Review: The Man Who Came to Dinner (Circle Theatre)

     
     

Circle Theatre serves up a hilariously entertaining ‘Dinner’

     
     

Jon Steinhagen, Kieran Welsh-Phillips, Jerry Bloom - Circle Theatre

  
Circle Theatre presents
  
The Man Who Came to Dinner
   
Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by
Mary Redmon
at
Madison Street Theatre, Oak Park (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $20-$24  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

When an infamously demanding radio personality slips on the ice of his dinner host’s front stoop and is forced to take up residence against his will in their home for six weeks, among their various relatives, famous friend visitors and townsfolk, only madness can ensue. Such is the story of The Man Who Came to Dinner, currently playing at Circle Theatre.

Jon Steinhagen, Noah Sullivan, Patti Paul - Circle TheatreThe Man Who Came to Dinner begins with an energetic cast (maybe a little bit too energetic). While the show is a farcical comedy and over-the-top acting is to be expected, some performers, such as Mrs. Stanley (Patti Paul), wife of Earnest Stanley who are hosting radio personality Sheridan Whiteside, teeter on excessive overacting, which can be grating at times. Whiteside (Jon Steinhagen) starts off understated, delivering dryly bitter lines and insults in a rather hilarious manner. As the show progresses, we see Steinhagen begin to talk faster and faster which – though serving as a method of condescension to others – at times become hard to understand and just a tad grating. However, when taken as a whole, Steinhagen does a great job of embodying the character and fleshing Whiteside out.

Lorraine Sheldon (Heather Townsend) is also plagued by use of quick speech, but as she is a larger than life character, a famous actress friend of Whiteside’s who he’s invited to visit, Townsend’s bombasity works here, as Townsend uses not only her voice but her facial expressions and body language to bring Lorraine Sheldon to life.

Whiteside has traveled with his secretary Maggie Cutler (Kieran Welsh-Phillips), who keeps his life in order while he’s indisposed. Welsh-Phillips offers depth to the character of Maggie. She’s a presence on stage, speaking clearly and delivering her lines with confidence and knowledge of her character’s story. Maggie also falls in love while they are stuck at the Stanley residence with Burt Jefferson (delightfully played by Danny Pancratz), a newspaper reporter who has come in search of a story on Whiteside.

Harriet Stanley (Brooke Sherrod Jaeky), an ax murderer masquerading as Mr. Stanley’s sister, Nurse Preen (Katie Kisner), Whiteside’s nurse and Beverly Carlton and Banjo (Jerry Bloom), friends of Whiteside’s who visit, round out the list of standout performances. Jaeky is understated, creating a strange yet fascinating character. Kisner is rather comical as she attempts to deal with Whiteside’s temper tantrums and antics. Bloom takes on characters based on famous character men: Jon Steinhagen, Heather Townsend - Circle TheatreBeverly on Noel Coward and Banjo on Harpo Marx. Bloom does a terrific job of paying homage to these characters as well as bringing his own take to the roles.

The set, designed by Bob Knuth, is quite ornately decorated. From the busily detailed wallpaper to the decorative window treatments to the proper-looking furniture and baby grand piano it’s clear that we’re in the home of wealthy individuals. A grand staircase leads to the home’s bedrooms and French doors lead to an (offstage) library. The attention to detail is exceptional and the set is visually interesting, a perfect backdrop for this performance.

The Man Who Came to Dinner proves to be an entertaining show and ends on a hilarious note that keeps the audience laughing as the actors take their bows.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Danny Pancratz, Kieran Welsh-Phillips, Jon Steinhagen - Circle Theatre

The Man Who Came to Dinner plays at Circle Theatre (1010 W. Madison, Oak Park) through April 3rd. Tickets are $20 to $24 and can be purchases by calling (708) 771-0700.

  
  

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REVIEW: After the Fall (Eclipse Theatre)

When an intellectual looks for love in all the wrong places

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Eclipse Theatre presents
   
After the Fall
   
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by
Steve Scott
at
Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Arthur Miller just wants to be loved. Is that so wrong? After the Fall, the play that is his sojourn through love’s conundrums and dead ends, bears Miller’s soul for all to see at Eclipse Theatre’s home, the Greenhouse Theater Center. Miller’s devastating marriage to Marilyn Monroe, inextricably intertwined with our country’s descent into OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA paranoid McCarthyism (and Miler’s dealings with this paranoia), really did a number on his head. Shortly afterward, no doubt, the demise of Marilyn herself really, really did a number on his head. The result is After the Fall.

What does one do about conscious or unconscious betrayals—of the heart or of one’s principles? How does one go on after love has died and disillusionment has almost totally taken over? These seem to be the greatest moral pre-occupations for After the Fall’s excessively intellectual protagonist, Quentin (Nathaniel Swift).

But, wait. Perhaps to judge his intellectualism as excessive is a dumbed-down way of looking at him. Arthur Miller flourished in an era when America had many public intellectuals. Those intellectuals were disciplined to constantly interrogate the state of our nation’s cultural and civic life. Now, in the place of public intellectuals, we have talking-point-addled pundits and reality TV show celebrities. In terms of intellectual expression in American civic life, we have become a very cheap date.

