Thursday, February 10, 2011

Theater feature: As ever, Florida Stage fest finds plays with real promise

Actors Frances Sternhagen and Richard Henzel,‭ ‬ playwright Israel Horovitz and dramaturg Alison Maloof in a post-show discussion about‭ ‬Beverley.

By Hap Erstein

Now five years old,‭ ‬Florida Stage’s annual‭ ‬1st Stage New Works Festival got the most important thing right immediately.‭

Where too many reading series elsewhere are dead ends for the scripts being unveiled,‭ ‬the West Palm Beach company has been committed to graduating at least a couple of the festival entries to full production each year.

This season,‭ ‬for instance,‭ ‬Florida Stage subscription audiences have already seen or will see‭ ‬Cane,‬Goldie,‭ ‬Max‭ & ‬Milk and‭ ‬The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider,‭ ‬all three of which were first heard by the public at last year’s festival.‭ ‬And judging from the just-completed‭ ‬2011‭ ‬fest,‭ ‬there is every reason to think that commitment to selecting new work from‭ ‬1st Stage for subsequent seasons will continue.

Certainly there was quality writing on display at the Kravis Center’s Persson Hall,‭ ‬the black box space across the breezeway from Florida Stage’s new home at the‭ ‬Rinker Playhouse.‭ ‬There,‭ ‬at bare-bones readings‭ ‬--‭ ‬no sets,‭ ‬no costumes,‭ ‬no props,‭ ‬but three dozen of the region’s best actors‭ ‬--‭ ‬seven scripts inched closer towards becoming part of America’s stage literature.

‭ ‬True,‭ ‬producing director Louis Tyrrell hedged his bets a bit by relying on writers that he had produced previously‭ ‬--‭ ‬Lewis,‭ ‬Christopher Demos-Brown,‭ ‬Deborah Zoe Laufer,‭ ‬Andrew Rosendorf and Israel Horovitz‭ ‬--‭ ‬but he also gambled on two artists new to playwriting,‭ ‬actor John Herrera and visual artist Kew Henry.‭

A nice tweak to the program,‭ ‬probably born out of necessity,‭ ‬caused the readings to be compressed into‭ ‬51‭ ‬hours of a weekend,‭ ‬a total immersion that emphasized the festival atmosphere‭ ‬--‭ ‬and probably increased the alcohol intake on the breaks and at the receptions.‭

Lewis scored with his latest script,‭ ‬The Americans Across the Street,‭ ‬a dark comedy with a wonderful curmudgeon at its center,‭ ‬Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Derek Slaughterhouse,‭ ‬now late on his deadline to his publisher because he spends most of his time on his front porch,‭ ‬ranting against his neighbors and the world at large.

A plot of sorts kicks in when his estranged,‭ ‬widowed,‭ ‬now destitute sister arrives with her precocious teenage daughter,‭ ‬intending to stay.‭ ‬Among the good news is that they do not soften the old codger much and that acid-tongued Gordon McConnell has,‭ ‬and gives,‭ ‬great fun as‭ ‬Derek.‭ ‬If only Lewis would blue-pencil a lot of a wheezy comic sequence involving hallucinatory mushrooms,‭ ‬the script would be production-ready.

Also ready for prime time is Israel Horovitz’s‭ ‬Beverley,‭ ‬about two former World War II flyboys,‭ ‬one a Yank and the other a Brit,‭ ‬now in their‭ ‬70s,‭ ‬and the title character,‭ ‬the love of both their lives.‭ ‬After the war,‭ ‬Beverley married the American,‭ ‬and now,‭ ‬60-some years later,‭ ‬the Brit arrives on their Gloucester,‭ ‬Mass.‭ ‬--‭ ‬Horovitz’s favorite theatrical setting‭ ‬--‭ ‬doorstep to convince her to run,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬walk,‭ ‬off with him.‭ ‬The dramatic tension widens as Beverley‘s West Coast talent agent daughter returns home with all of her built-up resentments from her youth intact.‭

The results are thoughtful and entertaining,‭ ‬with an added layer of charm at the reading supplied by two-time Tony winner Frances Sternhagen as Beverley.‭ ‬Surely she is reason enough to produce the play whenever her schedule permits.

A Florida Stage discovery,‭ ‬Miami lawyer Christopher Demos-Brown‭ (‬When the Sun Shone Brighter‭) ‬brought to the festival a richly comic family reunion play,‭ ‬Captiva.‭ ‬At its center are three grown siblings,‭ ‬the youngest of whom has invited the family to their childhood vacation spot to meet her fiancé.‭ ‬But there is trouble brewing with her relationship,‭ ‬just as there is a hurricane barreling towards them.

The script could use some tightening‭ ‬--‭ ‬a frequent situation this weekend‭ ‬--‭ ‬but Demos-Brown again demonstrates what a smart writer he is and,‭ ‬this time,‭ ‬how funny he can be.‭ ‬If Tyrrell is looking for the next installment is his Florida Cycle,‭ ‬this could be it.‭ ‬It seems unlikely that Demos-Brown will find more spot-on casting than Todd Allen Durkin as the older brother,‭ ‬delivering deliciously snarky punch lines.‭

Another frequently produced Florida Stage playwright,‭ ‬Deborah Zoe Laufer‭ ‬(The Last Schwartz,‭ ‬End Days‭)‬,‭ ‬revealed a fascination with computer gamers,‭ ‬those obsessive young adults hooked on strategy-and-reflexes exercises.‭ ‬That has led to‭ ‬Leveling Up,‭ ‬about a quartet of aimless souls,‭ ‬one of whom is recruited by the National Security Agency to‭ “‬play‭” ‬their similar,‭ ‬but real,‭ ‬war games.‭ ‬The way it plays out in the script is a credibility-stretcher and the dull dialogue for these inarticulate characters does not help matters.

Henry may be new to playwriting,‭ ‬but she is from the Florida Stage family,‭ ‬since the name is an alias for visual artist Kathleen Holmes,‭ ‬who just happens to be married to producing director Lou Tyrrell.‭ ‬Her script,‭ ‬Poet,‭ ‬is a biography of Edgar Allan Poe,‭ ‬framed by competing muses of poetry and prose.‭ ‬Henry/Holmes has clearly done her homework,‭ ‬as the overlong script brimming with research factoids attests.‭ ‬Her best invention is those muses,‭ ‬but so far they only observe the action,‭ ‬instead of interacting with Poe.‭

Hardly new to the theater is Tony nominee John Herrera,‭ ‬whose first written script,‭ ‬the Hispanic family drama‭ ‬Tiempo de Amor,‭ ‬looks at two young Cuban lovers,‭ ‬who marry impetuously,‭ ‬despite her disapproving mother.‭ ‬Then,‭ ‬40-some years later,‭ ‬their relationship is strained by family responsibilities and financial pressures.‭ ‬Herrera has a lyrical way with dialogue,‭ ‬but also needs to edit his script down.‭ ‬And a plot thread involving revolutionary/poet Jose Marti feels like an uneasy tangent.

Yes,‭ ‬most of the plays heard at this year’s‭ ‬1st Stage need further work,‭ ‬but discovering that fact is exactly the point of the festival.‭ ‬And if the plays came out of the word processor with no need of revision,‭ ‬think how frustrating that would be for us critics.

Israel Horovitz and Frances Sternhagen
in rehearsal for Beverley.

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