Tag Archives: Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Simon Says, Be Shocked and Shaken

Review: Actor’s Gym presentation of Chapter Two

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As Neil Simon tells us in The Play Goes On, the second of his two memoirs, Chapter Two was inspired by a turning point in his life, moments after he had threatened to leave Marsha Mason, his second wife. She fought back. “Marsha came to me with a torrent of words that flowed out with such anger, but such truth, that she never missed a beat, never tripped over a single syllable or consonant,” Simon wrote. “I knew it was spontaneous, that it was coming from the bottom of her heart and soul, her one last chance to save something good.”

Chapter Two would be a turning point in his career, the first time that he really poured his own painful experiences into one of his comedies. Simon paraphrased Mason’s speech and inserted it deep in Act 2, where Mason eventually paraphrased herself co-starring in the film of the 1977 Broadway hit with James Caan. It’s one of two singularly heavy moments for Simon, who is so often celebrated for his one-liners, his strung-together skits, and his extended sitcoms.

George Schneider and Jennie Malone are the onstage counterparts for Simon and Mason. In his current Actor’s Gym presentation at Duke Energy Theater, director Tony Wright wisely resisted the temptation to look for co-stars who would bring the most sparkle to the snappy banter that marks the whirlwind romance of his protagonists. Wright prioritizes chemistry, casting Bill Reilly as George and Jennifer Barnette as Jennie, two performers mostly noted for drama until Wright cast Barnette in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels last fall.Chapter Two 4

George, a writer, is trying to get back into circulation after the sudden death of his first wife, but finds it difficult to put an end to his grieving. A soap opera actress, Jennie is still shell-shocked by the end of her six-year marriage to a football player.

She’s definitely wary of repeating past mistakes, quietly on the lookout for something different. When she finds him, she will know.

Getting them together is where Simon can infuse some broader comedy into his script, for it’s George’s big brother Leo, a Broadway press agent, who keeps trying to set our lovelorn hero up with female prospects until he strikes Jennie gold. Pushing from the other end is Jennie’s bestie, soap opera queen Faye Medwick.

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A couple of sitcom ironies give the story extra spark. While pushing George and Jennie together, both Leo and Faye are unhappy in their own marriages – leading to a side order of illicit romance between them. Meanwhile, when romance sparks between George and Jennie, both Leo and Faye are alarmed that the spark has become a bonfire, that their matchmaking has succeeded beyond expectations, with the lovebirds rushing towards matrimony.

Plenty of latitude here for two immense screwball performances, and Wright is just as unerring here. Fresh off her outré performance opposite Barnette in Fallen Angels, Karina Caparino plumbs deeper depths of daffiness as Faye, nailing a New York accent and making a meal out of the soap diva’s paranoid fear of discovery. Wright gives Trent Merchant even wider latitude in his local debut as Leo. Whether coaxing George out of his funk or wooing the skittish Faye, Merchant goes big, brash, and boorish, Davita Galloway’s costumes helping us to distinguish Leo as the most crass and déclassé of these New Yorkers.

So when Merchant draws Simon’s other dramatic monologue, detailing George’s despondency after the death of his first wife, it’s no less surprising than Jennie’s big outburst will be. Desperately urging Jennie to slow it down on the eve of her hasty wedding, Leo shows us how much he cares for his brother even as he goes about it in such a gauche way.

While not exactly swank, Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design splits the stage convincingly into two apartments, so that when George speaks to Jennie on the phone, there is credible separation even when they’re virtually back-to-back. Reilly turns out to be very good at rendering George’s lingering grief and his romantic awkwardness. Getting on the phone for the first time with Jennie – unintentionally – George turns this first telephone encounter into a typical Simon shtick.

But Wright and Reilly are keenly attuned to the difference. So many of the moments here are about “one last chance to save something good.” In George’s case, they are mixed with moments when he’s an endearing wit or a mopey jerk.

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Barnette firmly establishes Jennie’s forbearance in the first barrage of phone calls from George with just a twinkle of archness. There is so much that Jennie must indulge from George, from Faye, and from Leo – her sponsor! – that you wonder where and if Barnette’s saintly serenity will end. The explosion shouldn’t seem inevitable, but when it comes, it should seem in character.

Most of all, Barnette must nail it, and she does. Part of the essence of Jennie’s spontaneity is that she will be a little shocked and shaken herself by what has just flowed out of her. On opening night, Barnette was. So was I.

