Review: LATE: A Cowboy Song (Piven Theatre Workshop)

Prairie Home Pretension

 

Grimm and Noonan H II

 
Piven Theatre Workshop presents
   
LATE: A Cowboy Song
  
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through August 29   |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

After seeing LATE: A Cowboy Song, an early Sarah Ruhl piece put up by the Piven Theatre Workshop, I had to clarify the job of a theatre critic for myself. Do I factor in the context of a play in reference to a playwright’s oeuvre? Or do I judge a production solely based on what I see at that time and in that room?

Because as significant as Ruhl is to the stage (her list of recognitions and awards would make an Eagle Scout envious), I have never seen one of her plays. I have never seen In the Next Room (the vibrator play) or The Clean House or Dead Man’s Cell Phone (which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2008 – our review ★★★).  So it’s impossible for me to look at LATE through the lens of a Ruhl expert, appreciating the piece as an early, unpolished gem from a writer who would later consistently churn out financially-successful diamonds.

But I realized it is okay if I have no context because the enjoyment of a particular production shouldn’t be contingent upon something outside the theater. All that is needed to have a good experience should be there, contained within that small dark room. After all, at its core, drama is the art of storytelling, and thus the quality of a play depends on its coherency and its content.

That being said, LATE lacks both coherency and content. It is an understated and pretentious excursion that introduces us to unlikable, unrelatable characters who occupy a world that – even when taken metaphorically – makes no sense. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This is exactly why people don’t go see plays.”

The play concerns Mary (Polly Noonan, who also was the lead in Steppenwolf’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone), a fragile young woman who is in love with her childhood sweetheart Crick (Lawrence Grimm). Crick may be well meaning, but that doesn’t excuse him from being a selfish deadbeat who has no job and asks Mary to lend him $500.

One day, Mary runs into an old friend named Red (Kelli Simpkins), a butch cowgirl who occasionally sings plot-relevant songs stage right. When Mary and Crick wed, Mary escapes to Red frequently to share bowls of clear soup, ride horses and learn the way of the cowboy.

Soon, Mary becomes pregnant. She and Crick cannot agree on a name. He lobbies for Jill. She lobbies for Blue. They never agree, and so even after the baby is born, each uses the name of his or her own choosing. This may seem strange, but then again, the baby is strange. It is born intersexual, which means both sexes are represented at birth though the doctor declares the baby a girl.

There is more inter-relationship turmoil to be had, more woeful country songs to be sung and more old-fashioned cowboy wisdom to be dispensed. But, unfortunately, it never gels together.

Simpkins and Noonan H II

Ruhl often is unable to disguise her own voice as dialogue. Mary and Crick are simple, so simple that they may have been kicked in the head by a horse. But occasionally they meditate on things with irritating pretension. It’s false to the characters, and it’s a disconnect for the audience. It is what I call “island dialogue” because it sits out by itself, a mass of words separate from the rest of the play.

In addition, the extent of the play’s subtlety makes it confusing. I’m not sure what I was supposed to walk away thinking after seeing a love triangle of some sort, whether physical, emotional or metaphysical. Why two names for the baby? Why is Crick so fixated on art? I’m not asking to be spoon-fed answers. I’m just dubious that there are answers.

LATE represents the reunion of Noonan, director Jessica Thebus and Ruhl. Noonan plays Mary with extreme fragility and vulnerability, as if she could shatter at any moment. But she’s also emotionally schizophrenic, prone to creepy mood swings, which may be intentional but, at the same time, off-putting.

Simpkins’ portrayal of Red is the best part of the play. She’s the only character that makes any sense in the midst of the whirlwind of Mary and Crick’s relationship. For the audience, she is the bedrock that we can anchor ourselves to so as not to get swept away by this agonizing script.

Ruhl may be an amazing playwright. I have no doubt about that. But this is not one of her superlative plays. I suppose, if you are a fan and want to see her early work, you may enjoy this on a exploratory level. But if you’re just looking for a good show, you’ll feel like you squandered 90 minutes.

  
      
Rating: ★★
   
   

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August: Osage County set to close on Broadway

The Broadway cast of “August: Osage County” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)August: Osage County, written by Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts, winner of five 2008 Tony Awards, as well as the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and currently starring Tony and Emmy award winner Phylicia Rashad, will play its final performance on SUNDAY, JUNE 28th, 2009. It will have played 648 performances and 18 previews, surpassing The Heidi Chronicles, Master Class, The Real Thing, and Doubt, among many others, to become one of the longest running plays in Broadway history.  

 

 

August: Osage County will begin its National Tour, starring Academy award winner Estelle Parsons, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on July 24th, 2009, before travelling to more than 18 locations all around the country. For more information and dates, please visit WWW.AUGUSTONBROADWAY.COM.

The show currently boasts the most Award winning cast on Broadway: Tony winners Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”, Raisin in the Sun, Gem of the Ocean), John Cullum (Urinetown, Shenandoah, On the Twentieth Century), Elizabeth Ashley (Dividing the Estate, The Best Man), and Frank Wood (Side Man), with Original Cast member (and Tony nominee) Amy Morton, and Anne Berkowitz, Guy Boyd, Kimberly Guerrero, Brian Kerwin, Michael Milligan, Sally Murphy, Mariann Mayberry, and Troy West.

august_osage_county The original Broadway company, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, featured Ian Barford, Deanna Dunagan, Kimberly Guerrero, Francis Guinan, Brian Kerwin, Dennis Letts, Madeleine Martin, Mariann Mayberry, Amy Morton, Sally Murphy, Jeff Perry, Rondi Reed and Troy West, with understudies Munson Hicks, Susanne Marley, Jay Patterson, Dee Pelletier, Molly Ranson and Kristina Valada-Viars.

august_01a The design team included Todd Rosenthal (sets), Ana Kuzmanic (costumes), Ann Wrightson (lights), Richard Woodbury (sound) and David Singer (original music).

