Review: Night and Her Stars (The Gift Theatre Company)

  
  

Thornton and his cast earn their ‘applause light’

  
  

Ray Shoemaker and Joe Mack in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

   
The Gift Theatre presents
  
Night and Her Stars
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by
Michael Patrick Thornton
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through April 24  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The effect of television on human civilization has been up for debate since the first flickering blue light emitted into people’s homes. “What was life like before television?” is a question that is repeated in Richard Greenberg’s 1995 play, Night and Her Stars, revolving around the 1950’s quiz show scandal involving academic Charles Van Doren and the Q&A show, “21”, now running at The Gift Theatre, directed with mastery by artistic director, Michael Patrick Thornton.

The vast majority of the American population can hardly fathom an existence without television. As this number increases, the debate on the social implications of television withers, being replaced by greater evils of technology. Nevertheless, this tale of America’s tested faith in television, and The Gift’s production, succeeds in reveling in nostalgia whilst finding immediacy, resonance and heart in its characters and their flaws.

Lindsey Barlag (foreground) and Erika Schmidt in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.As Greenberg himself notes, this play “must not be mistaken for history.” It is in this vain that the Gift takes us back to a skewed cold war era consumer driven television world of the 1950’s. Set designer Adam Veness does a remarkable job of transforming the tinderbox storefront space into a gaudy haunting replica of the notorious game show, “Twenty One”, complete with an “Applause” lighted sign and a four-sided blue glowing orb of a television set.

The first act primarily follows the rise and fall of the knowledgeable Jewish contestant Herb Stempel (played by Raymond Shoemaker with pitch perfect desperation, optimism and hamartia). Stempel is discovered by game show producer Dan Enright (Danny Ahlfeld) after being pressured by sponsors and execs to bring brighter contestants onto the show to avoid dead silence and stammering. Ed Flynn gives an entertaining supporting performance as the Geritol sponsor pleading with Enright, “I have to appeal to geriatrics.” These demands lead to Enright feeding answers to an initially hesitant Stempel resulting in his reigning championship run.

Stempel’s ethnicity and lack of on-camera charisma aren’t quite what the show’s audience is looking for, as Keith Neagle delivers the powerfully cringing line, “I hate him like rabies!” In one of the highlights of the play, Shoemaker is brilliant as Stempel pleading for any other question than the one he is given to go down on during his fall. As Stempel begins to reveal the truth to the press, Enright plays it off as “Jewish self-hatred.”

Along comes the more “all-American” contestant Charles Van Doren (Jay Worthington) who descends from a long line of famed academics. Van Doren is fed answers to replace Stempel on the show. Worthington gives a complex and exciting performance. As Charlie, he conveys a man who is given everything at once, yet happiness eludes him.

Charlie Van Doren’ can be considered a symbol of television stardom, be it quiz shows or reality shows. He embodies short lived fame and a lack of touch with the real world. Contrasting another Charlie amidst a modern day TV scandal, Van Doren finally exclaims, “I don’t want to win anymore.” Van Doren’s confession is staged effectively by Thornton with a chorus of the Christian congress instantly forgiving his sins.

Branimira Ivanova’s costumes are scrumptious, with many raided directly from the “Mad Men” wardrobe department, giving us glimpses into a range of rising movements in the late 50’s during the American Chorus’ interludes. The pinstriped suit and polka-dotted tie Enright gives to Stempel for his television debut is a sure laugh each night. Lighting designer Scott Pillsbury creates impressive effects and moods with the small space including an emotional lighting storm and perfectly placed moments in which the audience becomes lit. Miles Polaski’s sound design balances nicely between the atmospheric and the expressive spectrums.

     
Keith Neagle, Aemilia Scott and Jay Worthington in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg. Aemilia Scott and Ray Shoemaker in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars', wirtten by Richard Greenberg.

While Shoemaker and Worthington carry the show, it is ultimately an ensemble production. Joe Mack may be the most perfect casting in his turn as the oblivious game show host Jack Berry. Thornton utilizes Greenberg’s American Chorus expertly, as these fine actors come into the light to play pivotal roles only to disappear into an ever watching amoeba. Katie Genualdi is charming and smart in her various appearances, especially at the top of the second act in an ad for cornflakes infused with caffeine. Erika Schmidt has a calm intensity as a reporter who finally brings Van Doren to the truth. Established Chicago actor Paul D’Addario, as the exec Al Freedman, is as powerful of a presence silent as he is during dialogue. Aemilia Scott, as Stempel’s wife, is fascinating in struggling with her doubts for her husband. Ahlfeld’s Enright occasionally has some pacing and timing issues that may get tighter during the run.

