Thursday, November 10, 2016

Rasheeda Speaking, Karamu House

Right off the bat, there’s a lot to like about any play set in a workplace. These are environments all of us are familiar with, and we know how some of the power games are played. So in Rasheeda Speaking, when a doctor asks his loyal secretary to help him find evidence so he can fire another secretary he doesn’t like, we all nod our heads knowingly. Yes, we are familiar with dick-heads like that.

But when the doctor and the favored secretary are white and the targeted secretary is black, the stakes suddenly become more significant. In this play, the author Joel Drake Johnson attempts to bring up a raft of touchy racial subjects as they apply to employment, and many of them resonate quite well. But he loads so much on this almost-two hour one act that it eventually loses its momentum and crawls to a conclusion.

The white employee, Ileen, has been working for the doc (an effectively passive-aggressive John Busser) for eight years, and she’s just been promoted to office manager. But the boss in the white coat doesn’t care for Jaclyn, an African-American woman who had recently been promoted from elsewhere in the medical facility to this position. As if to prove her unfitness for the job, the doctor has his stethoscope in a twist because Jaclyn took off five days because of “toxins in the air” that she and her private doctor claim are damaging her health.

From that premise, we watch as Jaclyn and Ileen dance around each other like scorpions packing file folders, trying to one-up each other. Mary Alice Beck as Ileen nicely balances her characters sweetness with a definite focus on doing her boss’s bidding. Meanwhile, Treva Offutt as Jaclyn shows both sides of this black woman, making it difficult to fully root for anyone in this office standoff.

Many issues are brought up, including the difficult home lives of some black families and the offensive things white people say to each other about blacks when they think no one is listening. But every time the play tries to open itself up and depart from the office tug-of-war, it loses energy and starts to sabotage its own compelling premise.

Indeed, the playwright trods the same ground one (or two or three) too many times, with a variety of cutbacks and mind games, some of which are baffling. And then, unaccountably, he lurches past the perfect ending, when Jaclyn delivers a drop-the-mic moment referencing the name in the title.

But director Sarah May coaxes interesting performances out of her cast, which includes an adorable Rhoda Rosen as an elderly patient who is fought over by Ileen and Jaclyn like a chew toy. And Ben Needham’s carefully detailed set lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

There’s a sharp, funny and often startling script laying inside Rasheeda Speaking, but its voice is dimmed by the playwright’s tendency to overstate things that have already been said.

Rasheeda Speaking
Through November 20 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sex With Strangers, Cleveland Play House

News flash: People of different ages react differently to the digital age we live in, with older people clinging to their analog past while younger folks snap up the latest apps like mice encountering fresh crumbs of cheese. And, this just in: Young people and oldsters often have differing views on sex and personal relationships.

These are a couple of the central themes in Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason, now at the Cleveland Play House. And if you responded with “No, duh!” to either or both of those facts stated above, then this play may be less than stimulating for you. In a script that flogs those two thoughts until they can barely move, Eason states and restates the obvious while the CPH two-person cast works their buns off to ignite passion around the edges.

Once-published novelist Olivia is hanging out at a b-and-b in snowy rural Michigan when the successful Internet-based author Ethan shows up knocking at her door to find a warm place out of the blizzard. The almost-40 Olivia is busy proofing her new manuscript while Ethan, a bundle of energy and about ten years her junior, paces the floor and rattles off his resume.

It seems he’s well known for his latest opus, a book that carries the same title as this play, which chronicles his exploit of bedding a different woman every week for one year. Meanwhile Olivia has been licking her wounds from some unfortunate reviews of her first book, and she can’t abide the snarky troll comments that pop up on websites discussing her writing.

However, Ethan glories in the pans his work receives, and he’s turned that sex-drenched book into a dandy little cottage industry online. Unfortunately, the storm and the remote location of this cabin have eliminated Internet service, leaving Ethan frustrated and unable to text or tweet for minutes on end(“People will think I have died!”).

The playwright works hard to leverage the age difference of these two people into something dramatic. Eason has some clever and cute lines sprinkled throughout (when Ethan claims his book was on the New York Times best seller list for five years, Olivia registers some doubt, to which Ethan smirks: “Don’t you wish you could look it up?”).And there is some genuine sexual tension in the first act, as the two dance around each other and eventually start making out.

