Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Playhouse Square

Used to be, many of us couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live on the autism spectrum, experiencing sensory overload and unable to correctly process random stimuli. Ha! That was before we were subjected to the ravings of the Trump administration. Now, we live in fear of the next new notifications on our iPhones, wondering whether the toddler-in-chief has started a war with North Korea or rudely flamed a former ally.

But I digress. In the remarkable production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by London’s National Theatre, Simon Stephens has adapted British playwright Mark Haddon’s eponymous novel into a thrilling excursion. By staging the play inside a black box equipped with dazzling lighting and visual effects, and accented by imaginative choreography and movement, the play is often surprising. Still, there are some soft spots and occasionally the show labors to maintain momentum.

The story is viewed largely through the mind of Christopher, a teenage math whiz whose brain is incapable of perceiving the emotions of others, and of expressing his own. When a neighbor’s dog is found stabbed to death by a garden pitchfork, Christopher is considered a possible suspect, so he takes it upon himself to search for the killer.

While he delves into deductive and inductive reasoning as he takes on the role of his hero Sherlock Holmes, we see how Christopher’s single father Ed and his mentor at school Siobhan react, helping him when they can to find his way through a confusing world.

The 12-person cast is frequently sitting on stage at the base of three large walls that are laid out in a grid pattern on a black background. These walls become the 13th character, as they pulse, flicker and then ultimately explode with life. As fashioned by video designer Finn Ross, scenic designer Bunny Christie and lighting designer Paule Constable, the walls give Christopher a place to inhabit that can be either disturbing or comforting, especially comforting when those spaces throb with equations and math challenges.

At one moment, a thin line of LED lights traces the outlines of houses to depict the neighborhood. And at other times, the walls erupt in showers of numbers and images that flood your cerebral cortex. This may not be how it feels to be autistic, since it is impossible to create the stupefying confusion that condition must impose, but this inventive staging certainly gives you that twinge when your senses are overwhelmed.

As Christopher dives deeper into the dog-murder mystery, he learns things that send him off on a journey where he reconnects with another member of his family and gains the strength to return home. Meanwhile, he has been preparing for a stringent math exam that will determine if he can attend a university, and he is also cataloging his murder investigation for a school assignment.

In this performance (and at many others during the run here), Christopher is played by Adam Langdon. Although he looks a good deal more physically mature than the average 15-year-old lad, Langdon brilliantly conveys the boy’s inability to process figurative language and slang, and by responding only to the literal meanings of words he becomes the object of amusement, or worse. He also can’t stand being touched by other people. This frustrates his blue-collar dad (played with rough affection by Gene Gillette), who told his son that his mother died, a fact that Christopher discovers.

The multiple difficulties Christopher has to deal with motivate his teacher Siobhan to work with Christopher, encouraging him to tell his story. As Siobhan, Maria Elena Ramirez is warm and caring, but some of her words are lost at times due to a slightly rushed delivery.

In Act Two, the sensory inputs increase as Adrian Sutton’s music and Ian Dickinson’s sound design merge with the visuals to bring the story to a conclusion. At times, the ensemble of actors carries Christopher around the stage as he is buffeted by his mental demons and swept away on cascading numerical waves.

The tension flags at times as the play progresses, and it seems there are a few too many explications of the same problems Christopher exhibits. You know, we get it. Still, the production under the astonishing direction of Marianne Elliott wonderfully evokes a boy trapped by his mind and saved by his highly-focused talent. With mathematics, Christopher works with solid, unchanging factors and, happily, there actually are answers in the back of the book. (Indeed, there is even an answer in the back of the play, as Christopher runs through a high-speed solution to a math problem posed earlier.)

Christopher’s remarkable abilities give him the strength he needs to advance, and it gives the audience a portal into a the different ways that some people grapple with reality.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Through April 9 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How I Learned to Drive, Cleveland Play House

Child sexual abuse is a terrifically difficult subject to deal with on stage, for all the obvious reasons and a couple not so obvious. But ever since Paula Vogel wrote How I Learned to Drive in 1997, she set the standard for a subtle, slowly evolving portrait of a relationship that was at once horrific and nurturing. And it’s the nurturing part that makes the horror even more awful (if a person who appears to love me does this, where do I turn?).

The events in this memory play jump around in time, from when a girl nicknamed Li’l Bit was 11 until she’s 18. As was the custom in her family, she was named after her genitalia, which is how Uncle Peck got his moniker. He’s the second husband of Li’l Bit’s aunt, and during most of the play we see him dote on his niece and hover around her in uncomfortable but essentially non-felonious ways.

