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: Auctioning the Ainsleys (Dog & Pony Theatre)

     
     

‘Auctioning’ is a hard sell

     
      

Matthew Sherbach and Faith Noelle Hurley (standing) and Kate Kisner (seated) and Teeny Lamothe in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage

   
Dog & Pony Theatre Company presents
   
Auctioning the Ainsleys
   
Written by Laura Schellhardt
Directed by
Dan Stermer
at
The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
through Dec 18  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Laura Schellhardt’s Auctioning the Ainsleys is painfully, blatantly, and delightfully quirky. Dog & Pony Theatre Company’s treatment of the play feels like it was lifted from the mind of Wes Anderson or Diablo Cody. There’re plenty of sweaters, vintage silverware, and arrested development, and the show – directed by Dan Stermer – is undeniably fun. Unfortunately, the only thing it’s really missing is dramatic heft.

Austin Talley and Kate Kisner in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building StageThe titular Ainsleys are a gaggle of childish adult siblings who live with their reclusive mother in a massive auction house. Each has some neurosis that makes them perfect for the estate-sales business the family runs. Annalee (Faith Noelle Hurley) is more than a tad OCD; therefore, she oversees accounting. Amelia (Teeny Lamothe) obsesses over matching—both objects and people—which makes her perfect for setting up the auction lots. Aiden (Matthew Sherbach) eschews all material things, so he takes care of all the polishing, cleaning, and refurbishing (or distressing if that’s what people are buying). Their world is turned upside down when their aging mother, Alice (Kate Kisner), decides to auction off the house and everything in it. The enormous sale recalls wayward daughter Avery (Rebekah Ward-Hays), whose caustic domineering ways upset the Ainsleys’ balance even more.

Schelhardt’s play is about people, but it is also very much about things. It riffs on what our objects say about us in a myriad of intriguing, charming ways. According to Avery, a smart auctioneer is not selling tangible items, but the stories behind those things. Alice has a trinket she uses to symbolize each one of her children (a teapot, a stapler, etc.). Her deceased slave-driver of a husband, a character never seen but who drives much of the action nevertheless, represented each one of his brood with a price tag.

Stermer’s production is beautifully designed. Every design aspect clicks wonderfully with every other. Tracy Otwell’s and Annalee Johnson’s playful envisioning of the Ainsley homestead stuffs the vast Building Stage space. Stermer uses it very well, carving out scenes on the various levels. Kevin O’Donnell’s amusing, jazz-inspired soundtrack is also of note, slathering on the vibraphone and woodwinds.

Schelhardt falls prey to a flaw that plagues many young writers and theatre companies in our age of indie films. The play flits along for the first act, introducing the wacky characters and their defining eccentricities. As the Ainsleys’ auctioning continues, though, there is a jarring push to explore dark family secrets (abuse, prejudice, long-lingering hatred). This is done to manufacture some stakes, but the heavy issues feel very artificial considering the first half of the play. Many of the revelations uncovered in the latter half come off as either unbelievable, a bit dumb, or insignificant. Avery harbors a deep-seated hatred for her tyrannical dad, but her reasoning seems tangled.

 

Austin Talley and Faith Noelle Hurley in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage (Left to right) Rebekah Ward-Hays, Austin Talley, Kate Kisner (seated), Teeny Lamothe and (standing, back row) Matthew Sherbach and Faith Noelle Hurley in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage
Faith Noelle Hurley in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage Austin Talley and Matthew Sherbach in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage

Stermer collected a talented cast that breathes life into Schelhardt’s whimsical world. Lamothe is mousy and hilarious. Sherbach is another standout, often responding with ridiculous physical responses when Aiden cannot come up with words. Both the script and the cast occasionally fall back on unmotivated character idiosyncrasies. This includes Hurley’s cartoony hand gestures or, once he finds out Alice’s auditor (Austin Talley) is a collector, Aiden’s annoying habit of calling him a synonym of “souvenir” (knickknack, brickenbrak, curio—something that would be funny if done, like, only five times instead of five times every conversation). The best scenes, both in terms of writing and acting, are the ones between Talley and Kisner. They are sweet but weighty, peculiar but relatable, and the most dramatically interesting sections of the production. These few scenes are what the rest of the play wants to be.