Monette Magrath as Olivia and Sean Hudock as Ethan find their moments of attraction in between their playful chatter about technology and such. And their brief sessions of kissy-face and grab-ass are convincingly portrayed. But Magrath doesn’t really convey the bearing and attitude of an “older woman,” so her eventual sexual release is less than liberating. For his part, Hudock has all the nervous-energy mannerisms of a guy on the make, but not quite enough of the inner through-line of this supposedly live-wire character.

There’s finally a bit more conflict in the second act, which takes place in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, as we see how each of these people is trying to use the other for their own purposes. Still, there seems to be little at stake in these proceedings other than better press clippings and bigger paychecks. And the ending lands with a surprisingly dull thud.

The actors aren’t particularly helped by Chelsea M. Warren’s admittedly handsome scenic design, which features a vast space for both the cabin and the apartment. Indeed, you could install a handball court in the open space provided by Warren, which leaves the actors to wander around and try to connect with each other.

There’s a desire here to explore how two people from two different generations pursue their ideas of success and their own identities. But because of a few production wrinkles, the finished product is a bit like a promising, but not exactly stupendous, first date.

Sex With Strangers
Through November 13 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Silence! The Musical, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Kelly strand as Clarice and Brian Altman as Hannibal.)

If you’re a fan of the Jodi Foster/Anthony Hopkins flick The Silence of the Lambs, you will no doubt have a blast with this no-holds-barred parody, Silence! The Musical, now at Blank Canvas Theatre. Of course, you really don’t need any history with that movie to enjoy this often clever and frequently rude tribute to the story about two serial killers and one plucky FBI agent who is assigned to deal with them.

But first, let’s cut to the chase. There’s a remarkably offensive word in an early song in this show that, I would wager, has never been sung in any other musical. Ever. And that’s probably a good thing. Not only is it sung once, it is reprised a couple minutes later and then repeated in the second act.

The word refers to the private area of the female anatomy, a word that even Donald Trump has so far declined to use in public, starts with “c” and the full title of the song is “If I Could Smell Her C_ _ _.” This is not an entirely gratuitous reference, since there is a similar wish alluded to by the evil Hannibal Lecter in the movie.

The manner in which this play’s creators (music and lyrics by Jon Kaplan and Al Kaplan, book by Hunter Bell) use that word illustrate what is right with this show, and also where it goes off the tracks. The gleeful offensiveness of that word picks up on the vibe The Book of Mormon and it’s off-color ditties. That’s fair game. But it is repeated so often it begins to dull the senses, as do some other tropes used by the writers and BCT director Jonathan Kronenberger.

Still, this show is paced perfectly by Kronenberger, allowing the jokes to fly by fast and furiously, as they should. And the talented performers give it their all. As Clarice Starling, the young FBI agent, Kelly Strand is appropriately solid and straightforward while mimicking and exaggerating Jodi Foster’s lateral lisp and southern accent. However, whatever humor content that resides in that slight speech defect is beaten within an inch of its life by repetition. Clarice’s first song is titled “Thish Ish It” and the lisp even appears in words on the two screens hovering over the stage.

As the sociopathic Hannibal Lecter, Brian Altman employs a smooth and unctuous delivery to capture some of Anthony Hopkins’ skin-crawlingly creepy vibe. And even though it goes on far too long, his rendition of the “C” song is both stupefying and raunchily amusing. Joe Virgo is also a standout as Buffalo Bill, the gender-confused serial killer they’re hunting for who captures plus-size women, keeps them in a pit, makes them soften their skin with lotion, and then kills and skins them so he can crawl inside their epidermis. Fans of the movie know all this, so the play focuses on other things, such as Buffalo Bill’s song “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket.”

In smaller roles, Dawn Sniadak-Yamokoski sings up a storm as Senator Martin, whose daughter Catherine has been abducted by Buffalo Bill. And Tonya Broach and Trey Gilpin add amusing cameos among the multiple roles they play. It is all supported by a chorus of white-wigged lambs who sing and dance and keep the plot moving forward.

While often offensive, juvenile and excessive, Silence! qualifies for its exclamation point through the kind of sharp, disciplined performance standards that BCT has often featured, under the artistic direction of Patrick Ciamacco.

Silence! The Musical
Through November 5 at Blank Canvas Theatre, at the West 78th Street Studios, 440-941-0458.