REVIEW: The Boys Next Door (Metropolis Arts)

  
  

Metropolis succeeds in shining a light on special needs

  
  

'The Boys Next Door' by Tom Griffin - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights

  
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents
  
The Boys Next Door
  
Written by Tom Griffin
Directed by David Belew
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights (map)
through Feb 13  |  tickets: $35-$43  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Arnold has decided that he’s going to move to Russia. Barry thinks he’s a golf star. Norman can’t stop eating donuts and Lucien is concerned that they don’t have any trees. These men are all roommates and they all have special needs. They’re looked after by Jack, the caretaker who works with them. Metropolis Performing Arts Centre’s production of The Boys Next Door, tenderly written by Tom Griffin, tells the story of how these five men’s lives are interwoven and the effect each man has on the other.

'The Boys Next Door' by Tom Griffin - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington HeightsThe set, designed by Adam L. Veness, initially consists of a typical-looking, unassuming front porch complete with shutters on the windows and a rocking chair out front. Painted a deep green, it looks inviting and charming. Once the show begins, the house opens down the middle like an oversized doll house to reveal the inside rooms, in particular the apartment the four men live in. Although moving the set piece is noisy, it’s an interesting visual to get a glimpse into the inner and outer workings of this building.

The Boys Next Door opens on the men having a typical day. Arnold (Andrew J. Pond) has been to the market and explains his trip as well as his condition as he understands it. He’s a “nervous person,” he says, and Pond is immediately charming and engaging. His characterization of Arnold is strong and humanized. Also introduced are Norman (David Elliot) and Lucien (Bear Bellinger). They are the two of the four men who live in the apartment. Both Elliot and Bellinger play their characters in a charming and lovely manner. It’s clearly evident that these actors did their research in order to learn every aspect of their characters and it comes across and genuine and believable. It’s not actors playing parts, but rather actors transforming into these new people and fully embodying these men. The fourth roommate is Barry (Adam Kander), who, like the rest, has been fully embraced and brought life. Kander carefully shows the cracks in Barry’s seemingly put together demeanor to reveal the true feelings underneath – you can’t help but feel for him.

As the men are going about their lives, Jack (Michael B. Woods), their caretaker, comes in to check on them. He is sweet and patient with these men; it’s evident he sincerely cares about them. Like the others, Woods put a lot of thought and consideration into his character. What makes him feel most genuine is the fact that he is not sugarcoated nor does Woods play him as such. Jack shows the audience all sides of his life, including the fact that he loses his temper on occasion with the men and that he is burning out in his current situation. Woods does a wonderful job of displaying the range of emotions, allowing it to feel like the audience gets a glimpse into the real life of this man.

     
'The Boys Next Door' by Tom Griffin - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights 'The Boys Next Door' by Tom Griffin - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights

Every week the men attend a dance, and it’s here where Norman meets his girlfriend Sheila (Denise Tamburrino). She’s sweet and lovely, although not as believable as the men in her characterization. Michelle Ziccarelli rounds out the main portion of the cast, playing the multiple characters of Mrs. Fremus, Mrs. Warren and Clara, distinctly defining each one.

David Belew’s adept direction keeps energy and emotion of the show moving at a quick pace.  In fact, when Act I ended I looked at my watch and was shocked at how time had flown by. Same goes for Act II. Although the ending seems a little abrupt and like the action should continue, the pace is quick and the energy stays high the whole time.

The Boys Next Door waivers on that fine line between comedy and tragedy, pulling from both to create a touching, funny, sad and wonderful portrayal of how five men live their lives and what it means to have each other in their lives. They create a genuine emotional connection with the audience that both tickles the funny bones and pulls on the heart strings. Mostly importantly, the play never mocks or pokes fun at those with special needs, but simply offers a glimpse into their lives.

  
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

The Boys Next Door plays at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St. Arlington Heights, Ill., through February 20. Tickets are $35 to $43 and can be purchased here. Read an excerpt from The Boys Next Door.

'The Boys Next Door' by Tom Griffin - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights

     
     

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REVIEW: Frost/Nixon (TimeLine Theatre)

 

The Man Behind the Monster

 

 Frost (Andrew Carter) interviews Nixon (Terry Hamilton)

   
TimeLine Theatre presents
  
Frost/Nixon
  
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
through October 10  |  tickets: $18-$38  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

It’s not a stretch to cast Richard Nixon as a monster. He was a cantankerous soul who rabble-roused around an unpopular war and abused the presidency to allegedly commit felonious acts. His legacy is a sobering stain on the political landscape that serves as a reminder for others to not blindly trust those we choose to lead.

FrostNixon_101 The real challenge of this work is portraying Nixon as a human being, a man of both wants and desires as well as fears and frustrations. To put it another way, the challenge is to bring out Nixon’s humanity while simultaneously highlighting his treachery.

TimeLine Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon brilliantly toes this line.

