Review: Stage Kiss (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Cheap laughs mark time in Ruhl’s surface-skimming romantic fantasy

     
     

HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) get lost in one another’s embrace as they perform as Johnny Lowell and Ada Wilcox in One Last Kiss -- the play-within-the-play.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
     
Stage Kiss
    
   
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $17-$69   |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Goodman Theatre and Sarah Ruhl have shared a fruitful relationship dating back to her 2006 The Clean House. Stage Kiss marks the MacArthur Fellowship winning playwright’s third production and first commission with the company, and with that, it may be time for Ruhl to reevaluate the details of that partnership. A two-year development process has yielded thin, runny results.

SHE’s daughter, Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee), arrives at Laurie (Erica Elam)’s apartment to take her mother home.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)“What happens when lovers share a stage kiss…or actors share a real one?” Worthy question. Ruhl is a capable author to study it, too, having asserted her lyrical style and poignant insight into her characters’ romantic needs in previous, stronger works. This new play’s premise gets short shrift to accommodate Noises Off!-type metatheatrical slapstick silliness. If only Ruhl or director Jessica Thebus were more dedicated to exploring their substantial central theme, we’d be provided a better answer than ‘they fall down and go oomph.’

They also apparently seek refuge by escaping their own play, addressing the audience directly through occasional poetic spurts and barely integrated speeches. Stage Kiss’ most thoughtful moments are presented less as theater and more like essays. The nameless protagonist’s (Jenny Bacon) daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) ponders aloud why talented actors don’t seem to frown upon sleeping with talentless ones while, on the other hand, good painters seldom seem to sleep with bad painters. Elsewhere, a character articulates the difference between watching sex on film and sex on stage. Those interesting ideas are well phrased, but they come from Ruhl, not her characters. Action is totally halted during the speeches–just show us. Don’t tell.

     
Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) meets Millicent (Erica Elam) in a scene from One Last Kiss.  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (l to r) Ada Wilcox (Jenny Bacon) and her Husband (Scott Jaeck) realize their daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) has run away with Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) in a scene from One Last Kiss. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
(l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery), Laurie (Erica Elam), SHE (Jenny Bacon) and Harrison (Scott Jaeck) dance with one another to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening.”  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (clockwise l to r) The cast of One Last Kiss (Jeffrey Carlson, Erica Elam, Sarah Tolan-Mee, Scott Jaeck, Jenny Bacon and Mark L. Montgomery) sits around the table as the director (Ross Lehman) speaks to them at first rehearsal.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Most of the two and half hours are instead spent satirizing the rehearsal process of a 1930’s Noël Coward-style play revival in which the married woman has been cast opposite her ex-lover (Mark L. Montgomery). The play-within-a-play jokes are decent enough, sometimes original and funny (“Why is everyone in this play named Millicent?”), but mostly easy and worn-thin. Ross Lehman is underplayed and hilarious as the production’s passive director, the all-too-familiar type that masks incompetence with friendliness. Pretending to be a bad actor is akin to pretending to be drunk; resisting temptations to exaggerate is probably for the best. The otherwise gifted Jeffrey Carlson does not and goes for broke as a gay, (potentially mentally disabled?) barely functioning bit-actor.

Decency doesn’t carry a show–once the novelty of the physical humor and accent-play wears off, there’s little else fleshed out to justify ludicrous character twists or the underdeveloped concept. Had Ruhl lived up to her potential and played to her strengths, she could have touched on some provocative ideas. Stage Kiss draws too thick of a line between romance and comedy for either to flourish.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

(center) Laurie (Erica Elam) confronts (l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) as SHE’s daughter Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee) and husband Harrison (Scott Jaeck) look on. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Stage Kiss runs approximately two hours, 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

     

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Review: Nunset Boulevard (Theatre at the Center)

     
     

Newest nun revue is less than holy

     
     

Lauren Creel, Felicia Fields, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

   

Theatre at the Center presents

  

Nunset Boulevard

  

Written By Dan Goggin
Directed and choreographed by Stacey Flaster
at Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN (map)
through May 29   |   tickets: $20- $40  |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

They say, “When you find something that works for you, stick to it.” Dan Goggin has made a living off of his troop of fictional nuns from Hoboken, New Jersey since the debut of his smash hit musical Nunsense in 1985. After seven spin-offs Goggin has penned the latest nun adventure, Nunset Boulevard. The musical nuns from Jersey travel to California for a gig at the Hollywood Bowl….-A-Rama. It makes some sense that the Chicago area premiere of this new show is being produced at Theater at the Center in Munster, Indiana, since, after all, Northwest Indiana is seemingly Chicago’s Jersey. It’s where we send our landfill, refining and casino gamblers. In this case, it’s where we send somewhat tired musical comedy such as this production directed rather flatly by Stacey Flaster. While there is some huge talent (namely Tony award nominee Felicia Fields) and occasional chuckles, it’s not quite worth the trip down I-90/94 for what is ultimately a cabaret show with too much space to fill.

Mary Robin Roth (Sister Robert Anne) and Nicole Miller (Sister Leo) in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.In their latest outing, our showbiz sisters arrive in Hollywood for what they think is a booking at the famous Hollywood Bowl. Instead, they are scheduled to appear at the Hollywood Bowl-A-Rama, a bowling alley somewhere in Hollywood. While generally Goggin’s nun shows are largely a cabaret style, Sister Hubert (Fields) suggests in this production that they include a plot (in one of the more fun musical numbers of the night). The show is still primarily though a cabaret style performance of comedic bits, musical numbers, improv and interacting with the audience (probably the highlight of the evening). However, there is a through line revolving around Sister Leo (Nicole Miller) and her quest to get “discovered” in Hollywood. It turns out a movie musical about nuns is auditioning across the street. Sister Robert Anne (Mary Robin Roth) is skeptical. She is especially conflicted when Sister Leo asks permission to appear before the casting director without wearing her habit. There is also Sister Amnesia (Lauren Creel), whose schitck is that she lost her memory due to a giant crucifix falling on her head.

