Review: “Fall”

By Juan A. Ramirez

Bernard Weinraub’s new play, “Fall,” which had its world premiere in a Huntington Theatre Company production last night, would have made a great storybook. Or at least a worthwhile PBS docudrama. The untold story of playwright Arthur Miller’s “secret son,” Daniel, whose Down syndrome kept his parents from ever publicly acknowledging him, while intriguing, has already been wrung dry in an extensive 2007 Vanity Fair article. Approaching it from a journalistic standpoint, Weinraub adds nothing in the way of tension or intrigue, instead presenting it as a largely fictionalized but painfully literal dramatization of a man’s failure to act.

Despite having written several of the 20th century’s most iconic dramas, Arthur Miller (played by Josh Stamberg) cannot seem to reconcile his capital-M Morals with his own life. When he and third wife, Inge Morathe (Joanne Kelly), discover their newborn son has Down syndrome, their marriage is thrown on the rocks as they struggle to cope with the then-little understood condition. Or so the play wants one to infer. There is not much in the way of onstage drama or psychological exploration. Instead, the first half hour or so is a fairly rote depiction of two people encountering a problem and choosing to do nothing about it.

For a couple as highbrow and emotionally aware as Miller and Morathe — a successful photographer in her own right — they don’t argue or raise their voice much, except for when the script demands them to. In these instances, Stamberg and Kelly transform from corpse-like to manic with as much nuance as they can muster in a play that seems to be content with just detailing the boring minutiae of a situation bursting with unfulfilled dramatic possibility. Nevermind any insight into why such a celebrated man of words and sentiment would wholly discard one of his children, or why an intelligent woman like Inge would agree to this when she clearly would rather play a role in her son’s life.

Early scenes try hard to set up meta-parallels between Miller’s works and the play itself, referring to his belief that father-son tales like Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are the best in the canon. Sadly, “Fall” winds up paralleling Miller’s own failures in “After the Fall,” which is accused by his wife and producer of being little more than a sensational retelling of his previous marriage to Marilyn Monroe; Weinraub generously name drops celebrities and litters the script with references to Miller’s global success, constantly remarking that his works have played in Rome, Tokyo and other world capitals as if the egotistic playwright were not already aware.

The most damning parallel here, however, is the way the production traipses out Daniel (Nolan James Pierce) in the opening and closing scenes before leaving him entirely out of the story, appearing off-stage in certain scenes but never given the chance to present his thoughts on the matter. The play isn’t framed as it being told from his perspective, nor does it include the one person whose voice should most be heard, leaving his brief bookend appearances feeling cheap and sentimental.

No, the main attraction in “Fall” is Arthur Miller and the ongoing hit parade of his life as America’s leading moralist. The production itself doesn’t do much to elevate the material, nor does Peter DuBois’ direction stray far from the absolute essentials of stage movement. The inhabitants of this space move about as if on two dimensions, appropriate to their equally flat characterizations. It’s a shame — Daniel deserves better.

Review: “The Threepenny Opera”

Though bloodthirsty slashing might be what links together Mack the Knife and sharks, the same cannot be said for Boston Lyric Opera’s toothless production of “The Threepenny Opera,” which opened its limited engagement at the Huntington Theatre on March 16. Eschewing the acerbic, often discordant, sharpness required to mount the famed Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht collaboration in favor of a smoother, more classically operatic quality, the production seems less intent on shaking up the social and theatrical status quo than presenting its well-heeled patrons a harmless, if zingy, entertainment.

Despite the mostly capable cast’s effort, director James Darrah fails to bring together their performances into a cohesive whole, with characters seeming to inhabit entirely different worlds, none of which adhere to the work’s satirical tone. Written in interwar Germany to reflect that society’s growing issues with capitalism, the play remains one of the most caustic assaults on the bourgeois ever to be staged, with each character, line and action cleverly outlining their role in a broken society. Here, however, they seem only to be outlining the importance of a theatre production having its team on the same page.

Following the grotesque exploits of criminal-about-town Mack the Knife in the days before Queen Victoria’s coronation, “Threepenny” offers a cast of characters across social castes, each rotten to their core by a world designed to drain beings of their humanity. That internal degradation that runs through this dreary vision of 19th century London connects not only the characters to each other, but to our own jaded cynicism, and allows actors to play with archetypes to lively effect. What this production offers, instead, is a stranded cast of opera singers in a ruthless, wordy act of protest with more use for enunciators than belters.

Inexplicably staged in what can only be described as an empty 1950s concert hall, it’s not only Darrah’s troupe of actors apparently inhabiting different worlds, – an actor’s director, he is not – the production as a whole is dangerously detached from its roots, and not in an admirable, ‘modern’ interpretation. Brothels that should reek of squalor have women in nice silk dresses; sycophants whose mendacity should be obvious display zero agency of their own; Mack’s lovers, whose wit and grit should match their surroundings, are airheads interested only in keeping their man. These details show a disregard for Brecht’s work that leave one wondering why it was bothered to be restaged, if not to be shown to an audience completely afraid of questions of ethics and guilt.

It’s hard to label this a total failure; the work is still marvelously scored and anyone unfamiliar with the plot and its characters is bound to find joy – if not just contemporary relevance – in its twisted machinations. But a work that gleefully declares itself as cheap and vulgar (“Threepenny”) should never feel as if it was polished for a pleasant after-dinner diversion but rather, follow the advice of Jenny, one of the prostitutes, in “turning in to the harbor, shooting guns from the bow.”

