Friday, April 20, 2012

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Cleveland Play House

The idea of men trying to ignore and, failing that, to control women’s sexual urges is not only a quaint historical artifact—it’s a current trend. What with Rush Limbaugh and other right wing nuts bloviating about contraception-using women as prostitutes, the war on women and their sexuality is now fully engaged.

Back at the end of the 19th century, when In the Next Room, the vibrator play is set, the issue was agreed upon by both genders: women didn’t have sexual urges or needs, they had “hysteria.”  This roiling disturbance in the female nether regions came to be treated with a newly electrified, vibrating instrument that brought calmness, satisfaction and a whole new view of what women really wanted.

This elegant production at the Cleveland Play House fairly glitters, thanks to the splendid work of scenic designer Michael B. Raiford. And it is a frequently laugh-out-loud experience, crafted by playwright Sarah Ruhl’s clever and quite restrained script. It’s only in the second act, and then at the very conclusion, when “the vibrator play” loses its tingle and eventually shorts out.

Dr. Givings is an up-to-date physician who has discovered the above-cited treatment for hysterical women. And his ministrations prove to be the solution for a galaxy of female ailments ranging from excessive nervousness to sensitive eyesight.

Indeed, when the afflicted Mrs. Daldry first enters Givings’ “surgical” suite, the room next to his family’s parlor, the poor woman can barely hobble in on her husband’s arm. But once the good doc manages to convince Mrs. D to lift her petticoats and allow him to massage her much-neglected pudenda, she can suddenly smile, walk a straight line, and even play the piano as she did long before.

Meanwhile, Givings’ wife Catherine is dealing with her own female problem, as it seems she can’t produce sufficient milk to nurse her newborn child. As a result, she is seeking a young woman who has recently given birth to a baby who is now dead (a more common occurrence back then), so the Givings can secure her services as a wet nurse.

After some discussion, the Daldry’s African-American housekeeper Elizabeth is secured for the position, since she had recently lost her baby.

Ruhl fashions an effective tension between the sexual release going on in one room (although none of the participants see it as such) and the maternal conflict going on in the other. In this way, the first part of the play’s title takes on a deft double meaning.

In a first act marked by much crotch-centered hilarity, director Laura Kepley and her excellent cast keep the pace lively. Of course, it’s comfortable for us to laugh at the profound lack of information that leads these characters to view natural female needs as a medical issue. The jokes may be easy, but that doesn’t make them any less amusing.

And at the beginning of the second act, Ruhl doubles down by introducing a young gentleman, Leo Irving, who is suffering from female-like distress. Dr. Givings then unveils his solution for males—the deliciously-named Chattanooga vibrator, that is a pole-mounted electrified dildo. Applied to his posterior, Irving is at first jolted and eventually abraded into a state of relative bliss.

As Dr. Givings, Jeremiah Wiggins hits just the right note of professional distance and masculine cluelessness. (To relax Mrs. Daldry during the procedure, he regales her with an anecdote about Ben Franklin.) Birgit Huppuch, as Mrs. Daldry, nicely negotiates her character’s progress from twitchy and distracted to confident and self-contained.

Turning the smaller role of Leo into a small gem, Zach Hoogendyk is entertaining without being buffoonish. And Gail Rastorfer, as the doctor’s nurse/assistant Annie, is both cool and a tad sensual when called upon to manipulate Mrs. Daldry manually after a fuse is blown.

In the central role of Catherine, Nisi Sturgis is often adorably tormented by both her own supposed physical shortcomings and the mystery of what is happening in the next room, from whence all the moaning emanates. It is only in the second act when Sturgis begins forcing her reactions, relying on some exaggerated Lucille Ball-style facial expressions.

But the second act has more problems than that. It runs 50% longer than the hour-long first act and features some of Ruhl’s worst writing decisions. For instance, she burdens the play with a long, overly didactic speech by Elizabeth that Rachel Leslie can’t quite bring to life.

And then, playwriting overreach meets staging excess in a concluding scene that is so wrong on so many levels. Suffice to say that one of the Givings gets totally naked and they decide to bump uglies outside in the snow until they are, evidently, beamed up to the mother ship.

However, before that bizarre ending, In the Next Room will get your juices flowing in all the right directions.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Through May 13 at the Cleveland Play House, Second Stage, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Monday, April 16, 2012

Elegy for a Lady and Three Women, Cesear’s Forum

It is the mission of Cesear’s Forum to produce work that is “unconventional, new or lesser known,” and that goal can lead you into some difficult cul-de-sacs.

Such is the case with this combination of one-acts by two renowned writers. And while each show has its merits, the weaknesses of each—along with the questionable pairing of the two—make for a less than engrossing theatrical experience.

In Elegy for a Lady, Arthur Miller applies his formidable skills to a two-person dialogue that dances around the issues of mortality and morality without ever taking the plunge.

A man visits an upscale boutique to buy a gift for his mistress, whom he reports is dying. Speaking with the proprietress, he unburdens himself while being comforted and challenged by the shopkeeper. Whether she exists or is just a figment of his somewhat tortured psyche is for the audience to figure out.

What isn’t in dispute is that the 45-minute play, although well acted by Dana Hart and Ursula Cataan, seems more of a writing exercise than a finished piece. With the relationships either imaginary or tangential, no one seems to have much at stake except the dying woman, who remains off stage.

The second work, Three Women by poet Sylvia Plath, is written in verse and offers some telling lines about pregnancy from three different perspectives.

But the imagery is often too dense and intertwined to be followed and appreciated, especially absent any plot or characters in the traditional sense. The actors—Cataan, Katrina Melanie Walker and Kristen Levy—do what they can to animate Plath’s words.

