Tag: Westport Country Playhouse

‘Sex with Strangers’ opens at Westport Playhouse

‘Sex with Strangers’ opens at Westport Playhouse

Laura Eason’s romantic drama “Sex with Strangers” opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse to a nearly full house. Eason, who was a writer/producer of Netflix House of Cards, has written a 2 character drama that at first appears to be a romantic sit-com, but turns into a more nuanced consideration of the craft of writing.

Directed by Katherine M Carter, the play opens in what the program calls a “bed and breakfast,” but which actually appears to be an elaborate two level ski chalet, designed by Edward T Morris. Olivia (Jessica Love), a 30-something writer and teacher has booked time there to work on her novel, and is surprised when Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) pounds on the door one snowy evening after the B&B proprietor has left. Ethan is a younger 20-something writer who is brash, over confident, and as it turns out a successful writer.

His improbable book, “Sex with Strangers” is a memoir of his having sex with a different woman each week for a year. While we eventually learn that Ethan is actually a skilled writer, this rather schlocky Hefner-esque book has unbelievably been on the NY Times paperback best-seller list for 5 years. Your life ruined by masturbation? Visit masturbationaddiction.com and get help regain your life.

Meanwhile, we learn that Olivia had published one book, to some good reviews but poor sales because of inept marketing of her novel as “chick-lit.” She is currently at work on another, but is quite sensitive about it. Ethan, however, had actually read her first novel, which was recommended to him by a writing teacher they both had worked with.

6_WCP_SexWithStrangers_JLove_CGhaffari_byPChenotWith this setup, you would think they would fall in love, go to bed and live happily ever after, but this is not quite what Eason has in mind. Since the wireless is down, they of course do go to bed at least 4 times during blackouts punctuating the two acts, but as Olivia gradually regains her confidence with Ethan’s help, they begin to drift apart.

In the second act in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, (another spectacular 2-story set) they spar about their writing and careers and the movie Hollywood is making of Ethan’s trashy book. The story ends as they move on to audience acclaim.

As Olivia, Jessica Love is brittle and protective at first but eventually connects with Ethan at least physically and she slowly grows with Ethan’s encouragement. Chris Ghaffari as Ethan is pretty aggressive and at first pretty obnoxious. However, after he struggles through the production of the movie version of his novel, becomes more thoughtful, but also more distant. Both do an excellent job with their characters and you easily can identify with both of them.

While the playwright, in interviews, has suggested that her play is about young people getting by in the digital internet world, I don’t see it that way. Rather, it seems to me to be about two writers trying to learn their craft and eventually succeeding in different ways. This would have been true even if the wireless connection at the B&B had stayed down for the whole show.

“Sex with Strangers” is a charming, funny play with some really challenging ideas buried in the couples and coupling, and was fun to watch. The show continues through October 14, with performances on Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8 pm, Thursdays and Fridays and 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are available at westportplayhouse.org.

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‘Appropriate’ opens at Westport Country Playhouse

‘Appropriate’ opens at Westport Country Playhouse

Imagine a house party or even a business meeting where the five participants shout at each other non-stop for an hour,. If you are like me, you’d just want to leave, and I nearly did, to be honest, if I ever need a house I’ll just contact Tiny house kits which seems to be easier.  And several people in the lobby I talked to agreed with me.

That is the first act of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Appropriate, that opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse, directed by Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy. In MacArthur award winning Jacobs-Jenkins play, three siblings, 2 of their spouses and  three children return to their late father’s home in rural Alabama, to clean out the house and arrange for an estate sale of the contents and the sale of the decaying house.

Betsy Aidem and David Aaron Bake
Toni (Betsy Aidem) and Bo (David Aaron Bake). Photo: Carole Rosegg

Toni (Betsy Aidem) is the eldest sibling, in her later 40s or early 50s and is consistently abrasive and angry to everyone: it is very difficult to identify with her. She is also the estate’s executor.  Bo, (Beauregard) the middle sibling (David Aaron Baker, above and left) is just slightly younger than Toni, and is arrogant, angry and hopeful that the sale of the estate will produce some income for him, as he has spent a lot on his father in recent years, and, we learn is likely to be losing his job. His wife, Rachael (Diane Davis, above) is only slightly more pleasant and quite sure her late father-in-law was anti-Semitic as he was overheard calling her Bo’s “Jew-wife.” It doesn’t take long before Toni and Rachael are at it hammer and tongs.

Franz (formerly named Frank) is the youngest sibling (Shawn Fagan) and the black sheep of the family, having struggled with drug and alcohol addiction as well as what we learn was probably pedophilia. Many people suffer from addiction. Click here to check your Beacon Health Strategies rehab insurance benefits covers rehab treatment.

