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A Strong Opening Line

A survey of some of the theater offerings revealed at Curtain Up!

The 2010 theater season is off to a smashing start. Curtain Up! night offered beautiful weather and one fabulous street party with plenty of entertainment and lots of vendors. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the show folk at this event, but this year, the after-party was populated with actors, directors, musicians, and designers who stayed out well past one in the morning. The Chris O’Neill bar at the Andrews Theatre was brimming with faces familiar from the stages of Western New York until they had to throw people out—nicely.

I attended seven shows this week, and I must say, the quality right out of the starting gate is better than it has been for years. I was never entirely disappointed and in most instances was impressed with the excellence of work happening in our community.

While I have come to question the value of published critical assessments in the digital age, I feel that it might be useful for readers to get an overview of some of the shows up to now. In my experience, too many people use reviews as a substitute for seeing plays. It is also true, in a market like Buffalo, where there are dozens of choices, rather than the hundreds of choices in New York City, people make up their own minds or listen to friends when making entertainment decisions. A good review seldom convinces audience members, while a bad one can certainly sour the box office. Frankly, beyond their capacity to do damage, reviews generally just reinforce audience opinions of what they have seen, or aggravate audiences by contradicting those assessments. In the final analysis, why should any theater patron care about another person’s taste?

Ideally, of course, a critical assessment can enrich understanding with an informed viewpoint. And so, for better or worse, I’ll give it a go with a few of the current shows.

Jump to:  The Cant  •  Shout!  •  The Couple Next Door  •  Working: The Musical  •  In A Dark House

Shay Linehan's "The Cant" plays at the Irish Classical through Oct. 3.

The Cant

Shay Linehan’s highly anticipated play, The Cant, is now having its world premiere on the stage and in the seats of the Irish Classical Theatre Company at the Andrews Theatre. This show offers enough plot for three Mexican soap operas. It also has enough set for two French farces, and enough video for a National Geographic boxed set!

The story follows members of a family of Irish “Travelers,” a wandering people of mysterious origin who have their own language, called “the Cant.” They make their living in such professions as recycling scrap metal and trading horses, and are notorious for running scams. Generally unwelcome in the communities through which they pass, they are, reportedly, discriminated against more than any other people in Europe.

The play follows a pair of twin brothers, Crom and MikeyBoy, Irish Travelers who are startled to learn that they have inherited a pub. This unlikely opportunity to join the land of the landed inspires fantasies of stability, stasis, and respectability for the young men.

That’s the setup. But there are complications aplenty on the next page, and on the next, and on the next, and on the next in this sprawling yet endearing script.

The previous owner of the pub has left unsettled business with some unsavory characters. The local keeper of the law doesn’t want any Travelers moving into town. Add to this a parallel plot in which the boys’ mother, in flashback, tells her life story to a sadistic nurse. And there is yet another narrative, in the more remote past, in which the mother’s missing husband writes to tell her tales of life among the Travelers of Murphy Village, South Carolina.

These stories will link together by the time we reach the thrilling melodramatic conclusion. But there are miles to go before we get there.

Most new plays are overwritten on their first outings. Since this play is the first winner of the new McGuire International Playwriting Competition, a lucrative prize that the ICTC hopes will be prestigious some day, it is important to establish its virtues.

The narrative threads of The Cant, while tangled and occasionally inconsistent, are intriguing and enjoyable. The characters are vivid and engaging. The use of humor is deliciously appealing. There are flashes of moving theatrical brilliance, as with the magical reciting of the Lord’s Prayer in English and in the Cant; the mystical evocation of “Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch,/We turry kerrath about your moniker” is stirring. And the acting, under the direction of Fortunato Pezzimenti, is uniformly excellent.

Patrick Moltane and Brian Mysliwy play Crom and MikeyBoy, the “lucky” and witless twins, with winning energy.

Tom Zindle deftly plays nasty and reckless Dan McGroary, a man with more guile than…a Traveler. His mercurial nature, nimbly articulated by Zindle, provides the emotional temperature for this pitch black comedy. In a similar vein, Vincent O’Neill is alternately hilarious and terrifying as a corrupt and unscrupulous police officer.

In the narratives from the other time frames, Josephine Hogan is both dear and terrifying as Birdy Dooley, the boys’ aged mother whose sentimental renderings of life as a Traveler belie a manipulative nature and a heart as cold as steel. Katie White becomes a horror icon as her abusive nurse.

Mark Donahue gives two distinct and equally able performances as the same character in two time frames, Paddy Dooley, Birdy’s wandering husband.

Brian Milbrand’s video, practically a character in its own right, is impressively polished, and deserves an airing of its own.

