REVIEW: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (Hubris)

     
     

An Ordinary Love Story

     
     

Kitchen.FandJ copy

   
Hubris Productions presents
   
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
  
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by
Jacob Christopher Green
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through December 31  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

There’s something oddly sentimental about Terrence McNally’s 1987 anti-romance, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The titular lovers are not typical rom-com fare. For one, they are both pushing forty. They are famously plain in appearance. Neither has a glamorous occupation nor ambition—they work at a greasy spoon, Frankie as a waitress, Johnny as a short-order cook. Both are heavy with emotional baggage. Not sexy, lurid baggage, but run-of-the-mill, pathetic baggage—domestic abuse, divorce, and alcoholism. Yet, the couple discover, repudiate, and battle for a deep, life-or-death level of love. McNally’s thesis is that this sort of passion is not the exclusive privilege of movie star queens and high school quarterbacks. It can even bloom in a cheap apartment in a dingy New York neighborhood. Hubris Productions’ production, directed by Jacob Christopher Green, captures the essence of McNally’s quirky, utterly ordinary love story.

Window.FandJ copySMFrankie and Johnny has one set, two actors, and two acts. It takes place over one long, emotion-fueled night. Johnny (Dennis Frymire) is a lover of Shakespeare, and is convinced that he and Frankie (Patricia Savieo) are meant for each other. She’s not as sure. In fact, she hasn’t ruled out the possibility that Johnny is a lunatic. And she may be right. His overwhelming love of romance is unique, to say the least.

Frymire and Savieo, both Hubris ensemble members, seem completely comfortable with the material, even the extended nudity which starts the show with a bang (literally). The characters come naturally to the duo, whether they’re making love or post-coital meatloaf sandwiches. Most importantly, neither falls into melodrama nor overplays Frankie and Johnny’s quiet desperation.

Savieo is definitely the most fascinating to watch of the two. She lights up the stage. We see that her heart has been stomped on before, so she proceeds with caution and, occasionally, cynicism. Her slow warming-up to Johnny is what drives most of the action, and Savieo handles that arc with grace and strength. The powerful need to keep her heart guarded is evident.

Frymire, on the other hand, can be one-note at times. He gets across Johnny’s enthusiasm, but sometimes at the expense of his charm. He pushes the crazy too hard, an easy crevasse to fall into. He is obviously having fun up there, but it makes him come off as a creep more than he should. The audience starts to wonder why Frankie doesn’t get the police on the line. By the second act, however, he regains some composure and we eat up the delightful finale, which doesn’t feel forced at all.

McNally comes from a school of ‘80s playwrights, an academy that includes John Patrick Shanley and Lanford Wilson, which loves gritty, dynamic love stories. If we want to talk superficial genre specifics we would classify Frankie and Johnny as a comedy. But the play isn’t afraid to dwell on ruinous relationships or drop a bag of f-bombs. Green’s biggest problem is finding the humor. There are some mild chuckles here and there, but the comedy never truly pops in Hubris’ production. The probable cause is that Green’s pacing isn’t as tight as it should be. The actors’ energy falls through the cracks. Frymire, when trying to be weird in ill-fated attempts at laughs, is a good example. Fortunately, McNally’s text is also dramatically complex, so the production stays together.

Frankie and Johnny is about finding magic in a very un-fairy tale world. Green, Frymire, and Savieo all find it, and they present it to us on a platter. The last few moments, which feature Johnny and Frankie watching the sun rise on another day in the city, are pure joy. Out of incredibly everyday people and emotions, Hubris is able to whip up romance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

REVIEW: The Four of Us (Theater Wit)

   
  

Rare find: a sophisticated comedy for bros!