Anna Crivelli and Shawn Fagan
River ( Anna Crivelli) and Franz (Shawn Fagan). Photo: Carole Rosegg

He seems more reasonable than his older siblings but is not easy to like. His girlfriend River (Anna Crivelli) is a clichéd young (about 23) Portland hippie who works as a vegan chef, and while she is considerably less visible, her calm, likeable hippie style is a marked contrast to the rest of the battling clan. Incidentally, she was also the fight director. And oh, yes, there is a fight.

We are told that this is a play about family secrets that gradually reveal themselves, and once you learn that the deceased father was once a powerful lawyer before he settled into rural Arkansas, the “surprise” about his racist past is quite predictable. His character is quite thinly drawn, we only learn a few dribbled out facts about him as the play proceeds, but we see where this is going. To a large degree, they are all present hoping to get some money out of the estate.

The fight
The fight. Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem, and David Aaron Baker. Photo: Carole Rosegg
River and Cassidy
River(Anna Crivelli) and Cassidy (Allison Winn). Photo: Carole Rosegg

Three young actors are utterly charming in their smaller roles: Rhys (Nick Selting) as an older teenager, and Cassidy (Allison Winn) as a younger teenager. Oddly, even though the script always refers to her as “Cassidy,” the program lists her as “Cassie.” Finally, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) zooms around as a hyper maybe 8-year old, in Act I and in Act III is part of the Big Reveal.

The set, by Andrew Boyce, has been lovingly executed by the skilled Westport Playhouse staff, led by David Dreyfoos, and represents the shabby living room, windows, semi-spiral stairs and parts of two other rooms in exceptional detail. One thing you can almost always count on is the fact that there will be some sort of inlaid flooring on the stage that is appropriate for the décor. The lighting by Matthew Richards is important, as there are night scenes without lights as well as lightning and outdoor glow coming through the windows. And the sound cues of cicadas chirping between scenes are excellent.

Playwright Jacobs-Jenkins has said that he wanted to create a southern family drama in the tradition of Streetcar Named Desire and August, Osage County, but while his characters are annoyingly well-drawn, the writing lacks the lyricism of Tennessee Williams or Tracy Letts. Jacobs-Jenkins, who is African American, noted that most of these great family dramas do not include any people of color, and that was a driving factor in his creating this play. However, the entire cast is white, although reference is made to the slave graveyard on the estate, and to past lynchings.

But having praised all these capable players, the result is 2 hours of people screaming at each other almost non-stop. This, we must assume, is the choice of director David Kennedy, and this makes for a really uncomfortable evening. While the publicity suggests that this is a comedy: it really is not. I counted just four laughs in the entire one hour first act, and only a few more in the other two.

The acts are pretentiously named “The Book of Revelations,” “Walpurgisnacht,” and “The Book of Genesis,” but the reasons for these names are not all that apparent. The first act runs about an hour, and after a 15-minute intermission, the second two acts are played without pause, ending about 10:40. The playwright suggests that the mysterious title might be read as the verb “appropriATE,” rather than the adjective “apPROpriate.”  I still don’t get it. The script lists 6 dictionary definitions of the word, and the playwright suggests that he has incorporated all of them.

“Appropriate” runs through September 2. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available at the theater’s website: westportplayhouse.org.

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‘Grounded’ opens at Westport Playhouse

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Elizabeth Stahlmann as The Pilot. Photo by Carole Rosegg

George Brant’s 2012 play Grounded opened last Saturday at the Westport Country Playhouse. This riveting one-woman monologue stars Elizabeth Stahlmann as The Pilot. Brant’s play premiered in Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, where it received the Smith Prize for Political Theater and was named a Top 10 London Play by both the Guardian and the London Evening Standard. While this is a strongly written play about a difficult subject, it does not really seem to have any political content that would really make it “political theater.”

It then had a rolling world premiere  by SF Playhouse (California), Borderlands Theatre (Arizona), and Unicorn Theatre (Missouri) as part of the National New Play Network’s Continued Life Program.

It has apparently had over 100 productions around the world since then, including a 3 week Off-Broadway run in 2014 with Hanna Cabell and a 6 week Off Broadway run in 2015 with Anne Hathaway. Hathaway claims to have plans to make a movie version eventually.

The play runs about 90 minutes in this version and is played without intermission or blackouts. Brant’s script has few stage directions (or punctuation) except for a few sound cues, leaving much to the imagination of the actress, the director and the set designer.