The play details the famous 1977 interview with the disgraced president. Those producing the interview meant for it to be the trial that Nixon never got, thanks to a full pardon by Gerald Ford. Unfortunately, spearheading the questioning was a character with questionable skills—David Frost (Andrew Carter). Frost was an international playboy who hosted successful talk shows in the U.K. and Australia. At one point, he had an unsuccessful run in America. This failure forever nagged him, and so he devised a plan to restore his good name. That plan was to nab the biggest interview of the decade.

Meanwhile, Nixon (Terry Hamilton) was self-sequestered in his California mansion. He was defeated. He had achieved the highest position of public office only to fall so very far. However, word of Frost’s desire to conduct an interview piqued his interest. For one, the financial agreement on the table to secure the interview would make Nixon a very rich man. But moreover, doing a softball interview with a British talk show host could help him restore his good name.

Of course, as history reveals, Nixon agreed to multiple sit-down interviews with Frost. And although the majority of tape captured during these sessions was merely a lesson in Nixon’s uncanny ability to evade tough questioning, it eventually led to a rare and honest glimpse into the mind of a megalomaniac.

This play is nothing without a good Nixon, and Hamilton’s portrayal of the man is executed with great finesse. There is obviously a conscious balance between depicting Nixon as a human and a villain with the ultimate goal to strike at the heart of truth. One way this is accomplished is by subtlety yet powerfully revealing to us Nixon’s insecurities. For example, there is a scene in which Nixon questions whether a pair of laceless Italian shoes is too effeminate for him to wear. In this scene, Hamilton broadcasts Nixon’s childlike need for reassurance, knocking the man down to mortal proportions. It is also fortunate that Hamilton never verges on caricature, opting to veer away from political cartoon. Rather, he aims for documentary.

 

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Director Louis Contey is a real talent. His use of blocking to create dramatic tension between Frost and Nixon is just another pleasurable subtlety of this production. Specifically, his work is highlighted in a scene in which an inebriated Nixon makes a late-night phone call to Frost. Although the two speak from separate locations, Contey puts them in the same space. There they move around each other and glare at one another in a battle of intimidation.

The set design by Keith Pitts also enhances the quality of the production. Large projections, created by Mike Tutaj, are cleverly used to alter the setting, from Nixon’s California home to a trans-Atlantic flight. Televisions flank both sides of the stage where closed-circuit cameras broadcast the historic interview. This gives us, the theater-going audience, a vision of how the medium of television shaped and influenced the interview.

TimeLine Theatre’s Frost/Nixon digs deep into the psyche of one of our most notorious presidents. Yes, Nixon may not have been an honest man, nor was he necessarily a decent or good man. But he was a man. And although this does not forgive his transgressions, it helps us better understand his weaknesses.

Ultimately, TimeLine has created a triumph of a production. Buy your tickets now while seats remain.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
 

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REVIEW: The Better Doctor (Silent Theater Company)

Multi-talented performers struggle to find show’s unique voice

 

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Bootstraps Comedy Theater, in association with Silent Theatre presents
   
 
The Better Doctor
  
written and directed by Matt Lyle
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston (map)
through June 26th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Silent Theater Company’s gimmick is what it sounds like: theatre in the style of old silent movies. It opens the door for some awesome physical performances and it even creates a template by which to tell topical stories in a universal way. Such is the case with The Better Doctor, Matt Lyle’s new play about sick, broke kids and the heroic tramp Velma (Kim Lyle), who is dedicated to finding them healthcare.

better-doctor-3 The show begins when the musicians take the stage.  Eric Loughlin on piano and Chris Jett on percussion sit on either side of the stage, bookending the action. The show does not lack energy, or innovation. Matt Lyle, who also directs, comes up with authentic and entertaining bits. Old-fashioned showmanship takes over as the performers charm the audience with sleight of hand tricks and big, blown-out characters.

The plot is simple, campy and a direct throwback to the simplistic storylines that showcased the comedic genius of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, but with a new, political twist. There are ways in which the live-action adaptation of the stylized, antiquated form of silent movie performance works very well. The exaggerated physicality is extremely theatrical, and evokes the feeling of a classic mime routine. The performers take on the athletic challenge with aplomb and grace. Heather Forsythe, who is well utilized for a supporting player demonstrates a knack for physical comedy, and graces the stage with a youthful sass. Her performance, while presentational as her fellow actors, betrays the hint of grounded humanity that made Buster Keaton a true comedic master. The same can be said for lead actor Samuel Zelitch, who’s bumbling medical intern character is straight from the classics.

Kim Lyle’s performance is plucky and confident, and it’s nice to see a woman hero in this context. As Velma, she uses her brawn and wit to find medical care for the three sick little scamps, joining forces with a Buster Keaton-ish intern. The trap and the stone-face team up to fight the powers that be, in this case the wicked Chief of Medicine, played by actor/improviser Mike Brunlieb. The play unfolds in an episodic manor, similar to the silent films that inspired it. Although the scenes progress to create a fluid piece, this is better-doctor-5secondary; each scene’s primary purpose is to open the door for comedy bits.

