Friday, March 20, 2009

Autobahn, Cleveland Play House/CWRU

(Sarah Nedwek and Leigh Williams as druggy daughter and distant mom in Autobahn.)

When reviewing a set of seven short plays, all of which take place in a car, the urge to indulge in clever automotive wordplay is irresistible. So let’s get them all out of the way in one sentence: In Autobahn, playwright–driver Neil LaBute doesn’t buckle his seat belt of authorial restraint inside this hard-to-control vehicle, so that after side-swiping logic and T-boning credibility, his theatrical hopes crash through the windshield of self-indulgence, leaving his outlaw reputation bleeding on the pavement of overly-condensed inanity. There. No more car puns.

On the bright side, the young actors in the Cleveland Play House/Case Western Reserve MFA Acting program do what they can with LaBute’s masturbatory script. But unfortunate choices by director Alan Rosenberg contribute to an evening that is not so much enjoyed as endured.

LaBute is known for writing edgy plays that grapple with controversial topics, such as the excellent and searing Fat Pig and In The Company of Men. But in Autobahn, he lets his worst tendencies off the leash and the result is a hodgepodge of forced and determinedly precious vignettes that fail to work on multiple levels.

The proceedings start with a serious case of butt envy, since the plush car seats on stage, set behind a steering wheel, look immensely more comfortable than the ass-tormenting benches the audience has to sit on in CPH’s Studio One Theatre.

The general discomfort increases, however, as the first skit introduces irritating LaBute-ian habits which can most easily be summarized by the term (now coined here) of “autovociphilia,” or falling in love with one’s own voice. Four of the seven short works are virtual monologues, a technique that seems motivated less by plotting necessities than by the playwright’s preference to hear his own thoughts uninterrupted by the distraction of other characters.

In that first episode, mom is driving her 20-ish daughter (Sarah Nedwek) home from a drug treatment center, and the daughter rambles on and on until we learn that she toked while at the center and now plans to “do shit” as soon as she gets home. Well, you might think mom, even a distant “mommie dearest,” would have something to say. But not in LaBute’s world; mom is mute.

That lack of reality is a constant. In the second bit, also a monologue, the driver played with goofy verve by Tom Picasso rages on about how his buddy, sitting next to him, should take back the Nintendo his ex has kept after their breakup. Again, it passes understanding why the offended party wouldn’t contribute anything to the conversation, especially when the driver veers off into a digression about old people who complain at a movie theater.

Of course, a couple of the pieces touch on the playwright’s signal obsession, sex. In “Merge,” the wife (an amusing Leigh Wiliams) is telling her husband about a scary overnight at the hotel where she was staying for a business meeting. But Michael Flood, as her husband, can’t shake his stiffness, so that we never get a sense of his reaction to the veiled news of her attackers and/or sexual partners. And in “Road Trip,” a high school teacher (A.J. Cedeno) is driving one of his students (Lindsay Iuen) to a creepy getaway at a remote cabin.

In most of these vignettes, the primary (or sole) speaker muses about the aptness of certain words, as if they all shared some rhetorical/analytical chromosome that is no doubt similar to—the playwright! Hey, why bother creating different characters when you, yourself, are the most interesting person you know?

In the most successful piece, “Bench Seat,” Zac Hoogendyk and Nedwek play a couple parked at lover’s lane, but who have dramatically different agendas. Watching them each try to achieve their separate goals while dealing with lust and her barely submerged stalker mentality is quite fascinating.

As funny as “All Apologies” is, featuring a foul-mouthed guy who can’t offer a fucking apology to his wife without cussing, it’s a one-joke premise that barely sustains itself for ten minutes. And in the title work, a wife is enabling her husband, an apparent abuser of the foster child whom they have returned to the agency. But as the psychologically intimidated wife, Williams doesn’t find enough contours to make her character sufficiently believable or interesting.

Although understandable for economic reasons, it’s too bad there is only one car-seat set for all the plays, since this rather luxurious version seems out of place at times. And it is regrettable that director Rosenberg doesn’t require his actors who are driving to actually simulate the operation of a motor vehicle. None of the supposed drivers ever check the rear view mirrors, slow down, stop or accelerate—be they on a freeway or a surface street. If you’re not going to have the driving actors drive, just put them in a couple wing back chairs and call it “The Living Room.”