This Westport Playhouse production was directed by Liz Diamond, a Resident Director at Yale Rep and Chair of Directing at the Yale School of Drama, where Stahlmann also once studied. Perhaps not coincidentally, the complex projections were by Yana Birykova, who also has worked extensively with the Yale Rep.

The play is about a young hot-shot combat pilot (unnamed), arrogant and overconfident as pilots can be, who on leave meets a young man at a pilot’s bar who is not a pilot and is not put off by her job. She spends three days of her leave with him, and when back at her overseas military base suddenly discovers she is pregnant.  The Army does not permit pilots who are pregnant to fly fighter jets because the G-forces could be too much for the developing baby, and she is reassigned to a desk job. She has kept in contact with her boyfriend by Skype, and he is overjoyed at the news of her pregnancy, and apparently agrees to marry her. It is not clear why such a dedicated gung-ho pilot wouldn’t consider abortion in this situation, but this is never even mentioned.

We next hear that she is being transferred to Las Vegas to become a drone pilot, or as she contemptuously refers to it, the “chair corps.” She claims that no one ever comes back from the chair corps to piloting and wants to resist, but this is her assignment. So she and her (unnamed) husband and her new baby Samantha move to Las Vegas, where she begins training and soon becomes a drone pilot.

Drone piloting is a very stressful job, as reported in this Times article, and can lead to combat stress disorders, since you actually watch the carnage you create rather than quickly flying away as combat pilots can do. You also add to this the stress of switching gears to family life every night as well. To a large degree the rest of the play is about the effect of this assignment on The Pilot and her eventual Icarus-like ascent and descent.

The set, by Ricardo Hernandez, who also designed the Off-Broadway production, is stunningly ugly, made up of a single platform, barely bigger than a standard 4 x 8 platform, perhaps 5 x 10, covered with dappled aluminum, and containing a single chair which Stahlmann sits on, perches on and leans against. Behind her, ribbed aluminum strips rather like an aluminum awning cover the entire proscenium of the playhouse, perhaps 35 x 16. Eventually, colored lighting changes the mood and turns blue as she describes the joy of piloting her combat jet into the sky. But once she begins drone training, Birykova’s projections simulate the video screens she watches from her drone, with 18 identical rectangular images of several sizes covering the entire wall. Later, a single full screen image shows the target she is following.

3_WCP_Grounded_ElizabethStahlmann_byCRosegg_219Every actress will interpret Brant’s script differently, bringing her own take on who the overconfident young Pilot really is and how she feels, because Brant gives the actress so much leeway. Stahlmann’s interpretation is powerful, but not all that sympathetic, making it hard to connect with her experiences. However, one can still admire the enormous energy she gives in every performance.

Grounded continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 29, with performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available at the theater’s website or by calling 203-227-4177 or 888-927-7529.

‘Lettice and Lovage” opens at Westport Playhouse

‘Lettice and Lovage” opens at Westport Playhouse

Peter Schaffer’s 1987 comedy, “Lettice and Lovage” opened last Saturday at the Westport Country Playhouse to a rapturous audience reception.  Directed by Mark Lamos, the play is about Lettice (actually her name is Laetetia) played by Kandis Chappell, who makes up fascinating and hilarious, but outrageously fictional “facts” about the stately British home where she gives house tours. Eventually her supervisor Lotte Schoen (Mia Dillon) finds out and sacks her.

Feeling guilty about firing her, Lotte comes to see Lettice with a recommendation for a new job she might like narrating a tour boat. They share an aperitif Lettice has made of vodka, brandy and lovage, (an aromatic herb with seeds that are similar to fennel seeds) and begin a tipsy friendship despite the huge difference in their personalities.  Lotte is straight-laced and bureaucratic, while Lettice is flamboyant and theatrical.

The comic virtue of Shaffer’s work lies in Lettice’s bizarre historical reimaginings as well as his elegant and beautiful language.

5_WCP_Lettice&Lovage_PaxtonWhitehead_MiaDillon_KandisChappell_byCRosegg_334aFollowing the development of their friendship as well their cleverly barbed exchanges make up much of the fun of this piece, but following intermission we meet the lawyer Mr Bardolph, played by the redoubtable Paxton Whitehead, who tried to tell Lettice this she is in a great deal of trouble and could end up in prison if she doesn’t cooperate with him and preparing her defense.  How this turn of events came about and the hilarious way it is resolved make up the highly entertaining finale to this delightful evening.

