Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Theater roundup: Romance and its aftermath, on three stages

J.‭ ‬Fred Shiffman and Kate Eastwood Norris in Ghost-Writer.

By Hap Erstein

A former musician turned playwright,‭ ‬Michael Hollinger is clearly fascinated with the music of words.

Such an interest was evident in his earlier play,‭ ‬Opus,‭ ‬about the search for harmony among the members of a string quartet.‭ ‬A similar verbal playfulness is present in his latest work,‭ ‬Ghost-Writer,‭ ‬a look at the creative process of a fastidious novelist,‭ ‬who dictates his prose to his loyal secretary,‭ ‬in this life and perhaps beyond.

Set in Manhattan in‭ ‬1919,‭ ‬this compact,‭ ‬85-minute play centers on the renowned,‭ ‬albeit fictional,‭ ‬man of letters Franklin Woolsey and his efficient new typist Myra Babbage.‭ ‬Together,‭ ‬they set down on paper his latest,‭ ‬and last,‭ ‬tome,‭ ‬he providing the words and she adding the punctuation.‭ ‬Over time,‭ ‬they work so closely that Myra begins to anticipate what Woolsey is about to say.‭ ‬And when he dies suddenly,‭ ‬she insists that she continues to receive his dictation and she completes his novel,‭ ‬much to the irritation and envy of his widow.‭

It is possible that Woolsey is communicating from beyond the grave,‭ ‬but we only have Myra’s word for that,‭ ‬as she tells her far-fetched tale to an unseen interrogator sent by Mrs.‭ ‬Woolsey to debunk the prim young woman’s account.‭ ‬But it seems more likely that Hollinger is intent on considering the nature of inspiration,‭ ‬as supernatural a phenomenon as any ghost.‭ ‬And if something romantic was blossoming between employer‭ ‬and employee,‭ ‬that too is an emotional state difficult to define.‭

Florida Stage has been producing plays by Hollinger for the past‭ ‬14‭ ‬years,‭ ‬including‭ ‬Opus‭ ‬--‭ ‬which went on to acclaim off-Broadway‭ ‬--‭ ‬and now‭ ‬Ghost-Writer.‭ ‬Director Louis Tyrrell draws us into the hermetically sealed world of Franklin and Myra,‭ ‬in a captivating production that makes astute use of the company’s new quarters at the Kravis Center.

Much of the play rests on the shoulders of Kate Eastwood Norris,‭ ‬who has the audience mesmerized from her carefully worded opening monologue.‭ ‬She knows her station,‭ ‬but let Woolsey suggest a semi-colon when a full-stop period is called for and she will speak up firmly.‭ ‬As Woolsey,‭ ‬J.‭ ‬Fred Shiffman is a worthy foil for her,‭ ‬taking great umbrage at each word choice challenge.‭ ‬And when,‭ ‬strictly for literary research,‭ ‬Woolsey asks Myra to teach him a ballroom dance,‭ ‬the ambient temperature in the Rinker Playhouse rises a few degrees.

Completing the play’s triangle is Lourelene Snedeker as imperious Vivian Woolsey,‭ ‬whose distain for Myra is both comic and touching.‭ ‬Ultimately,‭ ‬Ghost-Writer is a love story‭ ‬--‭ ‬romantic love and love of the power of words‭ ‬--‭ ‬and a play to admire.

GHOST-WRITER,‭ ‬Florida Stage at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬April‭ ‬3.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25-$50.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬585-3433‭ ‬or‭ ‬(800‭) ‬514-3837.

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Irene Adjan,‭ ‬Josh Canfield and Tom Wahl in Next Fall.

During his long tenure as founding artistic director of the Caldwell Theatre Company,‭ ‬Michael Hall was adept at scouting new plays from New York and bringing them to South Florida in well-acted,‭ ‬attractively appointed productions.

With Hall back temporarily from retirement to stage Geoffrey Nauffts‭’ ‬engrossing‭ ‬Next Fall,‭ ‬it feels like old times at the Caldwell.‭ ‬Not just because of the play’s gay theme,‭ ‬a subject Hall has pioneered in the area,‭ ‬from‭ ‬Bent‭ ‬to‭ ‬The Boys in the Band,‭ ‬to‭ ‬Gross Indecency:‭ ‬The Trials of Oscar Wilde,‭ ‬to‭ ‬Take Me Out.‭

Unlike those works,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬homosexuality is just one of the issues under consideration in this story of a mismatched couple,‭ ‬15‭ ‬years apart in age,‭ ‬one a devout fundamentalist Christian and the other a staunch atheist.‭ ‬As the play begins,‭ ‬believer Luke,‭ ‬a‭ ‬20-something actor wannabe,‭ ‬is hit by a taxi,‭ ‬landing him in a coma in the intensive care unit of Beth Israel Hospital.‭

There his partner Adam and a couple of Luke’s friends hold vigil in the waiting room,‭ ‬along with the collision victim’s North Florida parents,‭ ‬who are both ignorant of their son’s sexual orientation and that he has been living with Adam for the past four years.