The raunchier bits play the best, however there are not many of them. During the improv segment with the audience, there is a game made of naming famous nuns from the movies which rewards certain audience members with very funny religious keepsakes. The fact that the nuns sing and dance isn’t novel enough anymore to carry the interest of the audience over two hours. The Hollywood they are visiting is decidedly a Hollywood of old with songs like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and a parade of classic Hollywood blonde bombshells.

Fields provides some wonderful vocals and dry humor to the evening. Creel and Miller are also standouts with their energy. But, Flaster’s direction, along with certain Mary Robin Roth as Sister Robert Anne in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.performances, hamper the pacing. There’s a comedy-killing pause between nearly every line dragging the show down. The cast overall plays too small to fill this space. Also, there were numerous instances where several actors were restarting lines which took the wind out of any possibility for consistent laughs.

Stephen Carmody’s set is a “Vegas meets Magic Kingdom” take on Hollywood. The expansive facade could hold a big band and 20 chorus girls. Instead, we get 3 keyboardists, a drum kit and five nuns. The one-liners and corny, yet sometimes delightful, tunes come across as though they would fit better in a nightclub setting. The formality of this large theatre complex drowns out most of the charm.

Overall, the production elements are too polished and gaudy in contrast with what’s essentially comedic sketches and light songs. The vastness of the theater demands too much non-stop entertainment. I feel the same show could be placed in a setting such as Mary’s Attic (an upstairs bar lounge in Andersonville) and achieve a much better effect on its audience. There is definitely something here for diehard fans of Goggin’s nun series, but not enough to spark any excitement as these Jersey girls’ take on Tinsel Town.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Felicia Fields, Lauren Creel, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

Theatre at the Center presents the Chicago Area premiere of Dan Goggin’s Nunset Boulevard, directed by Stacey Flaster, April 28- May 29 at 1040 Ridge Rd, Munster, IN. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $36 on Wednesdays-Thursdays, and $20-$40 Fridays- Sundays. Tickets may be purchased by phone (219-836-3255) or online at theatreatthecenter.com.

  
  

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Review: Tragedy: a tragedy (Red Tape Theatre)

     
     

Tragedy: a new theatrical experience

     
     

Paul Miller and Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

  
Red Tape Theatre presents
   
   
Tragedy: a tragedy
  
  
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Hot shot playwright Will Eno’s Tragedy: a tragedy parodies the modern, multitasking, up-to-the-minute human condition, yet eulogizes it at the same time. Clocking in at an hour and 15 minutes, it’s less of a drama and more of a loose curio cabinet of themes. The world has been thrown into eternal darkness, and a crack news team does their darndest to fill the continuing coverage. They offer conjectures, anecdotes from their own lives, and wild speculation. Mostly they report about how there is nothing to report.

The first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the Red Tape space is that the audience seating is as built up as the actual set. I snagged a loveseat, but one could also crowd around a card table or sit on a wood bench. Set designer Emily Guthrie puts you in a TV watching environment, whether that’s your living room, kitchen, or local bar. We’re watching what could be the last broadcast ever. An anchorman (Lawrence Garner), three reporters (Steve O’Connell, Paige Sawin, and Mike Tepeli), and some guy on the street (Paul Miller) try to explain the unexplainable. The sun turned off. People are fleeing their homes. The governor is no where to be found. Emotions fling between fear, anger, desperation, and sluggish nihilism. But stories must be broken. Right?

Obviously, Eno’s world is off-kilter. His style fluctuates between wacky, darkly hilarious, and deeply lyrical. Jeremy Wechsler, who has directed much of Eno’s canon, leads the production for Red Tape. It definitely has its flaws, but Wechsler’s show digs deep into your psyche. It won’t shatter your worldview, but it’ll have your brain slowly churning for days afterward.

Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

Along with Tragedy, Eno’s Middletown is coming to Chicago soon, with a production by Steppenwolf on the horizon. Eno is an interesting creature on today’s theatre scene. His stuff harks back to mid-century absurdism, but isn’t suffocated by cynicism. Tragedy is remarkably fresh. He obviously isn’t out to shock or disgust. He’s quietly philosophical, having his pseudo-characters ponder metaphysics and existentialism. It’s a thoughtful, free-form route, one which many young playwrights today seem to be traveling. Perhaps it will be the hallmark of American theatre in the 2000s.

That depends on, of course, if audiences can stay awake. Tragedy is a strangely paced play, one that demands moments of both rapid fire dialogue and complete stillness. Wechsler’s production can’t quite get the balance right. Some of the pregnant pauses are hysterical pregnancies. There’s something to be said for extended moments of silence, but the Red Tape production doesn’t earn them. Harold Pinter could write pauses in his plays like a composer writes rests in his score; Eno is still finding his bearings.

The cast does a remarkable job with the bizarre material. Garner’s Frank, trapped in a studio raised above the action, keeps going until the very end with raised eyebrows and a concerned deep voice. By the final moments, he’s a dispossessed god in a world out of control. Tepeli and O’Connell navigate Eno’s humor well, and Sawin gives a haunting turn as Constance. Miller spends 95% of the show standing around and 5% dropping truths, but he does it with warmth and commitment.

I do wish the actual set was as meticulously plotted as the audience. Frank’s box looks downright chintzy.

The play is a product of the ‘90s, and I wonder how the internet would rock this world. But that’s just one of a miasma of questions this play raises. Most importantly (or maybe least importantly), is there any reason to believe the sun won’t rise again?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

  
  

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