Monday, February 29, 2016

Theater Review Sense and Sensibility -- CT Repertory

Cynthia Darlow and Jenn Sapozhnikov. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Equity Actors Brighten Up Sense and Sensibility
By Lauren Yarger
The teaching arm of Ct Repertory Theatre’s program comes into play in the current production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

Kristin Wold, who teaches acting and movement for Shakespeare and Company’s professional actor’s training programs and in the BFA and MFA acting programs at UConn puts her skills to the test directing the large and mostly student cast in Sense and Sensibility, adapted for the stage by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan (who also wrote the version of  Pride and Prejudice staged at Ct Rep).

Arlene Bozich stars as the practical Elinor Dashwood (the “sense” part of the title), who with her mother (Natalia Cuevas, too young to play the role, but this is the way of student productions) and her spirited sister Marianne (Susannah Resnikoff) – she’s the “sensibility” part – are forced to find a new home in less elegant surroundings when the patriarch Dashwood dies leaving all of his estate to John (Michael Bobenhausen),
the son of his first marriage. This is early 19th Century England, after all (as depicted in Raven Ong’s costume design).

John’s mean-spirited and snobby wife, Fanny (Meredith Saran), quickly convinces her husband that none of their new-found wealth should be shared with his step family. She makes it known that Elinor’s friendship with Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars (a pleasingly dashing and befuddled Darren Lee Brown), will not be allowed to blossom into a romance as he will not be allowed to marry beneath him.

Edward has his own troubles. His formidable mother (Vivienne James) has plans for him away from the quiet country life he would like to lead and expects him to be more like younger socialite brother, Robert ( a perfectly cast Gavin McNicholl).

Elinor believes all of her hopes are dashed when Edward’s relationship with Lucy Steele (Lily Ling) is revealed. Her sister, likewise, suffers heartache when her handsome suitor  John Willoughby (Bryce Michael Wood) abandons her because she has no money. Her only hope for love might be the steady, but less exciting Col. Brandon (nicely portrayed by Curtis Longfellow), whose affection she has ignored.
This particular adaptation of the classic is not one of the best (for my favorite, watch the movie with Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for her brilliant screenplay) and fails to capture the heart of the characters, so the students have their work cut out for them in this whoppingly almost three-hour long production.

What makes the show fun and worth watching is the presence of two acting veterans who light up the stage: Cynthia Darling and Don Noble.

Noble is the Dashwood women’s kinsman, Sir John Middleton, who with his wife (Braley Degenhardt ), offers them a cottage on his property after Fanny sends them packing . Darlow plays his humorous and inappropriate mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, whose roots are less posh than the families into which her daughters have married. Her other daughter, Charlotte (Jenn Sapozhnikov), is as flighty and uncultured as her mother, much to the dismay of her unaffectionate husband, Mr. Palmer (Sam Kebede).

Darlow is a hoot and had me laughing throughout. Her Broadway stints in Billy Elliot, Accent on Youth, Old Acquaintance, Rabbit Hole,Taller Than a Dwarf , Present Laughter, Sex and Longing, Prelude to a Kiss, Rumors, and the original production of Grease! Give her an arsenal of chops to turn Mrs. Jennings into a tour de force.

Noble, who doubles as Elinor and Marianne’s dying father at the outset, lights up the stage with a commanding presence (his credits include Once and End Of The Rainbow on Broadway and the national tour of Mamma Mia! )

Being able to work with and learn from such fine actors makes the CT Repertory program unique and a terrific learning opportunity for students.

Sense and Sensibility runs through March 6 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen
Theatre on the University of Connecticut Storrs campus. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. Select matinees  Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $7 to $30:; (860) 486-2113.