Yes,‭ ‬it is a recipe for soap opera,‭ ‬but Nauffts,‭ ‬artistic director of New York’s Naked Angels theater company,‭ ‬is too smart to settle for easy answers or white hat-black hat heroes and villains.‭ ‬True,‭ ‬Luke’s father Butch is rather homophobic and racist,‭ ‬but particularly as played by Dennis Bateman,‭ ‬he comes across as a fully dimensional character rather than a stereotypical bigot.‭

Still,‭ ‬he is an embarrassment to his former wife,‭ ‬Arlene,‭ ‬a tough cookie played with wily smarts by Caldwell veteran Pat Nesbit.‭ ‬She injects humor into the dour situation,‭ ‬which would be leavening relief if all of the characters were not so quick with a quip.‭ ‬Fortunately,‭ ‬Hall encourages his cast to flesh out these characters beyond the schematic extremes on the page.

As Adam,‭ ‬Tom Wahl projects a likeability,‭ ‬despite his evident neuroses.‭ ‬He is not only uncomfortable with his partner Luke’s‭ (‬Josh Canfield‭) ‬spiritual beliefs,‭ ‬but annoyed by his habit of praying for forgiveness after sex.‭ ‬In his Caldwell debut,‭ ‬the extremely buff Canfield refuses to settle for a caricature of a religious zealot.‭ ‬While Nauffts never quite convinces us that these two very different men would live together for so long,‭ ‬the actors convey an unforced affection that fills that gap.

Scenic designer Tim Bennett allows the play to move briskly over time and space with an efficient,‭ ‬attractive earth-tone unit set that makes crafty use of slide-away panels.‭ ‬The result is a reminder of why the Caldwell has been such a theatrical mainstay in South Florida for four decades,‭ ‬bringing thought-provoking plays to the area and,‭ ‬when necessary,‭ ‬glossing over their weaknesses with first-rate productions.‭

NEXT FALL,‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Co.,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬March‭ ‬27.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$27-$75.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432‭ ‬0r‭ ‬(877‭) ‬245-7432.

‭ * * *

Erin Joy Schmidt,‭ ‬Jim Ballard,‭ ‬Sarah Grace Wilson
in Dinner with Friends.

In its pursuit of‭ “‬theater to think about,‭” ‬Palm Beach Dramaworks has been showcasing a Pulitzer Prize winner each season,‭ ‬as long as it has something to say to a contemporary audience and can fit on the company’s intimate‭ ‬--‭ ‬as in small‭ ‬--‭ ‬stage.

Filling that bill,‭ ‬thanks to some directorial ingenuity by J.‭ ‬Barry Lewis and a clever scenic design by Vince Mountain,‭ ‬is Donald Margulies‭’ ‬Dinner with Friends,‭ ‬a look at the emotional toll of a shattered marriage on not only the divorcing couple,‭ ‬but their closest friends as well.

After all,‭ ‬who does not know people who have trudged through the minefield of divorce,‭ ‬or experienced it themselves‭?

Loaded with insights,‭ ‬laced with pain and yet plenty of character-driven humor,‭ ‬chances are you will find yourself identifying with some of these four‭ ‬40-something folks and pondering their parallels to your own life.‭

Margulies is aided by Lewis’s cast,‭ ‬all new to the Dramaworks stage,‭ ‬although Erin Joy Schmidt and Jim Ballard,‭ ‬as freelance food writers Karen and Gabe,‭ ‬should be familiar to South Florida theatergoers from their work in the region.‭ ‬Playing their longtime friends,‭ ‬Tom and Beth‭ ‬--‭ ‬the splitting duo that Karen and Gabe introduced to each other a dozen years ago‭ ‬--‭ ‬are Eric Martin Brown and Sarah Grace Wilson,‭ ‬who are married in real life,‭ ‬which may explain the authenticity they bring to their first-act verbal battle.

The play begins on a light note,‭ ‬as Karen and Gabe babble on to Beth about their recent culinary tour of Italy,‭ ‬as they ply her with pumpkin risotto,‭ ‬grilled lamb and lemon-almond polenta cake.‭ ‬Eventually they pause long enough for Beth to blurt out between sobs that Tom has left her for another woman.‭ ‬A travel agent,‭ ‬no less.‭

That unexpected jolt triggers reflection on Gabe and Karen’s part,‭ ‬not only about the effect on their relationship with Beth and Tom,‭ ‬but ultimately about the nature and durability of their own marriage.‭ ‬Of course,‭ ‬the situation is not as simple as first presented,‭ ‬as Margulies then layers on additional information that has us changing our allegiances between the separating couple,‭ ‬as,‭ ‬for instance,‭ ‬when we learn of Beth’s own indiscretions soon after she married Tom.

As he has in such other plays as‭ ‬Sight Unseen,‭ ‬Collected Stories and‭ ‬Brooklyn Boy,‭ ‬Margulies manages to be profound without drifting into the philosophical.‭ ‬There have been plenty of plays and films about divorce,‭ ‬but few as accessible and thought-provoking.‭ ‬Margulies has a way of getting inside our heads and under our skin,‭ ‬and this Dramaworks production is a nourishing theatrical meal.

DINNER WITH FRIENDS,‭Palm Beach Dramaworks,‭ ‬322‭ ‬Banyan Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sun.,‭ ‬April‭ ‬17.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$47.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬514-4042.

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