In playing Lettice, Kandis Chappell is very funny, very theatrical and extremely entertaining, and dominates the stage throughout. The role, originally written for Maggie Smith, is a challenge to any actress, bringing out the characters over-the-top theatricality without herself going over the top. In this, Chappell succeeds admirably, and the audience more than demonstrated their affection for her performance.

Mia Dillon as Lotte, plays sensibility against Chappell’s theatricality and is quite affecting when she finally reveals her history and the reasons for her hatred of terrible architecture.

Sarah Manton plays Lotte’s secretary with great aplomb against the stormy forces of Lettice and Lotte’s first confrontation.

Sometimes, theater has its own internal theatricality and Patricia Connolly who was supposed to play Lettice was taken ill just a week before the show’s opening and Kandis Chappel flew in from San Diego to take over the role on very short notice, arriving Tuesday, when previews normally begin. The Tuesday and Wednesday previews were cancelled and the first preview was Thursday, and the official opening just last Saturday.

In the opening scene, we see Lettice giving several versions of her fantasy version of history to a group of tourists, portrayed by local actors  Kara Hankard of Glastonbury, Travis James of Weston, Richard Mancini of Stratford, Michele S. Mueller of Rocky Hill, Robert Peterpaul of Darien, Hermon Telyan of Wilton, and Danielle Anna White of Ridgefield.

Despite the simplicity of the story, the sets created by John Arnone are stunning. The first British house scene is a huge wall of portraits and heraldry, and Lotte’s office is a small unit set that rolls on as the wall is flown out. But the major piece of the set is Lettice’s basement flat, which is cluttered and elaborate, and is  enhance by an entire brick building flat behind it and a stairway down to her flat’s entrance level.

“Lettice and Lovage” runs through June 17, and you won’t find a more entertaining evening than this.

 

Camelot at Westport Playhouse: a chamber version

Lusty Month of May
“Lusty Month of May,” Guenevere and Knights. Patrick Andrews, Michael De Souza, Britney Coleman, Mike Evariste, and Jon-Michael Reese. Photo by Carole Rosegg

Camelot opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse, in a new pared-down “reimagined”version with a cast of only 8 (plus young Tom) and an orchestra of the same size. While Camelot has a reputation of being overly long and swampy, this “chamber” version runs a fairly brisk 2:15 with one intermission.

The newly adapted book by David Lee features the 4 main characters: Guenevere (Britney Coleman),  Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lucas)and Mordred (Patrick Andrews), and 4 men who are remarkable singers and dancers: Michael de Souza, Mike Evariste, Brian Owen, and Jon-Michael Reese. Young Tom of Warwick is played by Sana Sarr.

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Britney Coleman and Robert Sean Leonard

Britney Coleman as Guenevere is simply spectacular and steals every scene with her gorgeous bell-like voice and smoothly glamorous acting. She alone makes it worth your while to see this interesting adaptation.

As Arthur, Robert Sean Leonard, is an excellent actor who gives you Arthur’s early immaturity and his later commanding persona with great skill and magnetism. Unfortunately, he is not a singer and talks his way through most of the music, often coming in late, to its detriment. He does sing in ”What Do the Simple Folk Do?” showing that he can sing a little.

Patrick Andrews as Mordred is everything you want in an evil, snarky, oily villain who also happens to be Arthur’s illegitimate son. He sings, he dances, and his two numbers with the 4 men: “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie on Goodness” show off his excellent dancing and Connor Gallagher’s imaginative choreography.

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Britney Coleman and Stephen Mark Lukas

Stephen Mark Lukas is a dazzling Lancelot, tall, ridiculously handsome and suitably arrogant, with a lovely, rich baritone voice. His “If Ever I Would Leave You” is quite lovely and satisfying, although he was really working on those low notes.

This is really a chamber version of Camelot, cut down in size and length, and emphasizing the four main characters over any real ensemble work: there is no women’s chorus. The only female voice belongs to the fabulous Ms Coleman. The story is a little simplified, but almost all the great songs are there and Ms Coleman sings in eight of them.

What do we lose in this version? We lose Nimue and the lovely “Follow Me,” as well as Merlin, King Pellinore and Morgan Le Fay. And with the serviceable 8-player orchestra we miss Robert Russell Bennett’s and Phillip J Lang’s lush orchestrations. And of course, we miss the Overture and the opening Camelot March.

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The Revelers

 

While Camelot was always about spectacle, we don’t find that here. There is an opening dance, accompanied mostly by drumming that has the entire cast in colorful capes and grotesque masks that is quite stunning, but we have no idea what it was there for, except, perhaps to replace that opening march. The sets are fairly simple. Much of the action is played against floor to ceiling wooden panels, with a few pieces, like Arthur and Guenevere’s bed wheeled in. The wooden panels open to reveal a distant castle painted on a drop behind a scrim. From time to time banners are lowered and a huge circle, rather like a roulette wheel is lowered. I finally realized that this represented the Round Table.