While Greenberg’s telling of this cautionary tale may not land quite as powerfully as a decade or two ago, it still stands the test of time as an historical account that has grown into legend. The heart and humanity of this play lies with a character I’ve yet to mention played with wonder and honesty by veteran actor Richard Henzel. Perhaps, do yourself a favor and save the reading of the program until after the show and be surprised by the final scene in which we finally see Van Doren in his natural setting.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jay Worthington and Richard Henzel in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

Night and Her Stars continues at The Gift Theatre through April 24th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30. (no shows April 16 and 17). Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 (Sundays) and $30 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Industry and senior prices: $20 (Sundays only). For more info visit  thegifttheatre.org.

     
     

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REVIEW: The Four of Us (Theater Wit)

   
  

Rare find: a sophisticated comedy for bros!

  
  

(from left) Usman Ally, Collin Geraghty, Usman Ally and Collin Geraghty in the Midwest premiere of The Four of Us

   
Theater Wit presents
  
The Four of Us
   
Written by Itamar Moses
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
Extended thru Dec 18  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Review by Paige Listerud

Who among your friends do you measure yourself against? Theater Wit’s critically acclaimed production, The Four of Us, by award-winning playwright Itamar Moses, knowingly and humorously examines the shifting fortunes and friendship between two writers in search of artistic and worldly success–a quixotic and mercurial adventure if ever there was. Who could ever be prepared for the toll success may take when one writer receives unforeseen recognition in the cultural economy while the other flounders in the sea of struggling-to-make-it? For those unfamiliar with the Usman Ally and Collin Geraghty in The Four of Us by Itamar Mosesconcept of writer’s envy, Kathryn Chetkovich’s classic essay, which originally appeared in the magazine “Granta”, remains excellent background material for this drama.

David (Usman Ally), a struggling playwright, takes his old buddy, Benjamin (Collin Geraghty), out to lunch to celebrate the upcoming publication of Benjamin’s very first novel. It’s all part of the pact that they had made back in college – whoever makes it first, whether first novel or first play, has to buy the other lunch at a restaurant of their choice. But Benjamin’s novel getting published is not simply one man’s goal achieved—it’s success at a spectacularly obscene level. Huge bid by a major publisher, sold movie rights, a famous Hollywood actor looking to direct it—all of which, to David’s thunderstruck reaction, his long-time pal Benjamin writes off as nothing. Is it artistic integrity on Benjamin’s part or a victory won too easily to appreciate? Is his diffidence a slight indication of low self-esteem or another way to garner David’s attention for his achievement? Whatever the motive, David gets bitten by the envy bug but still buys Benjamin’s lunch.

Jeremy Wechsler’s direction keeps the witty back-and-forth between Ally and Geraghty crisp and taut. In fact, Moses script is reminiscent of Mamet in that each beat and inflection between actors requires rapid-fire interaction and two complementary mindsets practically joined at the third eye. David’s relationship with Benjamin may be a little too close for comfort, since Benjamin’s pronouncements on literature, women, relationships and life perpetually override David’s own judgment and lived experience. The playwright has a keen eye for the worshipful man-crush, supported by underlying structures of insecurity and crippling self-doubt. The Four of Us demonstrates intense emotional maturity about the immature reasons guys subtly compete with each other and compare the progress of their lives with the friends they are closest to.

 

(from left) Usman Ally plays David and Collin Geraghty portrays Benjamin in the Midwest premiere of The Four of Us, Collin Geraghty and Usman Ally in Theater Wit's The Four of Us

The play also jumps about between the current, alternating trials and triumphs of the characters and their college days—a summer in Prague, sharing a joint in their dorm room the year before and, for the grand finale, the first time they met as counselors in summer band camp. If the production has a weakness, it’s in the portrayal of David and Benjamin in their more youthful and idealistic years. Ally and Geraghty spar brilliantly with each other, but fail to bring the nuanced edge of jejune enthusiasm for life ahead of them that is the hallmark of college days. Given that this ultra-talky play constructs the evolution each goes through about the other, the production needs to demonstrate greater contrast between past and present. Without that, David and Benjamin’s relationship only comes across as one big gabfest with slightly distinct variations.

Playful scene changes and Joseph Fosco’s smart sound design keeps the energy lively from scene to scene. The Four of Us is fast-paced and cunning. Whether he digs theater or not, catch your best bud and drag him to see it. This is one of the most sophisticated comedies for the bros that I’ve seen in while. One can only hope that it will get made into a movie to wow the audiences at Sundance or Telluride.

 
   
Rating: ★★★½   
   
  

The Four Of Us - Theater Wit - Collin Geraghty and Usman Ally

     
itama moses

Playwright Itamar Moses

Production Personnel

Playwright: Itamar Moses
Director: Jeremy Wechsler 
Cast: Usman Ally, Collin Geraghty
Light Design:  Scott Pillsbury
Sound Design: Joseph Fosco 
Set Design: Roger Wykes
Costumes: Christine Pascual
Stage Manager: Wendye Clarendon

All production photos by Johnny Knight