Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Lunts

In the review below, I mention this couple: "I’d call them the North Coast Lunts if I thought anyone knew anymore who the Lunts were." So this isn't Bob and Lynn Wells, but Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, known as the Lunts--the most famous American acting team, who starred in more than two dozen Broadway plays from the 1920s into the 1950s. They did Shakespeare, Chekhov and Shaw, and contemporary playwrights. They're especially famous for how well they worked together and how quickly they picked up each other's lines, especially in Noel Coward. Coward wrote Design for Living for them, and for himself as their co-star. The Lunt Fontaine Theatre on Broadway is named for them. But I have to admit that I first heard of them when Holden Caulfield goes to a matinee of one of their shows in Catcher in the Rye.

Why Howe: Painting Churches 2009

Bob Wells, Jolene Hayes, Lynn Wells at NCRT
Tina Howe nearly nabbed the Pulitzer for Painting Churches in 1984, and by 1986, when I saw the Virginia Stage Company production in Norfolk, this play was on its way to becoming a regional theatre staple. (I saw Broadway veteran Avril Gentles, regional theatre stalwart Wyman Pendleton and young Jordan Baker, familiar now from TV, especially a recurring role in The New Adventures of Old Christine.)

Unlike one of Howe’s earlier plays, which had a cast of 44 (“The seventies—those were the days,” Laurie Anderson used to say in the eighties), Painting Churches has a cast of three and a single set, and so has tempted many unwary theatres with the idea that it’s simple to do.

The story is easy to outline—a young painter (Margaret Church, called “Mags”) returns from Manhattan to Boston to help her aging parents pack up their house for a permanent move to the country, and also to paint their portrait. Her parents are blue-blood aristocrats peculiar to Boston: well-born, highly educated, even famous (Mag’s father, Gardner Church, was a prominent poet who did win Pulitzers) but with depleted financial fortunes. Tina Howe’s father, broadcaster and writer Quincy Howe, came from such a Boston breed, and Gardner is said to be based on him, though it seems there’s some echoes of poet Robert Lowell as well.

Though homey comedy is emphasized in the beginning of the play, the drama that accrues involves both the consequences of uneven aging, and the unresolved relationship of parents and daughter.

The current North Coast Repertory Theatre production features Bob Wells as Gardner and Lynne Wells as his wife, Fanny. It’s a treat to see them act together (I’d call them the North Coast Lunts if I thought anyone knew anymore who the Lunts were.) Bob slithers and squints, balancing the comedy with the character’s residual gravity. Lynne is a fine comic partner but can cause shivers with a look--and she keeps the most consistent Boston accent. Jolene Hayes is energetic and emotive as Mags, and has her own solid comic as well as dramatic turns, including some physical moments.

Director Renee Grinnell propels them all around a simple but evocative set by Katie Pratt, filling the stage with motion and emotion. There are harrowing images, like the scattered manuscript pages and the disordered end of an honored life summed up by books being piled according to color.

But for me, these praiseworthy elements—plus this much-praised play—did not come together, when I saw it opening night. It could be that the tone this play needs is harder to achieve than it might seem. Or maybe this play’s time has passed, and it is too overwrought and overwritten to be more than sentimentalized melodrama.

There’s some fine writing, there are moments to admire, and aspects of the characters that may well spark responses and recognitions in the audience. It’s certainly worth going just to see Bob and Lynne Wells perform. But the play and the production did not work for me as a whole.

I frankly don't know how to disentangle my responses. Even before going, I wondered how a North Coast audience would warm up to such an East Coast and specifically Boston class as the Churches. (The folks in Norfolk seemed to, as I recall, but then southern gentility had some things in common.) This North Coast Rep production seemed to go for universality (though they tried the accents), and casting a well-known North Coast couple automatically relocated it a bit. But in doing so, it lost some subtlety that may be necessary.

On the other hand, how much is in the script, and how much was deeded by the original cast and production team? Tina Howe has written often about art and artist (as well as about aging), but I found the notions of art (of painting and of poetry) in this play pretty simplistic. Or are the relevant lines meant ironically? Hard to tell.