But the lion’s share of disappointment goes to the prolific LaBute, who has written enough good plays to know when he’s cranked out a lemon. (Damn, almost made it.)

Autobahn
Through March 28 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue,
216-795-7000

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Farnsworth Invention, Beck Center

(Sebastian Hawkes Orr as Farnsworth and Paul Floriano as Sarnoff)

It’s a damn good thing somebody invented television, otherwise we’d be relegated to sitting in a chair and staring at a blank wall for four hours a night. But who among us ever wonders about the person who came up with this miracle of instant audio/video transmission?

That question is somewhat answered in The Farnsworth Invention, now at the Beck Center. Written by Aaron Sorkin (who created and wrote many of the scripts of the TV series The West Wing), the play narrows the culprits down to two: Utah rube-genius Philo Farnsworth and snarky, sharkskin-suited David Sarnoff, head honcho of RCA and NBC.

The basic outlines of these very different pioneers have great theatrical potential, but Sorkin feels compelled to unload so many factoids about their history that we never connect emotionally with either man or their intersecting obsessions. Without that, the evening feels like a heavily-footnoted essay on the emergence of television, rather than an energetic exploration of what was arguably the 20th century’s most impactful invention.

After briefly touching on the childhoods of each man (Farnsworth was a wildly precocious 12-year-old farm boy while Sarnoff was born to a poor Jewish family in Russia), the adult versions of each man proceed to share the narration of the play. This quasi-documentary structure allows Sorkin to indulge in many fact-spewing forays—"such-and-such" company was a subsidiary of "so-and-so corporation"—which justify the time he spent on research but feel more like a dry seminar than a theatrical performance.

Anyhow, Farnsworth manages to find funding for a television lab and, battling challenges that include a fondness for drink and a very ill son, he—SPOILER ALERT—invents a TV that actually works! Meanwhile, Sarnoff snarls at his highly paid scientists who can’t seem to make their magic boxes function. But Sarnoff has an overarching mission for the new medium that will make him a star of the new broadcast culture.

Unfortunately, Invention gets so tangled up in the patent battles, repeated descriptions of cathode ray tube technology and marital spats that the play is little more than a series of loose ends searching for a unifying thrust. And by keeping Farnsworth and Sarnoff essentially two-dimensional figures, the audience is blocked from becoming thoroughly involved. And then Sorkin doubles down by inventing a second-act meeting between the two men, a fictional confrontation that should sizzle but instead drops with a dull thud.

Still director Scott Spence keeps the action brisk and crisp on Trad A. Burns’ gorgeous platform, designed to resemble a test pattern (for those old enough to remember when that graphic came on the tube, along with its charming hum, at the end of a broadcast day. Yes, broadcast days actually did end, at one time in the far distant past.). The only downside to the surrounding production is an odd, pulsing electronic sound effect that comes and goes for no apparent reason during some scenes.

As for the actors, they have some tough slogging to fight their way through too many speeches that feature some witty, Sorkin-esque lines but get too tangled up in their underwear. Sebastian Hawkes Orr brings an affecting naturalness and eager, nerdy zeal to Farnsworth. But he doesn’t do as well with the more shadowy parts of Philo’s character, stumbling in all the wrong ways through a scene in which Farnsworth is supposed to be drunk on his girlfriend’s lawn.

Paul Floriano has a nice feel for the oily yet visionary Sarnoff, launching a barrage of F-bombs at his cowering staff and stewing in his juices as the hick Farnsworth keeps one-upping his own team. But on opening night Floriano fumbled a number of lines, and this undermined the smooth assurance and firm command that should undergird his character.

Most of the others in the large cast play multiple roles, with varying degrees of success since these secondary parts have even less definition than the leads. But Jeffrey Grover and Robert Hawkes have some comical moments as a Frick and Frack pair of functionaries who participate in Philo’s initial funding.

It’s too bad that playwright Sorkin didn’t follow the lead of Peter Shaffer, who wrote a play loosely based on the lives of two contemporaries who were involved in a complicated task, who competed with one another, and who overcame tragedies. But that play, Amadeus, absolutely bursts with complex characterization and passion. The very things that are missing in The Farnsworth Invention.

The Farnsworth Invention
Through April 11 at the Beck Center,
17801 Detroit Road, Rocky River,
216-521-2540

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Spring Awakening, PlayhouseSquare

(The kids, in the process of being "Totally Fucked.")