A climactically structured melodrama at its core, The Cant is framed with multiple subplots and parallel narratives, which invite either minimal staging or a film. The ICTC production seems to favor the latter, and the results bog the production down and emphasize the script’s overgrown and over-plotted elements.

The ICTC has seldom seemed quite comfortable on the circular Andrews stage. There is not a moment of The Cant that could not have been handled minimally, using nothing more than imagination, and making better use of the space to achieve cinematic fluidity. This includes the scenes with the trap doors, the scenes in the van, the trips down to the cellar, the explosions, the scene on the bridge, and the narrative of the camping traveler—not to mention the subplots that also command their own swath of stage space.

I think of the musical Les Miserables, famed for its enormous production qualities. Nonetheless, at the climactic moment when Javert throws himself from a bridge to his death in the River Seine, there is no scenery, just an actor and a light and swelling musical score. Sometimes less truly is more.

I think of Howard Korder’s Search and Destroy with its echoes of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, about a man on the run from the law—performed on the empty Circle in the Square stage with nothing but a few chairs and the double yellow line of a highway down the center. Such staging gave that script a grace and swiftness that The Cant also needs, without sacrificing the vividness that the mind’s eye provides.

Of course, without having attended rehearsals it is impossible to know how much trimming has occurred already. Still, The Cant is a thrillingly ambitious play by a marvelously talented playwright. Its more original gestures fire the imagination with what might become of the script after further development.

Jump to:  The Cant  •  Shout!  •  The Couple Next Door  •  Working: The Musical  •  In A Dark House


Musical theater is a vast and diverse field. While the well constructed book musical is king, a well executed revue can also be a joyful thing. Shout!, currently on stage at MusicalFare, is a revue with a vengeance.

A jukebox musical takes a collection of songs and fits them into a plot. A revue makes no such effort. A much older form, a revue is typically not intended to enlighten but to delight. Don’t think Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia. Think Ain’t Misbehavin’. Think Garrick Gaieties. Think George White Scandals. Think Music Box Revues.

The point of such shows, as much as there is one, is to showcase the talent available, to enjoy the selected songbook, and to have a roaring good time. Judged on those criteria, Shout! excels in every regard.

Here we are treated to a playful musical journey down memory lane, and along the way we poke gentle fun at the way we were. It’s the 1960s, and the world is psychedelic and schizophrenic. Recall that George M (representing yet another genre, the musical biography) and Hair were Broadway hits in the same year. While the six o’clock news brought the Vietnam War into American living rooms, Gomer Pyle represented the military as a top 10 show.

Meanwhile, with the women’s movement about to explode, the lives of women were reflected in such shows as Dean Martin Presents the Golddiggers, and in a maternal range that ran from Leave it to Beaver to The Brady Bunch. In such a context, characters like Morticia Addams and Samantha Stevens were positively subversive.

The conceit of the show is that the five young women of the cast are surviving the decade by reading a women’s magazine called Shout! This publication has all the requisite elements of the 1960s gal mag, from the absurdly outdated advice column (courtesy of the hilarious vocal talents of Anne Gayley) to the inevitable quizzes about your man, to make-up and fashion commentary. This inane commentary is juxtaposed with a decade of the most startlingly good female-driven pop music the world had ever seen, much of it from England.

The ensemble, capably directed by Lisa Ludwig, is adorable and astonishingly talented: Amy Jakiel, Michele Marie Roberts, Nancy Sam, Hannah L. Sharp, and Lyndey Leigh Thuerck. Each has a memorable turn. Roberts’ vocals are especially strong and she uses full power on numbers like “To Sir With Love.” Amy Jakiel holds her own on tunes like “Son of a Preacher Man.” Their voices are strong; their sense of the material is confident.

Choreography by Kristy E. Schupp does a great deal to evoke the era and to bring the evening an undercurrent of joy. This is executed with consistent precision and lithe elation.

Chris Schenk’s set—sprung full-blown from 1960s television shows like The Tom Jones Show and Hullabaloo, in living color—is totally groovy.

Jump to:  The Cant  •  Shout!  •  The Couple Next Door  •  Working: The Musical  •  In A Dark House

The Couple Next Door

Road Less Traveled Productions is offering a new play by local author, Donna Hoke. This play was developed in RLTP’s new play workshop with much of its current cast participating.

The show concerns swingers—committed married couples who seek to enrich their sexual lives by swapping spouses with other couples. There are two complications here. First, one couple is entirely inexperienced with the swinging lifestyle and having marital difficulties. Second, the two couples are next-door neighbors.