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Robert Sean Leonard and Sana Sarr

The script called for Young Tom of Warwick to appear at the end of the show to tell Arthur he wants to become a Knight of the Round Table, after many of the original knights were defeated in the final battle. The director or adaptors have expanded that role. Tom appears in the opening number, barefoot and in pajamas playing with models of knights on horses. And he appears again during the jousting tournament, with his toys representing the actual jousting.

This adaptation does nothing to clarify the climactic, but baffling song “Guenevere,” where apparently an entire battle between Lancelot’s and Mordred’s forces seems to have taken place offstage. Arthur explains it afterwards. But the quiet ending with Arthur and Young Tom is as effective as ever.

If you go expecting to dread the original Camelot’s length and bloatedness, you will be pleasantly surprised at this compact version. If you are looking for spectacle, that is really only there by proxy. But the singing actors and orchestra put on a thoroughly professional and entertaining version of the story of Camelot.

The show runs through November 7, with performances on Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday ant 3 and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available on the theater’s website or by callng 203-227-4177.

 

‘The Invisible Hand” opens at Westport Country Playhouse

3_WCP_InvisibleHand_RajeshBose_FajerKaisi_EricBryant_JamealAli_byCRosegg314“The Invisible Hand,” by award-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar opened last night at the Westport Country Playhouse. The phrase “the invisible hand” refers to Adam Smith’s theory that the market adjusts itself automatically when irregularities occur because of the self-interest of all the other investors.

In this unusual thriller, financial trader Nick Bright (the excellent Eric Bryant) is kidnapped by a group of Pakistanis who mistook him for his boss, and wanted a $10 million ransom which they planned to use to help their people. Bryant carries off the role of a genial financial tutor and contrasts it with his growing terror and frustration that he’ll never see his family again.

At the outset the set (by Adam Rigg) seems to be the outer edges of a gray cube, but during the blackout that precedes each act, the featureless gray walls slide aside to reveal a dingy prison room where Bryant is being kept. The set is just two chairs, a table, a bed, a slop bucket and a steel cage that provides a secure exit from the room.

While Bright is nominally handcuffed, he has befriended the guard Dar (Jameal Ali) and persuaded him to remove the cuffs when the supervisors are absent. He also explains to Dar how to manipulate the market to do better selling potatoes than he had been doing. You get the idea, but the accent Dar uses makes this a little hard to follow.

We then meet Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), the real captor, and Dar’s boss who is the one demanding the $10 million ransom. Nick explains that he isn’t worth that much to his employers, but that he might be able to make a few million dollars through financial trading if they give him access to information such as Lexis/Nexis and the internet. Bashir is urbane and apparently Western educated and mentions that he had spent time in Trenton, near where Nick went to school (at Princeton). He even has downloaded Nick’s senior thesis on the Bretton Woods agreement. Kaisi as Bashir balances beautifully the hint of a growing friendship with Nick with his essentially terrorist objectives as a kidnapper.

Nick and Bashir work cooperatively to make money by explaining the best way to consolidate credit card debt, but Bashir’s supervisor, the Imam is skeptical and has a cruel and violent streak that keeps us on edge. Rajesh Bose as the Imam gives a powerful  and menacing performance that keeps you glued to him whenever he is on stage.

By now, you realize that Akhtar has actually written a suspense thriller, with both financial and violent aspects to keep us guessing. The play takes place in short scenes separated by blackouts with the four characters sparring and trying to gain the advantage.  By the end of the longish first act, Nick’s life has been threatened and he has attempted an escape.

The shorter second act moves like wildfire, with new complexities and problems in every scene. The question in our minds is whether Nick will survive and escape and whether they will raise the money they want for humanitarian purposes.  That, you will have to see the play to find out. The ending is quite surprising, but the playwright has subtly prepared us for it if you think back through the story.

“The Invisible Hand” had an Off Broadway run at the New York Theater Workshop, where Akhtar won and Obie and an Outer Critics Circle award as best playwright.  Jameal Ali is repeating his role as Dar from that production.

The audience was thoroughly engaged in the story, and gave the four excellent actors a standing ovation. “The Invisible Hand” continues through August 6 at the Westport Country Playhouse.

This review was written a week ago for Onstage Blog but somehow never appeared. Sorry. You still have a week to see the show.