 

Review: “Bad Dates”

By Juan A. Ramirez

There are some exciting preparations going on at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. They have nothing to do with the space’s renaming, nor do they involve rehearsals or readings. No, these preparations are more the type you’d expect when showing up early to a friend’s house party – when they’re in an excitedly chatty mood and might have already dipped into the liquor supply. The only difference here being that what’s happening onstage at the Huntington, while as intimate and invaluable as those little pre-games, take place in the enchanting presence of Haneefah Wood, who is every bit as charming as your best friend and probably a whole lot funnier.

As Haley, the incidental restaurateur, single mother and shining star of Theresa Rebeck’s one-woman play, “Bad Dates,” Wood reminds us of the moments when we remember why we became friends with those closest to us. Trying on outfit after outfit, heel after heel in search for the perfect fit, she explains, in precious detail, the reasons why the last date has led to the next one with an unwavering confidence that verges on hyperkinetic. Her performance is so affectionate, so lucid and so devoid of artifice that we fully expect a morning-after text inviting us to a recap brunch long after the curtain has fallen.

This is not to say Wood is merely going through the motions of playing the hilarious best friend. Holding court from Alexander Dodge’s single bedroom set, she finds the sweet spot between friendly conversation and anecdotal prowess. The play – a string of scenes in which Haley recounts her attempts at re-entering the dating world after a failed marriage left her with a small daughter and no career – would fall apart without a born entertainer at its center. Infusing a sort of stand-up delivery into the play’s slowly evolving narrative, Wood serves up Haley’s hilarious observations to an audience that fits all too easily in the palm of her hand.

As for the material, Wood and director Jessica Stone bring what is essentially an extended “Sex and the City” monologue to its highest peak, despite some clunky plot turns and early-2000s humor that might have fared better at a time when gay panic jokes and Richard Gere references were in vogue. Nevertheless, even the lows which keep this from being a great play can be readily overlooked when given a performance as comedically strong as Wood’s. Try keeping a straight face as she delves into the particulars of a date gone wrong at her own Romanian mob-controlled restaurant, when– well, you’re better off hearing it from the source.

 

The Huntington Theatre Company’s “Bad Dates” is in performance at the Huntington Avenue Theatre through February 25.

Review: “A Guide for the Homesick”

By Juan A. Ramirez

We’ve all seen this setup before in countless films, TV episodes and magazine-bound short stories: two strangers at the end of their line meet and, despite their differences, rediscover the meaning of life through a chance encounter. It’s not necessarily a bad starting place for drama, but it’s not particularly engrossing unless charged and embellished with reasons for one to care. “A Guide for the Homesick,” which premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Calderwood Pavilion last Wednesday, Oct. 18, adds little potency or charm to this well-worn setup, resulting in a rather disjointed affair.

Written by Huntington Playwriting Fellow Ken Urban, the play clocks in at less than 90 minutes and feels as if even that is an overextension. Not that there’s not much going on in the story (there is), but its tensions and backstories are handled in a haphazard manner that leaves one wishing it could stick to just one narrative layer. The problem here is that the foundational narrative layer happens to be its weakest.

“Homesick” opens on two Americans bursting into a hotel room in Amsterdam, six-packs in hand. If you hadn’t seen the production’s vaguely erotic poster, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re fraternity brothers; drinking and laughing like old friends, they exude nothing in the way of newly-formed connection, sexual or otherwise. After a rather clunky attempt at seduction, Teddy (McKinley Belcher III) and Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine) start unraveling their recent traumas with the same subtlety and reticence as an ad for anti-depressants.

Jeremy, brimming with anxious desperation, has just finished a tumultuous year of mixing business and pleasure at a health clinic in Uganda. Teddy, meanwhile, has been chugging beers in Amsterdam after the abrupt departure of his newly-engaged co-worker, on whom he might have harbored a secret crush.

Through flashback-aided dual casting we get glimpses into their pasts; Belcher doubles as Nicholas, one of Jeremy’s patients, and Levine ramps up the anxiety as Ed, Teddy’s runaway friend. During these exchanges, the one-act drama manages to find some honesty and vitality in an otherwise stale one-night stand story.

Belcher’s proudly flamboyant Ugandan and Levine’s depressive escapee fill up the stage in the way they must overwhelm the minds of their present-day counterparts. When these tragically brief flashbacks – none last longer than a few minutes of exposition at a time – are onstage, the play makes a decent case for itself as an exploration of guilt and compassion. The majority of the time, however, is spent looking backwards and forwards in that dingy hotel room, wondering why we’ve chosen to stay in the present.

Colman Domingo’s direction, though mostly serviceable, takes lengthy detours into the misguided. The men’s connection – the heart of the play – never fully gels after the overly fraternal opening, leaving the actors drowning in mixed messages and ambitions. Only during the flashbacks, signaled through rapid turnarounds and lighting cues, does Domingo seem in control of the play, leaving the rest of the production in a deeper limbo than the one inhabited by its characters.

The overall misdirection leaves the two leads with the unenviable task of existing in times and places that never fully come into their own. Belcher and Levine do their best, even when reciting lines that don’t seem to have ever gotten past a rough, essentialist first draft. No matter how much manpower these two can muster up, however, the play and production leave one homesick for other works which have dealt with this facile setup in endlessly better ways.