Around three quarters of the way through, The Better Doctor begins to lag.  During the big chase scene, which gets off to a funny, if precious, start, ends up spiraling down a dark road. As the chase dissolves into a keystone cops parody, the The Better Doctor becomes a show that relies too heavily on a clever premise, without taking ownership of itself. The Better Doctor, while paying faithful homage to the silent greats, has too weak a grasp on its own voice. A silent play that is too stylistically referential, The Better Doctor is to be cutesy at times, and gimmicky at it’s worst.  Bootstraps Comedy Theater needs to revisit this play, and cultivate what is universally true about this show. A little more honesty, and The Better Doctor could be a four star show.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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REVIEW: Messiah on the Frigidaire (Hubris Productions)

Faith among the desperate

Messiah 3

 
Hubris Productions presents
 
Messiah on the Frigidaire
 
Written by John Culbertson
Directed by Dennis Frymire
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The fervid religiosity of the American South suffers so much parody and lampoon it’s a wonder to find any comedy based on it that won’t bog down in cliché and 2-dimensional stereotype. But playwright John Culbertson shows a real feel for his subject. With Messiah on the Frigidaire, he demonstrates enough quick-witted familiarity to zing the zaniness of belief, while compassionately allowing his Messiah 2 characters the room to doubt, despair, and grow. Hubris Productions opens its fourth season at Greenhouse Theater Center with this gentle and astute play. Director Dennis Frymire and cast zealously realize its delicate balance between the hilarity of flamboyant religious showmanship and the loneliness of true dark nights of the soul.

Chief among lost souls is Lou Ann Hightower (Kim Boler)–facing a series of dead ends in her marriage, her blue-collar life, and her church. That might just look like tough times on anyone else. However, Lou Ann is also losing her faith, which for her is like slowly being drained of life’s blood. Luckily, she has a comforting sounding board in her friend and next-door neighbor, Betsy Gridley (Laura Rauh), the happily married ex-slut of Elroy, South Carolina. Lou Ann can confide to Betsy about the estrangement between her and her husband, Dwayne (Aaron Sjoholm), which has occurred under the strain of going nowhere fast. Betsy can still find joy in the streetlights as they come on in the evening, but Lou Ann finds her dreams and Dwayne’s suffocating in the confines of the trailer park.

Yet the Lord works in mysterious and/or obvious ways. In a premature attempt at topiary sculpture, another neighbor’s child has hacked away at one of Lou Ann’s trees. Light from the street lamps projects through its jagged branches, casting a shadow upon the Frigidaire on Lou Ann’s front porch, revealing–the face of Jesus! (Or Willie Nelson, take your choice.) Always thinking, husband Dwayne immediately perceives the monetary value of generating crowds to come view the new icon.

The trouble is, everyone else in town sees the monetary value, too—from the Reverend Hodges (Jeff McVann), who tells Lou Ann she doesn’t “fit in” to his church, to Elroy’s bank president Larry Williamson (Jack Birdwell) who denied Dwayne the loan to open a video store, but set up his own cousin with Dwayne’s idea. Culbertson is quite smart in the the numorous ways he highlights Elroy’s class dynamics. But he is also very conscious about the way it wreaks havoc with Lou Ann’s delicate conscience. Lou Ann may be more Christian than the church she’s been thrown out of or even the believers that show up on her property, but that doesn’t necessarily make her any happier.

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Frymire maintains the possibility of hope by snuggly weaving the relationships between Lou Ann and Betsy, and Lou Ann and Dwayne. Boler’s performance quietly, profoundly reaches to the solitary longing in Lou Ann’s soul but it also exposes Lou Ann’s simple, open acceptance of other people in their beliefs, no matter how wacky. Sjoholm’s Dwayne is a wily but frustrated good guy—chomping at the bit to make good on his dreams; only needing someone, especially Lou Ann, to believe in him. As Betsy, Rauh never goes overboard with the fun and friendly sluttiness—just enough to make her casual and comfortable in her own skin, never enough to overwhelm the friendship between Betsy and Lou Ann.

Even the “bad guys” get a bit of sympathy in their interpretation. Reverend Hodges may be the douchiest of douche bag preachers, but McVann’s performance also gives the impression that he is almost always on the point of obsequiously apologizing to someone. Birdwell portrays Larry Williamson with light, Southern college boy charm, masking the teeth he has underneath just long enough before he needs them.

This is one of those productions where the set should really live up to the quality of the storytelling. John Whittington makes the most of the cramped studio space available, but it still shows a flat, 2-dimensional quality. That might be fine if these were comic book characters—but they are not and the acting is not. Humane portrayals of flawed, human characters deserve humane, if not royal surroundings.

 
Rating: ★★★½