  
  

(from left) Usman Ally, Collin Geraghty, Usman Ally and Collin Geraghty in the Midwest premiere of The Four of Us

   
Theater Wit presents
  
The Four of Us
   
Written by Itamar Moses
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
Extended thru Dec 18  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Review by Paige Listerud

Who among your friends do you measure yourself against? Theater Wit’s critically acclaimed production, The Four of Us, by award-winning playwright Itamar Moses, knowingly and humorously examines the shifting fortunes and friendship between two writers in search of artistic and worldly success–a quixotic and mercurial adventure if ever there was. Who could ever be prepared for the toll success may take when one writer receives unforeseen recognition in the cultural economy while the other flounders in the sea of struggling-to-make-it? For those unfamiliar with the Usman Ally and Collin Geraghty in The Four of Us by Itamar Mosesconcept of writer’s envy, Kathryn Chetkovich’s classic essay, which originally appeared in the magazine “Granta”, remains excellent background material for this drama.

David (Usman Ally), a struggling playwright, takes his old buddy, Benjamin (Collin Geraghty), out to lunch to celebrate the upcoming publication of Benjamin’s very first novel. It’s all part of the pact that they had made back in college – whoever makes it first, whether first novel or first play, has to buy the other lunch at a restaurant of their choice. But Benjamin’s novel getting published is not simply one man’s goal achieved—it’s success at a spectacularly obscene level. Huge bid by a major publisher, sold movie rights, a famous Hollywood actor looking to direct it—all of which, to David’s thunderstruck reaction, his long-time pal Benjamin writes off as nothing. Is it artistic integrity on Benjamin’s part or a victory won too easily to appreciate? Is his diffidence a slight indication of low self-esteem or another way to garner David’s attention for his achievement? Whatever the motive, David gets bitten by the envy bug but still buys Benjamin’s lunch.

Jeremy Wechsler’s direction keeps the witty back-and-forth between Ally and Geraghty crisp and taut. In fact, Moses script is reminiscent of Mamet in that each beat and inflection between actors requires rapid-fire interaction and two complementary mindsets practically joined at the third eye. David’s relationship with Benjamin may be a little too close for comfort, since Benjamin’s pronouncements on literature, women, relationships and life perpetually override David’s own judgment and lived experience. The playwright has a keen eye for the worshipful man-crush, supported by underlying structures of insecurity and crippling self-doubt. The Four of Us demonstrates intense emotional maturity about the immature reasons guys subtly compete with each other and compare the progress of their lives with the friends they are closest to.

 

(from left) Usman Ally plays David and Collin Geraghty portrays Benjamin in the Midwest premiere of The Four of Us, Collin Geraghty and Usman Ally in Theater Wit's The Four of Us

The play also jumps about between the current, alternating trials and triumphs of the characters and their college days—a summer in Prague, sharing a joint in their dorm room the year before and, for the grand finale, the first time they met as counselors in summer band camp. If the production has a weakness, it’s in the portrayal of David and Benjamin in their more youthful and idealistic years. Ally and Geraghty spar brilliantly with each other, but fail to bring the nuanced edge of jejune enthusiasm for life ahead of them that is the hallmark of college days. Given that this ultra-talky play constructs the evolution each goes through about the other, the production needs to demonstrate greater contrast between past and present. Without that, David and Benjamin’s relationship only comes across as one big gabfest with slightly distinct variations.

Playful scene changes and Joseph Fosco’s smart sound design keeps the energy lively from scene to scene. The Four of Us is fast-paced and cunning. Whether he digs theater or not, catch your best bud and drag him to see it. This is one of the most sophisticated comedies for the bros that I’ve seen in while. One can only hope that it will get made into a movie to wow the audiences at Sundance or Telluride.

 
   
Rating: ★★★½   
   
  

The Four Of Us - Theater Wit - Collin Geraghty and Usman Ally

     
itama moses

Playwright Itamar Moses

Production Personnel

Playwright: Itamar Moses
Director: Jeremy Wechsler 
Cast: Usman Ally, Collin Geraghty
Light Design:  Scott Pillsbury
Sound Design: Joseph Fosco 
Set Design: Roger Wykes
Costumes: Christine Pascual
Stage Manager: Wendye Clarendon

All production photos by Johnny Knight

      
      

REVIEW: The Nutcracker (House Theatre)

     
     

Rediscover the whimsical genius of House Theatre

     
     