The production received 5 Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Director of a Play – Anna D. Shapiro, Best Actress in a Play – Deanna Dunagan, Best Featured Actress in a Play – Rondi Reed, and Best Set Design of a Play – Todd Rosenthal.

August: Osage County welcomed many prestigious new cast members throughout its run, including Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, Tony Award winners John Cullum, Elizabeth Ashley, and Frank Wood. The cast also welcomed Tony nominee Johanna Day, Robert Foxworth, Molly Regan, Michael McGuire, Michael Milligan, Guy Boyd, Scott Jaeck, Anne Berkowitz, Samantha Ross, Jim True-Frost, and Amy Warren, with understudies Aaron Serotsky, Stephen Payne, Avia Bushyhead, Frank Deal, and Emily Walton.

Review – Next Theatre’s "The Adding Machine"

AddingMachine---06-web-733116 The Adding Machine: A Chamber Musical is an intriguing, hard-to-pigeonhole piece of musical theatre. With music by Josh Schmidt and a libretto by Schmidt and Jason Loewith, The Adding Machine is a through-sung work with glimpses of Sondheim’s Passion, Guettel’s A Light in the Piazza and LaChuisa’s Wild Party. Nonetheless, it is set apart from these examples through its use of comprehensible melodies on top of layered dissonances; changing time signatures juxtaposed with sharply-syncopated choral chants. In its world-premier, Evanston’s Next Theatre Company has taken a noteworthy risk by commissioning and presenting this piece. Based on a rarely-produced 1923 play of the same name by expressionist playwright Elmer Rice, the show mostly works. But there are some caveats, all in the second half of the show, that keep The Adding Machine from realizing its full potential.

Though there is no intermission, the play is comprised of two distinct acts, delineated by the death of the main character, Mr. Zero (artfully played by the talented Joel Hatch). In the first section of The Adding Machine, the world is engulfed in numbers. The main character, Mr. Zero, works as an accountant. Mrs. Zero (wonderfully sung by Cyrilla Baer) is continually unhappy, contemplating the clichéd conclusion that Mr. Zero really is a zero, and she never should have married him.

AddingMachine---01-727264 Undoubtedly the work’s most mesmerizing section takes place in the second scene of the well-delineated first act. Mr. Zero is at work, sitting at the first of three tables, methodically and laboriously writing down numbers fed to him by his assistant Miss Devore (Amy Warren). As the chorus, sitting at tables behind him, hauntingly chants number after number (infusing clever asides, their brains wandering away from numbers and instead to thoughts of beer and girls), Zero relays that today is his 25th anniversary at the company, and he’s sure he will get a promotion. The boss, the stoic Mr. Charles (Michael Vieau) shows up. But instead of promoting him, Zero is canned, being told that with the advent of the adding machine, his job can now be done by high school girls at a sliver of his salary. (Echoing the present day’s outsourcing of jobs to other countries, where they are paid a fraction of our salaries). That evening, at a dinner party thrown by Mrs. Zero, with Mr. and Mrs. One (Rosalind Hurwitz and Steve Welsh) and the Two’s (Toni Inzeo and Kevin Mayes) in attendance, her husband is arrested for murdering his boss. What follows is a clever scene in prison on death row, where Zero meets the disturbing Shrdlu (Ian Westerfer), who has killed his mother by cutting her throat instead of the lamb that his mother has made for her son’s dinner. (i.e., mom turns into the sacrificial lamb?)

The second section, occurring after Zero has been put to death, falls flat, the storyline veering away from any kind of worthy conflicts and – as my father told me when trying in vain to teach me how to swing a baseball bat – no follow-through. We are supposedly in heaven, Shrudlu, the mom-killer, is there. Zero, too, is present. And Zero’s assistant, Mrs. Devore, just happens to also be there. Zero and Devore soon realize that they are in love. All this unexplained oddness abets an unfortunately dissatisfying ending.

The singing is mostly excellent. The characters have lovely, adaptable voices, and the music director, Jeremy Ramey, has done a great job blending the cast’s instruments, successfully honing the difficult syncopations of the choir. But a few of the main characters, specifically Zero and Shrdlu, do not have the chops to sing this discordant and often operatic score. In the beginning this is okay, as their wavering voices match their character’s woes. But this vocal crudeness becomes a problem near the end when these same characters are no longer suffering.

The design team has done a notable job, with the highest honor given to Keith Parham, the lighting designer. His design is dead-on, thoroughly matching and enhancing the dynamics of the story – dark and ominous in the first half and utopian in the second. In one remarkable scene, as Zero is entering heaven, the lights are cast in such a way that projects Zero as having wings. As the lighting changes, though, it is revealed that these “wings” are in fact just a coat thrown over his shoulder. This is some of the best lighting work seen in recent years.

Overall, if you’re an avid fan of new musical works, works that push the boundaries of stereotypical musical theatre, The Adding Machine is worth seeing – even when taking into consideration the aforementioned problems. Indeed, the accounting scene alone is worth the price of the ticket. The score and orchestrations are exemplary, matching much of what you’d hear on Broadway. If only the show was just about the first act, it would be highly recommended. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Rating: «««