Along the way, as Peck teaches Li’l bit how to drive and establish her independence on the road, he manipulates and controls her in other ways. And we see how Li’l Bit’s physical attributes play a part in how males react to her, as she is teased at school for her large “jiggly” breasts. As every similarly endowed woman knows, those parts of the anatomy often draw all the attention and awkwardly tilt relationships with boys and men from the get go. And her mother makes it clear that her daughter is to blame for anything untoward that happens.

It isn’t until near the end of the play that we see 11-year-old Li’l Bit sitting on Peck’s lap behind the wheel as he first teaches her to steer the car. And that memory is so strained, so traumatic, that another actor has to speak her lines.

As the play continues, bad advice piles on top of bad acts. In “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking,” mom advises that when Li’l Bit is drinking in public and feels tipsy, she should go to the a bathroom and dunk her head in water, because a wet woman is less conspicuous than a drunk one. Vogel uses these dramaturgical asides to pump the brakes or accelerate the stress, as required. And she negotiates the turns with the skill of racecar driver Mario Andretti at his peak.

Director Laura Kepley maintains a subtle, finely tuned tension throughout the piece, without overdoing any moments. And the cast handles their roles with similar restraint. As Li’l Bit, Madeleine Lambert conveys the angst of this girl and young woman in many muted ways. Michael Bruasco achieves a similar understated effect, although it might help to see a couple more glints of the predator in his portrayal. And three other actors—Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken—play a bevy of characters including Li’l Bit’s crotch-obsessed family.

There are many kinds of sexual abuse of minors. But when the abuse is doled out by a person whom you have grown close to and loved, the pain is beyond imagining. And this play comes as close as you can to that conflicted state without lapsing into easy regret and facile recrimination.

How I Learned to Drive
Through March 26 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Great Wilderness, Beck Center

(From left: Christian John Thomas as Daniel and Tim Tavcar as Walt.)

If you want to write a play about gay conversion therapy, focusing on one young man named Daniel who is sent to a cabin in the woods for counseling, it’s a bold choice to have that young man disappear for most of the play. In a metaphorical sense it’s an interesting decision because the whole concept of gay conversion therapy blithely ignores the individuality of each person subjected to that misguided and often heinous “treatment.” So what could better express that than having the person in question absent?

The trouble is, the absence of Daniel for the bulk of the proceedings waters down the dramatic impact of A Great Wilderness by Samuel D. Hunter, leaving us with a large pot of weak tea. In this Beck Center production, the cast under the direction of Scott Spence does its best to enliven the story. But as you watch you keep asking yourself: “Sure, I get it, but where’s the kid?”

The kid, as it turns out, has gone for a walk in the woods soon after his arrival at the cabin and his first meeting with the elderly lead counselor Walt, who is both a gentleman and a gentle man. Walt tries to put Daniel at ease, telling the high school student that he won’t electroshock him or force him to be who he isn’t. Walt just wants Daniel “to be the person you want to be.” Unless, of course, that person happens to be gay.

Once Daniel (played with sensitivity by Christian John Thomas) takes a hike, the play is left in the hands of Walt and his ex-wife Abby (Lenne Snively) and her husband Tim (Brian Byers), who will be taking over the cabin once Walt adjourns to an assisted living facility. When Daniel fails to appear after many hours and appears lost, or worse, his mother Eunice (a haunted Heidi Harris) appears to spill some parental bile. For a bit of humor, a park ranger named Janet (Kelly Strand) shows up to deliver no-nonsense advice to those in the cabin.

Hunter writes very naturalistic dialog and has a good wit, but these adult characters are playing tennis without an opponent. They all essentially agree with each other regarding the benefits of curing gay men and, as they keep lobbing or slamming their arguments over the net, there is no one on the other side to return serve.

Sure, they have their own internal conflicts. For instance, Walt ponders whether he actually ever “saved” any young gay man from the terrors of gaydom. And he contemplates his own life, as a man who felt gay urges but who denied himself that option. In this role, Tim Tavcar exudes enveloping kindness towards Daniel even as he flashes anger at Abby and others, but the script defeats him at every turn. It isn’t until the end when Daniel finally returns that the play perks up, but then it’s over.

One could quibble about director Spence’s deliberate pacing throughout, but that would avoid the central problem of A Great Wilderness: It’s a drama with the drama expunged, leaving ancillary conversations in its place.

A Great Wilderness

Through April 9 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.