Through Auctioning the Ainsleys, Dog & Pony exudes plenty of charming hipster quirk that is certifiably enjoyable. However, Schelhardt obviously wants to make some sincere comment on the cult of materialism. The message is lost in the clutter.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Rebekah Ward-Hays (right, front) and cast in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys

TICKET DEAL: Pay What You Can is available at the door every Thursday and Sunday provided the show is not sold out.

     
     

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Review: Oak Park Theatre Festival’s “Fifth of July”

The sequel to Wilson's acclaimed Talley's Folly, which was produced by Festival Theatre in 2007. Set in rural Missouri in 1977, it revolves around the Talley family and their friends, and focuses on the disillusionment with America in the wake of an unpopular war. At once poignent and marvelously funny, Fifth of July is a compassionate portrait of a generation trying to decide whether to abandon their past or find the courage to cope with it and to begin anew. In 1978 Fifth of July was nominated for the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best new play and the Tony Award for Best Play. For 35 years, the Oak Park Theatre Festival has used its outdoor location to give their productions an authentic vibe and to allow their audiences to enjoy the summer weather while enjoying theatre. This works particularly well for staging Shakespearean works, which, after all, were originally produced in an open-air setting. In more recent years they have staged more modern plays in their slice of Austin Gardens’ park, carefully selecting plays that already have an outdoor setting, like William Inge’s “Picnic.” Set in the front rooms and yard of an old Missouri home, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July is a perfect fit for the festival’s aesthetic. Considering the production runs through June and July, it also helps that the play takes place on Independence Day and the morning following. The play is perfectly suited for a staging in a park, but the story and themes are muddled in their current production by some indecisive approaches to the play.

Fifth of July is part of a trilogy documenting the American experience of the Talley family living in Lebanon, Missouri, including the 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner, Talley’s Follies. The play takes place in 1977 and showcases the disillusionment of that era. The protagonist, Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Stef Tovar), is a gay Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war. His sister, June Talley (Lydia Berger), was a former hippie and now is struggling as a single mom. Both of them find little to celebrate on Independence Day. They have a big gathering of family and friends, including their Aunt Sally (Kate Kisner) and married friends John and Gwen (Brandon Dahlquist and Rebekah Ward-Hays). The holiday festivities quickly sour when friends and family start bickering about jobs, custody, and the price of the Talley household.

5th of July - poster Pamela Maurer and Alexis Vejar’s set, basically a house with select cuts made in a few of the walls, makes great use of the surroundings. The setting allows for some great stage pictures; conversations could be happening in one area of the house while other characters can be chilling out on the porch or lawn, lighting up the entire space instead of just one corner.

While director Michael Weber succeeds at balancing the stage, he fails at telling a truly cohesive story. It was difficult for me to follow any particular narrative. Important plot points weren’t really served up in any way, voiding the production of an accessible story. Instead of juggling the multiple subplots while supporting Ken’s main story (a decision of whether or not to return to teaching at his old high school), all of the stories were muddled together and none of them came out fully formed. Most of the performances were decent, although some were too over-the-top. A problem that a couple of actors had, which also contributed to the garbled narrative, was synthesizing high emotional distress almost without warning. Instead of building the tension, characters would be chatting to one another and then one would be shouting or crying all of a sudden, which doesn’t work with Lanford’s script. A technical issue that might have added to this was that the set was littered with floor mics, which I suppose helped the actors’ voices compete with passing planes and cicadas, but they also amplified every step and door slam to a distracting level. It might be a necessary evil in order for the dialogue to be heard, but it also took a toll on the overall storytelling.

Still, the Oak Park Theatre Festival is a good time, and is especially suited to summer in Chicago. One thing I learned from the locals, though, is that you should bring plenty of wine, food, and bug spray. Enjoying theatre al fresco, even if it’s not of the highest caliber, is still its own fun experience.

Rating: ««½

 
Cast and Crew
Lydia Berger (June)
Danny Bernardo (Jed)
Brandon Dahlquist* (John)
Charles Gardner (Wes)
Glynis Gilio (Shirley)
Rebekah Ward-Hays (Gwen)
Kate Kisner (Sally)
Stef Tovar* (Ken)
Kieran Welsh-Phillips (u/s Gwen & June)
Director: Michael Weber*
Stage Manager: Robert W Behr*
Costume: Ricky Lurie
Lights: Jeremy Getz
Sound: Kyle Irwin
Set: El Fish
House Manager: Jeff Weisman
Box Office: Mary Liming
* denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association