The problems and terrors of aging are real (though this play is not explicitly or even necessarily about Alzheimer’s Disease, despite some statements to the contrary.) But in general, its approach to aging seems a bit antique. It may be that Painting Churches is a younger woman’s play about old age. More than a quarter century later, Tina Howe is in her seventies, with perhaps a different perspective in her new play, Chasing Manet, which has just opened at Primary Stages in New York. It’s about two women who escape from their old age home.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Great Bad Dates

I had my doubts. I was going to a show called Bad Dates, written while Sex in the City was hot, by a New York playwright who made her living in television: a monologue about romantic misadventures by a woman surrounded by her several hundred pairs of shoes. When I could be at home witnessing the meaningful drama of the NCAA basketball tournaments (men's and women's. )

 But what could have been trendy triviality—and judging from some reviews online, has been played that way—became something different in the Redwood Curtain production at the Arcata Playhouse, because actor Tinamarie Ivey created a dimensional character you come to care about, and director Dan Stone found and told a compelling story.

 That’s not to say that Theresa Rebeck’s script is lacking. In fact, part of this triumph is finding and using the potential that’s in it. From the first moment—even in the preview I saw—Tinamarie Ivey instilled complete confidence and belief, partly because she was totally committed to inhabiting this character. Her honesty supported the character’s vulnerability, her ease on the stage nurtured credibility, and her physical and vocal skills suggested the shades of this character, from irony, anxiety and denial to pride and bravery.

 The character she plays is Haley, who came to New York City from Texas. Divorced, she’s old enough to have a 13 year old daughter, and has become successful as the manager of a dubious but trendy restaurant, but she’s starting to look for romance again.

 Ivey doesn’t do an obvious Texas accent (although she can mimic one to hilarious effect with just one word: “law.”) But she does have the undertones, and especially the occasional deep, throaty resonance (she kept reminding me vocally of Mary Kay Place of The Big Chill and Big Love fame, although Place is from Oklahoma.) This propels the raucous humor.

 Though we see only Haley, and never leave her apartment, there’s a story threaded through her accounts of dates she remembers, has just been on, or is just about to begin. It eventually involves a visit to a police station (which is all just like we see on TV cop shows, she assures us—kind of an in-joke since Rebeck was a writer and co-producer for NYPD Blue and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.)

 In fact, if this story had been a TV show, the twist at the end would have been predictable, but as a play it works quite well on several levels. I don’t want to give away too much, but there is a startling moment towards the end of such raw emotion that our presence as an audience feels intrusive, and the convention we’ve accepted—that this woman is simultaneously in her living room and addressing us as an audience—suddenly seems on the verge of shattering.

 The whole play could have fallen apart here, but it doesn’t, and this directorial gamble pays off because Ivey is in complete control of the stage. At a certain point, Haley apologizes for male-bashing. Frankly, that’s the tone I had more or less expected but didn’t really hear, so the apology came as a surprise. I expect that men have similar dating stories anyway, including being absurdly influenced by friends and an old movie.

 Even though Dan Stone (as scenic, lighting and sound designer as well as director) made very good use of the limited possibilities at the Playhouse, this is an intimate theatrical experience that such an intimate space affords. I doubt that it could work so well without that intimacy. This exceptional show plays two more weekends.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Natasha Richardson on Stage

Natasha Richardson, who died as the result of a skiing accident at the age of 45, is known to most of us from films, but she was also an accomplished stage actor--following in the family tradition of 3 generations and counting. That's her with mother Vanessa Redgrave and sister Joely Richardson, and again with her mother (below left) in a scene from the film Evening. Some filmgoers may not realize who she is because she took on a variety of roles, and the same is true in her stage work. She won high praise in Broadway revivals of A Streetcar Named Desire (middle bottom photo, playing Blanche DuBois) and Cabaret (for which he won a Tony), as well as Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. Among other notable roles were Ibsen's The Lady and the Sea (top right photo) and Patrick Marber's Closer (bottom right)-- coincidentally an HSU student group is performing a Studio Theatre production of this play's first act in early April. A New York Times article briefly describes her family legacy in film, but there is much, much more of it. These photos are all from the New York Times as well. Click collage to enlarge.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

A big weekend for theatre, beginning with North Coast Rep opening Tina Howe's Painting Churches on Thursday, March 19 at 8. (That's Bob Wells, Jolene Hayes and Lynn Wells in the photo above.) Dell' Arte students present four 15 minute melodramas in an evening entitled Dust in the Wind, Thursday through Saturday at 8 in the Carlo. The comedy Lafferty's Wake plays at Redbud Theatre in Willow Creek Friday and Saturday at 8. (530-629-1907.) Hearts and Minds is described as short SoHum-centric comedies, at the Mateel on Friday and Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 2. (923-7880.) And on the first weekend of spring, it's time for high school productions: You Can't Take It With You is at McKinleyville High on Thursday through Saturday at 7. (839-6470.) Once Upon A Mattress is at Arcata High Thursday through Saturday at 7:30. (845-2002.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