When we’re ten or eleven, the world sort of makes sense. We’re pretty cool with everything, all elements seem to be in place, and then it happens. It starts with a raging, shapeless need that’s layered with confusion and guilt and nocturnal (not to mention diurnal) emissions. It’s the onset of our sexuality, and hoo-boy, are we in for the ride of out lives.

No play has ever captured the essence of what it feels like to be going through the long siege of puberty, in all its many forms, as profoundly and viscerally as Spring Awakening, the story of horny 19th century young people now at the Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. Dealing unflinchingly with topics including masturbation, gay sex, heterosexual intercourse, S&M, rape, adolescent suicide and abortion, the play never once titters nervously or shies away in false modesty.

This up-front approach, refreshing in the extreme, is paired with an indie-rock score, with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. Categorize it as you may, the music is elegant and raw, tender and punishing, and brilliantly conveys the whipsaw physical and psychological forces that torment teenagers in those crucial years. Small wonder that Spring, directed by Michael Mayer, won the 2007 Tony for Best Musical.

Although it’s not perfect—the second act is much less gripping than the first (never a good plan for a musical) and a couple performances are less than dazzling—this is a production that you simply cannot miss. Because it essentially redefines what a Broadway musical can be.

First, the scenic design by Christine Jones redefines what a set design can look like. All the action takes place in what appears to be a brick courtyard that is festooned with framed pictures appropriate to the 1800s and a variety of neon and other light sources. Combined with an open grid of lights above and a rainstorm of suspended pendant lights that change colors, the effects from moment to moment are spectacular.

A few audience members are seated grandstand style on both sides of the stage, and the eight-person band is in full view up stage. The company of young performers (plus two older adults who play all the grownups) often stays on stage too, when not involved in a scene. This helps quicken the pace of the show, which has precious few dead spots.

The story line is as old as time, with two buddies Melchior and Moritz trying to work out their newly intense feelings and the changes their bodies are experiencing. And this is happening within the strict confines of 19th century Germany (the show is adapted from an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind that was banned in that country).

Melchior is smitten by ripe young Wendla, who begs her mother for information about sex but is given the universal brush-off, “It’s all about love and marriage.” So she and Melchior pursue their own information-gathering process, on each other’s bodies. Meanwhile, Moritz’s brain is as screwed up as his wacky hairstyle (Note: This Moritz is not to be confused with local actor Marc Moritz, who is perennially and preternaturally well-coiffed), and he can’t seem to get his signals straight with gal pal Ilse. Tragic consequences ensue for all four.

The ensemble performance here is stunning, as the dozen young featured performers invest each song with the passion and purpose required. At the opening, stand-in Perry Sherman handled the demanding role of Melchior flawlessly and Blake Bashoff as Moritz matched him, beautifully expressing the chaotic yearning of this young man. Bashoff stands out in “The Bitch of Living” as he and the other boys in Latin class sing out for help and an angel responds: “Give me that hand. please/And the itch you can’t control/Let me teach you how to handle/All the sadness in your soul/Oh, we’ll work that silver magic/And then aim it at the wall.”

As Wendla, Christy Altomare is heartbreakingly na├»ve, and her lack of comprehension is touching when she sings to Melchior in “The Guilty Ones” the words: “Something’s started crazy/Sweet and unknown/Something you keep in a box on the street/Now it’s looking for a home.” And then, “This is the season for dreaming/And now our bodies are the guilty ones.”

With the exception of those already mentioned, the various teens on stage are not really individuals but speak as one for all young people trying to find their way: “Window by window/You try and look into/This brave new you that you are.” And then it all explodes in the second act when, in “Totally Fucked” (here performed by the Broadway cast), the choreography by Bill T. Jones somehow harnesses the frenetic energy and frustration of young people as they channel Charlie Brown’s teacher and just mimic the “Blah, blah, blah…” that comes from adults’ mouths.

The play lapses into too much soft balladry after that number, losing some of the drive that has built to that point. And a few scenes suffer because Henry Stram, as all the adult men, doesn’t successfully find a different hook for an assortment of pain-in-the-ass old guys, making it often hard to distinguish who he is supposed to be.

But these are small quibbles about a play that boldly deals with controversial issues, and which dares to construct a new visual and compositional vocabulary for musical theater. And if the idea of such subject matter and such language is upsetting, get over it. The kids are listening, and taking notes.