Therefore, Quentin’s conundrums may not exactly be ours, whether they are about maintaining a pristine conscience in the middle of fallible human interactions or taking on overwhelming personal responsibility, to the point of seeing the roots of the Holocaust in one’s minute personal betrayals. Quentin suffers from serious survivor guilt. No doubt about it, the man is a survivor—not of the Holocaust per se, but certainly the McCarthy Era.

Apparently, surviving the McCarthy Era can take a lot out of you. As a Quixotic leftist lawyer, tilting against the onslaught of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Quentin is surviving the purge of leftists from American academia, from American media, from the everyday workplace. Indeed, he is surviving the purge of leftists from American thought. But try as he may, the friends he is trying to save are going down.

Quentin is prepared to defend Lou, his old Communist academic buddy—played with spot-on geeky anxiety by Eustace Allen. Lou is a man on the verge–on the verge of having his career decimated, his livelihood pulled out from under him like a magician’s trick. Other lefty friends, like Mickey (Eric Leonard), are ready to cave into HUAC and surrender names. Meanwhile, Lou’s wife, Elsie (Nina O’Keefe), salaciously comes on to Quentin with Lou not far away and further scenes reveal her to be nothing less than a sexual menace–a menace O’Keefe delivers with just one look.

Quentin is discovering, to his uncomprehending shock, his friends’ morally compromised natures. Even Lou admits to espousing lies in his academic work on the Communist Party. Lou’s book was received well enough during America’s World War II alliance with the Soviet Union but now the whole thing is crashing down upon him.

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Amid all this, Quentin’s marriage is souring and failing like all his other relationships. Amid the ruined lives, the cynical hypocrisy of colleagues distancing themselves from Joe McCarthy’s victims–amid self-compromise at every turn—why can’t our hero get a little love?

Quentin’s wife, Louise (Julie Daley), seems to have nothing more to give. Daley’s tight and sharp portrayal of Louise is by turns both sympathetic and bitterly judgmental. We hear the voice of “The Feminine Mystique” when Louise complains that Quentin doesn’t listen to her, only uses her as a sounding board for his own intellect. But we also hear an older, more Puritanical voice in her petty accusations that he finds other women sexually attractive. He has never slept with any other woman and feels guilty feeling attraction to women other than Louise, but Louise sees his straying sexual thoughts as infidelity and she holds them against him, just as she withholds sex from his attempts to ameliorate the growing distance between them.

There are more painful scenes to watch in After the Fall, but close in the running are Quentin and Louise’s arguments. They are an accurate depiction of two highly intellectual people so lost in their heads they can no longer open up emotionally. Problems that other couples would solve with a good argument, then a good fuck, Quentin and Louise cannot even negotiate without an interpreter. Perhaps divorce is the only thing, since they can’t generate the sexual interest necessary to get over ideological disagreements or personal flaws. What must have seemed like the ideal match in college has turned into a prison for them both.

Perhaps what Quentin needs is a more free-flowing sexual spirit, a woman with a sensual orientation, a woman who lives in the eternal now–maybe a woman who is the sex symbol of the age, like Marilyn Monroe. But it’s grossly unfair to write off Nora Fiffer’s interpretation of Maggie as a Marilyn Monroe imitation. Fiffer takes the role and makes it thoroughly her own. Any inflections she borrows from Monroe make her performance purely impressionistic and entirely original. One can know everything about Monroe’s life and still see Maggie up there on the stage.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The marriage between Miller and Monroe has always seemed like an improbable match; the marriage between Quentin and Maggie, far more realistic. Part of this is Swift’s youthful, corporate, Everyman appeal but another part is Miller’s psychologically acute take on Quentin. If divorce and disillusionment have upset Quentin’s apple cart and dumped him into the realm of uncertainty, then he is starting over almost as new and green as Maggie in her burgeoning singing career.

But Maggie still belongs to a younger, more rebellious, more sexual generation–the 50s generation of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Monroe, Brando, and Dean emerged just a beat before the Sexual Revolution of the 60s, but that didn’t make them any less rarin’ to go. After the Fall’s Maggie anticipates the qualities of the Boomer generation; sexual openness and adventurousness, full embodiment of a “be here now” attitude, childlike narcissism and arrogance, and a propensity to succumb to drug abuse—although it’s just good, old-fashioned alcohol and barbiturates that drag Maggie and her marriage into hell. Quentin really has gotten in over his head with this one.

Watching Swift and Fiffer play out this doomed pair’s degeneration is like watching two perfectly matched martial artists having it out in the ring. Theirs is a confrontation that could easily slip into the clichés of “Days of Wine and Roses” or a million other addiction dramas, but Scott’s direction keeps their battle taut and economical. Eclipse’s production should sell out for their Second Act scene alone.