According to new scholarship, this is an authentic portrait of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime, unlike the more familiar images. Not quite the rock star as portrayed in Doctor Who last year, but a lot closer...When an Oregon high school banned a production of Steve Martin's play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and its students decided to put on an unofficial production anyway, the playwright--a wild and crazy guy--put up some of the money to do it. The ban seems motivated by a combination of squeamishness (for its "adult content") and reductive, misinformed political correctness ( "people drinking in bars, and treating women as sex objects.") Martin says it's about "the similarity of the creative process involved in great leaps of imagination in art and science."North Coast Rep did a production of it some years ago here, which I saw and enjoyed.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

R.I.P. Deborah Clasquin

Deborah Clasquin, pianist and teacher much beloved on the North Coast, passed away on Tuesday, it was announced today. In his email to colleagues, Dean Kenneth Ayoob called her "a force of nature," and Deborah certainly was that. She was a force for good on the North Coast and for the students and fellow HSU faculty she championed. I'll always remember sitting behind her on the Fulkerson Hall stage as she played "Rhapsody in Blue." My last encounter with her ended in a long hug. We will miss her.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Our Town, Our Time

Besides David Cromer (top left) in the current hit Chicago-to-New York production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the part of the Stage Manager as been played by Paul Newman (bottom left), Hal Holbrook (bottom right)--and Thonrton Wilder himself (top right.) At center is the striking poster image from a Dallas production. More on Our Town and our times in the post below. Click collage to enlarge.

Our Town, Our Country

Frank Rich has led two lives at the New York Times. He's currently a current affairs columnist, and before that he was the chief drama critic. (He's had even more jobs outside that paper--he was a movie critic for Time Magazine, and before that for New Times magazine, where he was also an editor: my editor, in fact.) The two roads that diverged in a country wood also met there, and his two lives also occasionally touch in an overt way.

This Sunday was one of those times, when he wrote about Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and our country. He cites two new productions, in Chicago and New York (there was another up in Ashland last season that unfortunately I didn't get to see), and observes: "You can see why there’s a spike in the “Our Town” market. Once again its astringent distillation of life and death in the fictional early-20th-century town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., is desperately needed to help strip away “layers and layers of nonsense” so Americans can remember who we are — and how lost we got in the boom before our bust."

Given the role that theatre plays in this culture, it may take an ex-drama critic to make the connection between new productions of a classic play and how that play resonates and illuminates the moment in a new way. But given the openness that many people in theatre audiences take to the plays they see, I believe this connection is made pretty often by audiences, if not journalists.

I am also delighted that Wilder's play is being revived. Thonrton Wilder has been too easily dismissed for too long. I'd like to see a new production of The Skin of Our Teeth (his other Pulitzer Prize winner) as well. Wilder wrote plays from the 1920s to 1960. He wrote fiction into the 1970s. That's a lot of American history. It's time to see him again, anew.

Here's are reviews of the Chicago production and the New York production of Our Town.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

This North Coast Weekend: Jagun Fly

It's the final weekend for Jagun Fly at HSU. I saw what will probably wind up being the worst night of the run, which was last Friday. Michelle Cartier, who not only designed the visuals (projections, video) and sound but was to run it during the show, had a sudden family emergency and wasn' there. Though the play was possible without the visual effects, the production was built with them as part of it, so the timing was thrown off. Plus someone had to learn the sound cues, because there were important sound effects. Then director John Heckel came down with this flu that's felling people left and right--he did what he could until he was too sick to stand on Friday afternoon.

But the show went on, and despite a lighting cue error which erased an important speech, and some other missed lines elsewhere, there were also very effective moments for each of the cast members, particularly Natasha Harrell (pictured above), who nobody had seen let go like that before. Judging from the talk-back afterwards, the audience was impressed overall. Now Michelle is back and the show is only going to get better. I'm hoping to see it again this weekend.

I also spent some time with the playwright, John ADEkoje, who was on campus for a week from Boston. I'd read this play so I knew he can write, as I keep saying, some serious music. But I was equally impressed with his temperament (pretty even, with humor and both in-the-moment perceptions and an analytical distance) and attitude. These are qualities I've seen before, and together with his writing talent, it's a combination that augers well for success. He impressed those who knew him as a student with how he's grown, and the potential for growth is another good sign. He's also a filmmaker, so the stage may not become his main emphasis, but he has a lot of potential as a playwright well beyond his alma mater.