Review: Theatre Seven’s “Cooperstown”

 Cooperstown-8

Theatre Seven presents:

Cooperstown

by Brian Golden
directed by Brian Stojak
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Intertwined aspects of race, love and Civil Rights have been examined ad infinitum in many a previous drama. But with Cooperstown, playwright Brian Golden brings an original perspective to such well-trod topics. The times they are a changin’ in this 1962-set drama. Golden frames those remarkable changes within the context of something altogether ordinary, a Cooperstown diner. Here, as employees toil for a minimal $1.40 an hour, a monumental combination of baseball, racism, social unrest and the arrival of Jackie Robinson collide during one flashpoint weekend.

Cooperstown-9 It’s the basis for a wonderful story and as directed with understated nuance by Brian Stojak, it’s told well on the whole. There’s a refreshing lack of anguished over-emoting by the able cast, even when (especially when) events take on painful, life-changing significance. That’s the upside. The downside goes to the nitty-gritty of Golden’s script. The overall story has terrific potential. Its particulars are pocked with nagging holes and improbabilities that erode its basis in truth.

The first of these is snags apparent almost immediately, as Junior (Cecil Burroughs), the diner’s black supervisor, labors over a notebook. This “report,” Junior insists, is the key to a better life, as it is certain to get him a promotion from white diner owner Jimmy Fletcher. Never mind that Fletcher hasn’t set foot in the restaurant in years – Junior speaks of the notebook as if it possessed magic. It will, he asserts, secure him the title of manager, a pay raise and better working conditions all around. Burroughs plays Junior as a man of intelligence and depth; it simply doesn’t ring true that this character would so naively believe his situation would instantly improve simply by presenting a worn ledger full of hand-written notes to a boss he hasn’t even seen in years. The more Junior talks about how his battered notebook is going to change everything, the more artificial Cooperstown sounds.

There’s a parallel contrivance and lack of specificity with several other plot elements. A photo-op with Jackie Robinson in the diner is somehow directly connected to Governor Rockefeller’s patronage plans. A black protest group defined by the letter “S” (underscored and never explained) decides that “taking down” the diner will achieve…well precisely what it will achieve is as muddled as the link between Robinson’s meal there and the Governor’s job appointments. Finally, there’s a scene late in the story that requires immediate action (to say more would reveal spoilers) by Junior and the staff. But instead of tending to the crisis at hand, all and sundry stand around talking for a prolonged period. Emotional exposition trumps situational veracity.

A different but equally vexing problem is apparent in the all-important, star-crossed love story between Junior and Fletcher’s wife, Grace (Emjoy Gavino.) Despite otherwise fine performances by Burroughs and Gavino, they have no chemistry between them.

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Far believable is the sweet romance between waitress and baseball stat savant Dylan (Tracey Kaplan, sometimes truly difficult to understand thanks to her machine-gun speed speech) and Huck (Chance Bone), a plain-spoken out-of-towner with a similar passion for America’s Pastime. It’s a lovely subplot, although it wouldn’t hurt to tone down Dylan’s tomboy streak a tad – when she becomes almost physically ill after kissing Huck, she seems more like a prepubescent girl than a young woman.

Golden’s got hold of the core of an engaging, important story. It’s got a fine setting in Michelle N. Warner’s believably lived in, detailed diner. Would that the details were more rooted in probability.

 

Rating: ★★

 

Cooperstown continues through Dec. 20 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Tickets are $18 general admission, $14 students, seniors and industry. For more information go to www.theatreseven.org or call 773/404-7336.