Happily, the production doesn’t need to rest on two leads. Quentin’s progress through time and memory is an actor’s Iron Man marathon and Swift stays the course, receiving absolute support from the impeccable cast surrounding him. Cast cohesion is no small feat in an impressionistic and cinematic drama based solely on memory and yearning, but hold together they do. Their characters are the skeletal bones of Quentin’s memory and hold the keys to unraveling his perpetual guiltiness. Guilty memory, especially regret over not being able to save Lou or Maggie, has its claws deep into Quentin—to the point where one wonders whether he has more of a love affair with guilt than he could ever have with any woman.

Is that the cornerstone of Miller’s heart—thoroughly Jewish and unceasing guilt? One might consider Quentin’s survivor’s guilt almost pathological; its presence balanced only by the solid family team of Mother (Susan Monts-Bologna), Father (Jerry Bloom) and brother Dan (Joe McCauley). In them one awakens to Quentin’s ethnic roots, as well as his parent’s survivor’s instinct in the face of the Crash of 1929. Quentin supposes he got his instinct from his Mother, rendered by Monts-Bologna with crafty intelligence and comic intensity. Rather than being able to own it, it’s just another thing that makes him feel guilty.

But the truth is that everyone in Quentin’s family can be called a survivor—certainly of the Crash and of any other personal or political disasters that came afterwards. One is always a survivor, at least until one dies. The real question is if life is still worth living after everything else—including justice, love, and principle—has completely fallen apart. Not to diminish After the Fall as being one, big, Jewish survivor’s guilt fest, but the Holocaust is the play’s constant specter, even in scenes when it is never alluded to. Quentin finally finds another love interest in Holga (Sally Eames-Harlan) because she can confirm for him that no one who survived the Holocaust was innocent. Perhaps more than love itself, he needs another survivor to show him how to go on. It’s his final acknowledgment of his need that makes his survival noble.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

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Extra Credit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinal scene of After the Fall

   
   

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REVIEW: The Body Snatchers (City Lit Theater)

Pod people take over City Lit Theater!

 

CityLit-BodySnatchers_web 

 
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Body Snatchers
 
Adapted and directed by Paul Edwards
From the novel by
Jack Finney
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr
(map)
[ Thru May 9 | tickets: $25 | more info ]

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

If the late-night creature feature is your idea of fun, you’ll love City Lit Theater’s clever and nostalgic version of The Body Snatchers.

Bringing science fiction to the stage often requires surmounting difficult problems of special effects. Creating futuristic worlds and horrifying aliens is a lot easier for moviemakers than it is for theater directors. Yet in this lively world-premiere staging, the horrors are all conveyed — wonderfully — by the actors, while the special effects evoke not the future, but the past.

bodysnatchers Based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, which was in turn the basis for the seminal 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and remakes and sequels in 1978, 1993 and 2007, the production effectively uses video displays of the 1950s – the Atomic Age – to create mood, reminding us of the era, paying homage to the films and sometimes standing in for sets on the small and minimally furnished stage.

The original novel and the film were set in the 1950s simply because they were created in the ’50s. In 2010, however, that timing conveys a sense of solid normality, of a time of innocence and placidity against which the invasion of the emotionless vegetable people seems even more unspeakably alien than it would be amid the turmoil of our war-torn and politically weird 21st century. (Oddly, however, the adaptation dismisses the 1950s’ own political peculiarity, to which the original’s theme of infiltration partly alludes.)

In case you’ve somehow managed to miss all the versions of this eerie story, the plot follows the residents of a small Marin County, CA town who are gradually replaced by identical but impassive beings that grow in giant pods.

Brian Pastor plays Miles, the protagonist and narrator. A doctor, lately divorced, Miles is among the first to hear of the trouble when his old flame, the seductive Becky (Sheila Willis), also newly divorced, comes to him with her concerns over her cousin (Susie Griffith), who’s become convinced that their uncle isn’t really their uncle. Then more and more townspeople report such convictions about their relatives. Meanwhile, romance rekindles between Miles and Becky, though both are gun-shy.

CityLit-BodySnatchers_webAfter Miles’ frightened friends Jack and Theodora (Thad Anzur and Shawna Tucker) reveal a startling find in their basement, the foursome begins to tumble to the bizarre and terrifying truth, despite the glib efforts of Mannie (Jerry Bloom), a psychologist, to dismiss it all as mass hysteria, like the Mattoon Mania. No one’s immune, not even the police (Andrew Jorczak).

City Lit has loads of fun with this show, injecting humorous touches at every level, from the fake newspapers on the video screens to the twitching pod people to unexpected reactions on Miles’ asides to the audience. Pastor, with a keen sense of comic timing, takes the focus of the show, but fine performances feature throughout. The supporting characters — especially Bloom’s urbane Mannie, Kingsley Day’s creepy Uncle Ira and June Eubanks’ sly takes on two female roles — add subtlety and interest.

The whole cast follows ably along with Paul Edwards’ somewhat uneven script, lurching from the pure camp and shrill thrills of the B-movies to the novel’s reflective commentary on suburban married life — the point, of course, being that horrors don’t all come from outer space.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.

 

Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.

 

Rating: «««½

 

Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

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