The comedy has a classic structure of a full act of set up leading up to a second act of payoff. Happily, Act Two leads us in unexpected directions. The denouement comes suddenly, as in life, when we realize that another life was merely passing through ours like the proverbial ship in the night—leaving its wake, but nothing tangible.

The production is fueled by a fine team of actors. Kelly Meg Brennan and Luke Wager play the troubled couple, looking for a way to rescue their marriage. Matt Witten and Natalie Mack play the swingers, smug in their mutual bond and their ability to control their feelings. Each actor is required to tackle flights of comedy and of introspection. All are up to the task.

Director Scott Behrend has delivered a tight and well-paced production.

The play challenges notions of what defines a stable relationship, as neither couple leaves the encounter unchanged. This is not a cautionary tale warning against the evils of swinging; neither does the play condemn the practice. We see characters learn about themselves and learn about their relationships in surprising ways. That is the pleasure of The Couple Next Door.

Jump to:  The Cant  •  Shout!  •  The Couple Next Door  •  Working: The Musical  •  In A Dark House

Working: A Musical

The winning formula for O’Connell & Company seems to be to pull together a large cast and distribute the talent across sketches, musical numbers, and vignettes. That is what keeps Diva By Diva: a celebration of women running, and that is the basic idea behind Working: a Musical.

Working is based on the book by Studs Terkel, who spoke with working people and recorded the conversations. Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso adapted the material into a show about one day in the lives of various workers with music by Schwartz, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers, Micki Grant, Craig Carneia, and Susan Birkenhead.

That was in 1978.

Since then, the material has been updated a few times to reflect the changing world of work. In fact, Schwartz is currently working on a brand new revision, and shared his incomplete work with O’Connell & Company, allowing them to be among the very first to use his new material.

The production features a strong ensemble: Susana Breese, Erin Brignone, Lisa Dee, Marc-Jon Filippone, Todd Fuller, Gregory Gjurich, Mary Coppola Gjurch, Michael Izard Cubicle, Dudney Joseph, Pamela Rose Mangus, Victoria Perez, Guy Tomassi, and Roger Van Dette.

With direction by O’Connell and choreography by Veronica Irene, the show maintains its appeal.

Jump to:  The Cant  •  Shout!  •  The Couple Next Door  •  Working: The Musical  •  In A Dark House

"In a Dark Dark House" plays through Oct. 9.

In A Dark House

Neil LaBute is a master of the unmerciful. His dark and unsettling plays explore the ways in which abusing others reinforces some people.

In The Shape of Things, a young man finds that the beautiful woman who has entered his life and transformed it was merely manipulating him as a project for her master’s degree. In Bash, two characters recount the night of gay bashing perpetuated by one of them, to which the other is oblivious. In Reasons to be Pretty, so-called friends jealously destroy the relationship of a loving couple by exploiting a casual remark made by one of them.

LaBute knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and he explores these contours in plays that have been described as having the interlocking precision of jigsaw puzzles. The New Phoenix Theatre on the Park takes us on a dark, dark ride with LaBute’s 2007 play, In a Dark Dark House.

Terry and Drew are brothers raised by a violently abusive father. Terry, played by Richard Lambert, has endured the bulk of his wrath and has suffered a tumultuous adolescence and a lackluster adulthood. He now works as a security guard.

By contrast, Drew, played by Drew Kahn, has lived a charmed and sociopathic existence. After a successful career as an attorney, he was disbarred for unethically buying a client’s business out from under him. Nonetheless, everything he touches seems to turn to money, despite substance abuse and a life of total selfishness.

As the play begins, the jig seems to be up for Drew, who is in a wealthy man’s country club of a hospital to dry out. The doctors have summoned Terry so the brothers can discuss family issues critical to Drew’s recovery and rehabilitation. The relationship is tense. The revelations of abuse are disturbing. End of Act One.

The beauty of the play rests in LaBute’s ability to trace the ways in which people will lie to protect or to advance themselves. Mix into the equation the ways in which intimacy—familial, sexual, medical—leaves us vulnerable to being known by others, or with the opportunities that come from knowing. The play is a Chinese box of ruses and illusions, which are gradually and meticulously unraveled.

Lambert and Kahn play against each other skillfully, building intrigue and tension with each passing exchange. This is not, ultimately, a play about abuse. It is a play about exploitation in its aftermath.

Joseph Natale has directed a graceful production with great clarity. Lisa Sperry gives an appealing, if eerie performance as Jennifer, the daughter of Terry and Drew’s mutual boyhood “friend.”

Jump to:  The Cant  •  Shout!  •  The Couple Next Door  •  Working: The Musical  •  In A Dark House