Actor’s Gym Unearths a Gem in “Fallen Angels”

Review: Fallen Angels

By Perry Tannenbaum

When a playwright puts the finishing touches on his or her latest comedy, it’s without any knowledge about how prevailing attitudes and expectations might change out in the audience over the next 93 years. No playwright has ever had the chance to look back that far, and that includes Noël Coward, whose Fallen Angels is playing at Duke Energy Theater in an Actor’s Gym production directed by Tony Wright.

Knowing Noël, I’d say he’d either gasp or laugh out loud. Opportunity knocks for Coward’s protagonists, Julia Sterroll and Jane Banbury, when their husbands head off on a golfing weekend just when an old flame of both ladies, Maurice Duclos, sends them billet-doux saying that he’ll be arriving back in London after an absence of many years –so many years that the husbands, Fred and Willy, have no idea of who Maurice is nor any knowledge of his torrid affairs with their wives.

After Fred’s departure, Julia is momentarily left alone with her new smarty-pants maid, Saunders. That’s when Jane arrives at the Sterrolls’, all aflutter with the news. Julia, who was just a few minutes earlier discussing with Fred exactly how much fire was left in their mellowing marriage, hadn’t yet read her note from Maurice. It quickly becomes evident, as the women discuss Maurice, that those flames still burn brightly, perhaps more brightly than ever. They’re a little scared.What will they do when he arrives?

Their first impulse is exactly what an audience would expect – in 1925: to flee as quickly as they can to protect their honor, which presumably cannot withstand Maurice’s irresistible charms. A mere 35 years after Oscar Wilde had declared, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” such an outlook was still wicked, irresponsible, and risqué.

Nowadays, coaxed by Madison Avenue, amoral leaders, social media, and longstanding American traditions of fierce individuality, we find ourselves – regardless of gender – inwardly urging Julia and Jane, Go for it! Whereas we’re taken aback in 2018 by the ladies’ knee-jerk-prissiness, their eventual decision to stay and face Maurice was immoral enough to give London’s censors pause before allowing Fallen Angels to be performed.

Once Julia and Jane have opted for what we perceive as the road-more-taken, you might expect that attitude adjustment becomes far less necessary. Yet in more subtle ways, the presumption of wickedness works its way deeply to the bones of Coward’s comedy. Instead of building his comedy upon Julia and Jane’s rekindled romances – and their wacky or delicious maneuverings to keep their husbands in the dark – we find an unexpected amount of time devoted to maintaining their wicked resolve. Here our complications arise from the women’s resorting to martinis and champagne to sustain their courage during their excited vigil.

So it’s helpful that Tony Wright and his design team keep reminding us that the people onstage are living indifferent times. While Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design isn’t the ultimate in elegance, the requirements of a British drawing room are met, including a baby grand where Saunders will upstage Julia. Davita Galloway’s costumes, particularly the flapper-flavored outfits for the partying ladies as they sip their martinis, stamp the era most decisively.

The women must dominate this comedy,and Wright has found a marvelously varied trio. Originally played by Tallulah Bankhead, Julia is the formidable serenity that is serially agitated by Saunders, Jane, and Maurice to comical effect. Jennifer Barnette takes that serenity to a loftier, more angelic plane, slightly muting her discomfiture and giving more space for the eccentricities of Saunders and Jane to shine. Karina Caporino pounces on her opportunity as Jane with frenetic energy, more brittle and midlife than we’ve ever seen her, which easily makes Jane the most screwball of her trademark neurotics.

Erin Darcy as Saunders is possibly the most vivid period trimming in this whole confection, a servant who is more knowledgeable, widely traveled, and skilled than the mistress she serves, aware of her superiority and maybe a little bit haughty about it. Saunders’ sophistication lays bare the delusion that the Sterrolls or the Banburys are living lives of consequence. Perhaps it’s Darcy’s aplomb at the piano that gives Barnette her best episode of humiliation.

In this context, Emmanuel Barbe is a perfect choice as Maurice. He is suave and self-assured, with a savoir-fair that is unmistakably French, yet he doesn’t quite have the polish and youth that would make knees buckle in high society. Barbe’s down-market elegance is still more than enough to make David Hensley as Fred and Michael Anderson as Willy seem gullible, dimwitted, and humdrum. Hensley as Fred seems to be the sort who feels like he’s fulfilling his destiny by opening a newspaper at the breakfast table, while Anderson, once he reconciles with Fred and Jane, gives Willy exactly the smiling insouciance that Wright wants for his ending.

I have to go back to 2005 and The Tempest to find the last Actor’s Gym production I reviewed. It’s great to have Wright and his Gym back on the scene, especially when the Gym unearths a gem like this.