Director Greg Cesear seems to have a connection to this material, but the combined effect of both plays is less than a sum of its parts. And those parts don’t add up to much, at least in this theatrical format, to begin with.

Elegy for a Lady and Three Women

Through May 26 at Cesear’s Forum, Kennedy’s Down Under, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Friday, April 13, 2012

Iphigenia 2.0, Cleveland Public Theater

Imagine that if, in order to fight a war, the leader advocating such a course had to sacrifice something he cherishes as much as the soldiers do their lives. Say, one of the leader’s children.

This would be bad news for President Obama’s girls and the Romney boys, since one of those men is currently waging war and the other is itching to invade Iran if he gets the presidency.

The morality of war and the craven nature of leadership are on display, in Iphigenia 2.0. This intensely theatrical production is now at the Cleveland Public Theatre, a cooperative effort of CPT and Oberlin College,

The script by Charles Mee offers a giddy mash-up of various texts—starting with Euripedes and moving on to many other sources including a corporate training manual.

Staged with entertaining, sinewy energy by director Matthew Wright, the production slaloms smoothly through the many narrative wickets established by the playwright. Employing calisthenics, dance sequences and some music of fairly recent vintage (such as the Backstreet Boys’ “Playing Games with My Heart”), the events happen simultaneously in Agamemnon’s world and in our own right now.

In this contemporized telling, kingpin Ag is confronted by his brother Menelaus and challenged to sacrifice Iphigenia, Ag’s daughter, so that the troops will see that their leader is willing to suffer grievous loss, as they are asked to do.

Eventually, Ag reluctantly agrees and invites Iphigenia and his unsuspecting wife Clytemnestra to Aulis so that Iphigenia can marry war hero Achilles (Aaron Profumo). But it’s all a ruse.

Heather Anderson Boll has the juiciest role as tortured Clytemnestra, and she rages and grieves (and comes on to Achilles, in a ploy to save her daughter) with unbridled effusiveness. As Agamemnon, Tom Woodward is more emotionally confined and is essentially used to carry the plot and little else.

Nicholas Sweeney offers a strong turn as Menelaus and Andrew Gombas, as a guitar-strumming veteran, brackets the play with small, memorable vignettes. The soldiers and bridesmaids, all of whom are Oberlin students, are put through some demanding physical paces by Wright and never slack off.

Played on an arresting, photo-bedecked set designed by Inda Blatch-Geib, the 95-minute one act compels attention, even when Mee’s adventurous script wanders off into the weeds at times.

At the center, of course, is Iphigenia, played with touching innocence by Marina Shay. It is hard to watch her mortal decision and not think of the warriors who fight under our banner. Wars demand young soldiers who are both selfless and naïve, ready to sacrifice for ideals that their leaders are prepared to give lip service to, and little else of a personal nature.

Iphigenia 2.0

Through April 28 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Addams Family, PlayhouseSquare

(Wednesday, Corntey Wolfson, and Pugsley, Patrick D. Kennedy, at playtime.)

To call a Broadway musical “cute” would seem to be damning with faint praise. And while damning may be a bit strong, faint praise is about all that one can conjure up for The Addams Family, now at PlayhouseSquare.

This lukewarm effort is based on the ghoulish New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams, and borrows occasionally from the beloved TV series starring John Astin and Carolyn Jones.

Having been reworked since its Broadway run, under the direction of veteran Jerry Zaks, the play is reputedly now more focused. But it still labors through many scenes that feel like standard musical comedy filler.

TAF features a close, loving nuclear family that glories in exactly those things everyone else in society views as horrific—from torture and “rats as big as dachshunds” to death itself.

Led by patriarch Gomez and his sepulchral wife Morticia, the Addams clan (including Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Grandma and butler Lurch) has to deal with their oddball teenage daughter Wednesday’s engagement to a normal young fellow named Lucas.

Following the successful plot structure of La Cage Aux Folles, the average folks are coming to the weirdos’ house (in this case, a mansion in Central Park) to meet the future in-laws for dinner.

The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice lifts some gags from the old cartoons and makes up some new stuff, and a lot of it is fairly clever. When Lucas’s mom asks if the Addams have a “little girls room,” Gomez laments that they used to but that they “recently let all the girls go.”

In a similar way, some of the songs by Andrew Lippa have fleeting moments of sharp-edged wit, but most of the tunes are bland and eminently forgettable.

In the role of Gomez, Douglas Sills sings well and is immensely likeable, and that’s part of the problem—he tries too hard. One pines for the sly lasciviousness of TV’s Astin as he pursued his wife with single-minded ardor and his murmured “querida mia” endearments.

There wasn’t much chemistry between Sills and Morticia, part of which may have been due to an understudy, Christy Morton, playing Morticia at this performance, the second night of the run.

The supporting roles, which include a phalanx of Addams dusty ancestors, are handled competently, but without any standout comic moments.

The larger difficulty, however, is a predictable storyline and several scenes, particularly in the second act, that do nothing to advance the plot or the enhance the characters. For instance, Fester’s love affair with the moon is odd, but not in ghoulish way. It seems more of an excuse to trot out a sappy song, “The Moon and Me,” complete with some not-so-amazing stage effects.

In another scene, there’s a big setup for a joke about slipping Lucas’s mom (a hard-working Crista Moore) a truth serum-type potion intended for another. But her payoff, her song “Waiting,” laments her loveless marriage in a wandering and unfunny way: “Waiting, fixating, debating, lose weighting, lactating…”

While less than superior in many respects, The Addams Family still manages to be cute. And there are worse things than that.

The Addams Family

Through April 22 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.