The Nutcracker - House Theatre Chicago

   
House Theatre presents
   
The Nutcracker
   
Adapted by Jake Minton and Phillip C. Klapperich
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell 
Directed by
Tommy Rapley
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Dec 26  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there is a theatre company in town that has a corner on childlike whimsy for adults, it would be the House, hands down. Every production they put up is sure to have flashy, comic book-style visuals, a frenetic, cartoony energy from the actors, and plenty of gags. And lately (although I wasn’t able to see the season opener, Thieves Like Usour review ★★½), their work has been falling flat on it’s face. For example, last season’s Girls vs. Boys (our review ★½), a musical that was supposed to reveal the dark underbelly of the American teen, was a generic, loud, overdramatic hormone pile.

NutcrakerPoster copyThey may have recaptured their groove that made Chicago love ‘em, though. With The Nutcracker (an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic story penned by Housers Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, first produced in 2007 at the Steppenwolf Garage), there’s a delicious blend of fun and heart. They also throw in fistfuls of that whimsical House magic that has you leaving the Chopin full of childish wonder. The show is easily the best thing I’ve seen there.

The story is a distant cry from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, by far the best known adaptation of Hoffman’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Minton and Klapperich tinker with the classic story to make it a much more personal tale, eschewing the sugarplum fairies for familial conflict. The play focuses on the relationship between Clara (Carla Kessler) and her brother Fritz (Chance Bone), who dies on the battlefield one Christmas Eve and then comes back, reincarnated as a nutcracker by Uncle Drosselmeyer (Blake Montgomery). Of course, the fantasy is still front and center. The whole play follows Clara and the nutcracker’s battle against the rats for Christmas. They are aided by other playthings hobbled together in Drosselmeyer’s workshop, including Hugo (Joey Steakley), a robot; Phoebe (Trista Smith), a pull-string doll; and Monkey (Michael E. Smith), a francophone sock monkey. Together, they attempt to make cookies, fend off rats, chop down a tree, and bring Christmas back to the house left joyless by Fritz’s death. Clara’s mother and father (Carolyn Defrin and Minton, respectively) are not amused by Clara and Drosselmeyer’s antics, believing the two are opening a barely-scabbed wound. Tension pervades the entire piece. We’re wondering if Clara and her family will move past Fritz’s untimely demise, or if Clara will delude herself into thinking the nutcracker is an appropriate substitute. It’s a remarkably smart, unpredictable, and complex conflict for a group known for spectacle. And it’s much more refreshing than another traipse around Candyland.

The cast has a seemingly endless supply of energy. The always great Defrin, for example, leaves as the depressed and angered Martha just to quick change and pop back in as a nefarious rat. The petite Kessler bursts with the energy of a twelve-year old. The best part is the motley crew of toys, especially Smith, who, donning the monkey costume, is the funniest one in the show.

Kevin O’Donnell’s compositions do a great job of implying a Christmas feel without repeating overplayed Christmas carols (the British accented rats even due a Clash tribute). However, the complete Americanization and contemporizing of the story was unnecessary for me. Although it leads to some great jokes (e.g., pizza bagels), the story begs to be more timeless. There were also a couple of plot gaps that the audience sort of swallows along with the show.

The Nutcracker had some absolutely brilliant moments—one being the magical transition from inside to outdoors and the other being the terrifying Rat King (something that gave me a nightmare or two). With this show, the House finds the perfect content to match their style. Let’s hope they keep it up.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m., with matinee performances at 3pm on Friday November 26, Saturday, November 27, and Friday, December 24, plus additional 8pm performances on Wednesday, November 24 and Wednesday, December 22. There are no performances on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and there is no evening performance on Christmas Eve. The Nutcracker plays at the Chopin Upstairs Theatre 1543 W. Division St., Chicago). Regular tickets are $25 and $10 for students/industry at the door. The Nutcracker is The House’s holiday show and is not included with The House’s 2010/2011 season subscription (but subscribers do receive $5 off all tickets). Tickets may be purchased by calling (773) 769-3832 or online at www.TheHouseTheatre.com.

     
     
House theatre - The Nutcracker House theatre - The Nutcracker