Wednesday wordplay: Marlene Dietrich’s friends…

Inspirational Quotes

It’s the friends you can call up at four a.m. that matter.
            — Marlene Dietrich

The grass is not, in fact, always greener on the other side of the fence. Fences have nothing to do with it. The grass is greenest where it is watered. When crossing over fences, carry water with you and tend the grass wherever you may be.
            — Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It

Work is not always required… there is such a thing as sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.
            — George McDonald

The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest her or his patients in the care of the human frame, in a proper diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.
            — Thomas A. Edison

Eighty percent of success is showing up.
            — Woody Allen

Human pain does not let go of its grip at one point in time. Rather, it works its way out of our consciousness over time. There is a season of sadness. A season of anger. A season of tranquility. A season of hope.
            — Robert Veninga

I am here for a purpose and that purpose is to grow into a mountain, not to shrink to a grain of sand. Henceforth will I apply ALL my efforts to become the highest mountain of all and I will strain my potential until it cries for mercy.
            — Og Mandino

We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.
            — Albert Einstein

Review: Next Theatre’s “End Days”

 Elvis and Jesus on stage at last

 

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Next Theatre presents:

End Days

by Deborah Zoe Laufer
directed by Shade Murray
thru November 29th (ticket info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein

End Days, playing through December at the Next Theater in Evanston, is a light-hearted family comedy with dark, dramatic roots.  Penned by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, End Days borrows a few oblique bits and pieces from Samuel Beckett‘s Endgame and pushes them into orbit around a lighter, domestic version with similar, less philosophical and philosophically bleak, core themes. 

Laufer’s End Days focuses on a dysfunctional family trio: the Steins.  At the play’s outset, the family has descended into a kind of isolated, feuding madness.  Spear-heading this romp is Sylvia Stein (Laura T. Fisher), who hunts through the house for impurity and sin with Jesus literally at her side.  Whether hallucination, incarnation or just some by-product of Sylvia’s recent mental deviation, Jesus helps Mrs. Stein out around the house.  This gives her frequent exhortations of “Thank you, Jesus” an added jolt of credibility that might otherwise be lacking.  But Sylvia has only recently discovered how much she identifies with evangelical Christianity.  And she’s taken to all this — to stacking bibles, preaching the good book, and admiring her evangelical handiwork– perhaps in part because her husband has withdrawn into pajamas and her daughter has gone over to the dark lord.  

Once upon a time at Sylvia’s side there was Arthur Stein, whose hollow husk is played impeccably by William Dick.  Arthur is a defunct businessman who has traded his Senior VP suit-and-tie for the depressed terrycloth comforts of a bathrobe and constant attempts at eternal slumber.  He can’t even make it to the grocery store, though.  From the few snippets of his past that carry through to the audience in dialogue, it becomes clear that Arthur used to work at the Word Trade Center…until 9/11.  

The last member of the family — wedged between this raving, recently religious mother and droopy father — is high-school student Rachel Stein.  With a few colored streaks in her dark hair and eyes painted with all the spite of Satanic teenage rage, Rachel is the kind of daughter one might expect find in this fractured home.  She’s goth and she’s too damn smart for her own good.  Carolyn Faye Kramer plays the part with a delightful, earnest, heartfelt angst. 

And in case the combination of those three with Jesus helping out in the kitchen doesn’t sound like enough, enter the king: their new 16-year-old, Elvis-impersonating neighbor with a crush on Rachel as ample as his bell-bottoms are wide.  The new teenage neighbor,  Nelson Steinberg, might just have the otherworldly determination to see it through. His determination is so otherworldly, in fact, that by passing along a book to Rachel, Nelson manages to introduce Stephen Hawking into the fray.  Hawking plays a very adept hallucinated foil to Jesus (both are played by Joseph Wycoff).

Nelson’s arrival sets off all the action and by the end we arrive with characters that have undoubtedly changed. That is, something happens.  The predictability of that something might disappoint a few, but Laufer’s characters are paced  quick enough to shove any concerns about her character’s psychological accuracy to the wayside.  The audience barely has time to realize that the play has its hands wrapped deeply around the effects of 9/11 trauma before Stephen Hawking scoots in on a motorized wheelchair to give good advice to a stoned teenage smarty-pants.

Andre LaSalle‘s set complements the  fractured situation in the Stein home with awkwardly tilted living spaces and Melissa Torchia‘s costumes, with Rachel dressed all in black and Nelson in a bedazzled white Elvis gettup, while heavy-handed, are not unearned.  The show is fun.  That’s for sure.  But can you really crack open 9/11 trauma and play it just for laughs and not something fuller?

Rating: ★★½

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