustain another habit: prayer. Setting the kitchen timer on her microwave to one minute, she can’t nearly fill it with 60 seconds of earnest supplications. A new volunteer, Emma, enters in the next scene, and it’s really her time at the kitchen – first as a volunteer and then as a salaried worker – that shapes the arc of our story.

About two-thirds through the action, which clocks in at 95 minutes, I had the feeling – can I admit it was a worry? – that we were watching one of those incubator stories about a flawed, wounded, immature young person who experiences growth and healing via the subtle balms of acceptance and friendship. We’ve seen a few of these, haven’t we?

Lovely Emma turns out to be a different kind of apprentice, partly warm-hearted and enterprising but also partly toxic. The two men in this tragicomedy, Oscar and Frog, help in sharply defining the best and worst of Emma. Among her initiatives, the boldest is to expand the mission of the soup kitchen into helping the regulars get on their feet and find jobs. Appropriately, the first beneficiary of these attentions is Frog, who has long disregarded the taboos against camping out by the church and fraternizing with the kitchen folk.

Her effect isn’t so benign in her various interactions with Oscar, the maintenance/muscle guy who regularly drops by for sandwiches kept in the fridge, usually lingering to lend the women a helping hand. Emma works on Oscar’s eyes with her good looks, then on his sympathies with her big lies. Everyone around Emma is hoodwinked as she spins plausible yarns to her mother, about her mother, and about herself.

There is more complexity with Sister Shelley, who is dealing with her crisis in faith and the oncoming death of her dad. Unlike most volunteers, Emma returns for a second day, becoming a standout simply by persevering. Continuing to volunteer, Emma introduces new variations to the daily soup – a whole eggplant one day, maybe a few pinches of fennel the next. But she’s stirring the pot at a deeper level when she starts helping Frog to hop out of hopelessness. Why haven’t the sisters thought of doing that before? It starts Shelley to wondering.

It also starts to make it obvious that Schreck isn’t primarily concerned about Emma’s apprenticeship. This playwright’s eyes are trained most diligently on how all the characters are affecting one another. What’s simmering up in the Bronx, workday after workday, is a human soup of interaction and influence – and this humble little soup kitchen is a microcosm for the Grand Concourse that is humanity. It’s a volatile stew without any pat or easy endings. It keeps on boiling along.

There are plenty of energies distributed among this unpredictable foursome, and director Robin Tynes does a fine job in making sure we see how different – and how unevenly distributed – these energies are. Shawna Pledger hasn’t been this wired onstage since she made her first Charlotte splash in the title role of Sylvia four years ago at CP. Here she’s rechanneling that restless energy into Shelley, a neurotic and indecisive nun whose ultimate crucible will be forgiveness when young Emma pushes her to her limits. Pledger’s is an intense energy pent up in a pressure cooker of religious tolerance and discipline. Even when she stumbled on a line on opening night, it came out like part of Sister’s high-strung struggles.

Emma’s confusions are on a more elemental, hormonal level than Shelley’s, and Callie Richards gives her a variety of erratic, moody, and sensitive shadings. Nothing about Richards’ demeanor suggests that Emma is a temptress. Nor are Jason Estrada’s costume designs spurring her in that direction. She’s sneaky, deceptive, and her conquest of Oscar is like a raccoon invading your attic in the middle of the night. Suddenly, she’s just there.

Watching things unravel, we don’t know exactly how to analyze Emma’s ultimate violence. It’s passive-aggressive, to be sure, and its effect is irreversible, but Richards is careful not to give away how intentional it may have been. Life is often messy precisely because we encounter chaotic, messed-up people like Emma behaving irresponsibly.

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As portrayed by Nicholas Enrique Pardo, it’s easy to come away thinking of Oscar as a genial sacrificial lamb, pounced upon by both Emma and Frog. But his victimhood is more complex and unique than that, for he had trained to be a dentist in the Dominican Republic before the process of immigrating to the US effectively stripped him of his credentials. Now he holds down a day job to survive and attends a community college to improve his employment prospects. Pardo just struck me as too young to have all that mileage and dentistry in his rearview mirror – but I didn’t detect much in Schreck’s script that exposed this shortfall.

Likewise, Bill Reilly may be a wee bit young to comfortably fit the aging hippy profile sketched for Frog, but he turns in such a compelling performance as this eccentric loose cannon that all incongruities quickly cease to matter. Reilly’s entrance at the dawning of his reclamation is delightful, largely because he himself seems shocked and disoriented by his new attire. The whole outing would have been even more extraordinary if Steven Levine’s fight choreography had been more meticulous.

Notably more shabby – and less clinical – than the Playwrights Horizons’ off-Broadway production, Ryan Maloney’s set design jibes better with the way most out-of-towners think of the Bronx. This kitchen is more welcoming and, with Jackie and Peter Hohenstein’s prop designs, still richly detailed.

The carefully crafted clutter and slovenliness of the kitchen also accords with the episodic manner that Schreck relies on in telling her story. Watching the jagged sequence of scenes unfold, it seemed that the playwright may have pieced them together like journal entries, maybe shuffling the order, discarding numerous scenes, and cutting out minor characters – the mother, the head nun, and a pesky teen delinquent – along the way.

We sift through a cunningly calculated slovenliness to get at Schreck’s takeaway, with a few loose ends purposely left dangling. You won’t be as sure of what to make of Grand Concourse as the many tidier comedies and dramas you’ve seen before, but you’ll likely be more convinced of its authenticity.

Writing Tips and Serial Seductions

Theater Review: Seminar @ Spirit Square

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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.