Spring Awakening
Through March 15 at the Palace Theatre,
PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,
216-241-6000

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cleveland Heights, Mandel Jewish Community Center

(There's more Jewish soul on this bagel than in the play Cleveland Heights.)

Let’s understand one thing up front. I’m a goy. I’m such a gentile, I never knew the difference between a schlemiel and a schlamazel until I heard the words in the Laverne & Shirley theme song some 30 years ago, and then asked somebody what the terms meant. Until I was 14, I thought a matzo ball was playground equipment.

But even I can tell when a play that is supposed to look into the soul of the local Cleveland Jewish community misses the mark, as does Cleveland Heights, now being produced by the Mandel Jewish Community Center. Written by Keith Reddin on a commission from the JCC, this is a tepid, sterile and agonizingly slow-paced work. And this just isn’t kosher, given vital and intriguing history of Jews in this area.

The problems begin with the script, but certainly don’t end there. Reddin has divided the play into two eras, the late 1940s in Act One and the 1970s in Act Two, both of which are set in the living room of a Jewish family’s Cleveland Heights home.

This play structure immediately ignores one of the critical aspects of many Cleveland Jewish families: their move from the inner city to the nearby suburbs. I learned about that when I was a teacher at Patrick Henry Junior High School in Glenville from 1968 to 1974. Whenever I mentioned where I taught, older Jewish friends’ eyes would mist over as they remembered fondly their years living in that neighborhood back in the 1930s and 40s. Where is that part of the story?

Instead, Reddin focuses on the imminent death of the family patriarch, Leo, who runs the garment business with his son David. His other son, Aaron, a law student at the University of Chicago, has just arrived on a death-watch visit to support the family. The primary conflict in the first act involves David trying to cajole or manipulate Aaron into coming back home permanently, to help run the business. But since Reddin never embellishes that argument beyond the basic elements (“Come back.” “No.” Come back.” No.”), it never goes anywhere.

Then, the second act shifts three decades forward, and Aaron is now living in the family home with his converted-to-Judaism wife Catherine. Turns out, during the intermission Aaron gave up on his law career and moved back home, David died, and Aaron’s sister Sarah, who was an obedient 20-something earlier, is now a pot-smoking, barefoot, liberated 50-year-old. We aren’t privy to that change, either. (It sucks that all this interesting stuff happened while we were taking a bathroom break.)

In fact, the entire play is composed of potentially compelling story lines that are never explored. Why do we never learn more about the garment business in Cleveland, or the specific issues that Cleveland Jews dealt with over these years?

What we are left with is a play without a driving central conflict. In its place, we have a sampler plate of problems that are never explored in any depth: the declining family business, Aaron getting a second mortgage on the home to pay for their daughter’s wedding, and a decades-old tension between Aaron’s family and Catherine’s family that’s brought up (and instantly resolved) ten minutes before the final curtain.

Moreover, this play could be set in any city with a Jewish population, if you deleted about three or four local references that are dropped in almost mechanically.

Beyond the script difficulties, which are legion, the production suffers from some unfortunate choices made by director Brian Zoldessy and scenic designer Ben Needham. The actors are forced to operate on a living room set that looks more like a mini-ballroom in a Bratenahl mansion than a house in the Cedar-Taylor area. If anyone wants to walk from far stage right to answer the front door at stage left, they are advised to pack a lunch.

Making matters worse, there are two lonely seating areas, a couch over here and a pair of chairs over there, that are apart from each other and facing the audience, defying any known interior decorating logic. Director Zoldessy doesn’t help by often blocking his actors to take up space across the whole stage—sometimes, two or three people are talking to each other but are so far away from each other you could drive a truck between them.

With all this working against them, the experienced cast does what it can with their mostly cardboard characters. Charles Kartali as Aaron has some nice moments with Maryann Elder’s Catherine in the second act. Elizabeth Townsend crafts an interesting older Catherine, although it’s hard to match her up with her younger self. And Scott Miller as David and Sharmon Sollitto as Leo’s wife Faye contribute what they can.

On the plus side, this play has not co-opted anyone else’s desire to write an insightful and knowledgeable play about this city’s Jewish community. And it is hoped someone takes up that challenge.

Cleveland Heights
Through March 15, produced by the
Mandel Jewish Community Center and
Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus,
at the Tri-C East Campus, 4250 Richmond Road,
Beachwood, 866-546-1358