Full Credits:
Production:  By Jane Austen, adapted for the stage by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan; Direction by Kristin Wold; Assistant Direction by Molly Hamilton; Scenic Design by Tim Brown, Lighting Design by Margaret Peebles, Costume Design by Raven Ong, Sound Design by Abbey Golec, Music Composition by Colby J. Herchel, Movement Coaching by Marie Percy and Greg Webster; Technical Direction by Ed Weingart, Voice and Text Coaching by Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer. Showtimes Through March 6: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. Select matinees  Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $7 to $30:; (860) 486-2113

Arlene Bozich….Elinor
Susannah Resnikoff…. Marianne
Cynthia Darlow…. Mrs. Jennings
Don Noble…. Sir John Middleton/Henry Dashwood
Michael Bobenhausen…. John Dashwood
Darren Lee Brown…. Edward Ferrars
Natalia Cuevas…. Mrs. Dashwood
Sam Kebede…. Mr. Palmer
Curtis Longfellow…. Col. Brandon
Emile Saba…. Baines, Dr. Harris
Meredith Saran…. Fanny Dashwood
Bryce Michael Wood…. John Willoughby
Coleman Churchill…. Thomas, servant
Shavana Clark…. Sophie Grey, servant
Madison Coppola…. Anne Steele
Braley Degenhardt…. Lady Middleton
Vivienne James…. Mrs. Ferrars, servant
Lily Ling…. Lucy Steele
Gavin McNicholl…. Robert Ferrars, servant
Jenn Sapozhnikov…. Charlotte Palmer
Max Helfand…. Phineas

Theater Review: I Hate Hamlet -- Playhouse on Park

Ezra Barnes, Julia Hochner and Susan Slotoroff. Photo: Rich Wagner
To Be or Not to Be Amused. That is the Question
By Lauren Yarger
Hate Hamlet? Who could hate Hamlet?

Well, maybe a young actor who is forced to play him on the stage while being coached by the ghost of one his most famous portrayers: John Barrymore.

That is the premise of Paul Rudnick’s light-hearted romp I Hate Hamlet getting a run over at Playhouse on Park. Dan Whelton stars as Andrew, a Hollywood actor made famous by a stint on a TV medical series, who finds himself memorizing lines to take on one of the stage’s most daunting roles. Forced by his agent, Lillian (Ruth Neaveill), who once had a fling with the famous actor, to try Shakespeare in the Park when no other offers come in following the cancelled TV series, he admits that he just hates Hamlet.

He’s distraught, but girlfriend Deirdre (Susan Slotoroff) is turned on by the idea of his playing the tortured Dane, and in her case, this is significant, because she has been withholding herself from a sexual relationship during their five-month courtship because she is saving herself for Mr. Right. 
Her perfect guy actually sounds a lot like John Barrymore (Ezra Barnes), the handsome, boozing, womanizing actor who was the quintessential Hamlet.

As luck would have it, real estate agent Felicia (Julia Hochner) leases Barrymore’s former digs in Washington Square – a gothic and expansive (designed by Emily Nichols) penthouse apartment – to Andrew. Fortunately (but glaringly in a contrivance to further the plot), Felicia is a medium who is able to communicate with the dead through the spirit of her mother and the group quickly decides to hold a séance in hopes of conjuring Barrymore’s ghost to give Andrew some insights into the role.

He shows up, but Andrew is reluctant to yield to the great actor’s advice for text and swordplay, afraid to discover that he might not have what it takes to play the role. He also isn’t happy about Barrymore’s amorous attentions toward Deidre. His friend, Gary (David Larson) tries to convince him to give up this whole Hamlet thing and to return to Hollywood where a new series requires less of him as an actor and lots more money.

Barnes stands out as the pompous, booze-guzzling Barrymore. In a rather bizarre plot, I totally bought him as the spirit of the great actor, making the best of an opportunity to revisit his life. The cast, under the direction of Vince Tyler, seems to be working hard to convince us the play is funny. There are some laugh-out-loud lines, to be sure, but the plot is not cohesive and is too contrived to keep us laughing for too long. A side story about Lillian’s probably being very ill, for example, doesn’t go anywhere and seems out of place. 

Neaveille struggles with her character’s German accent and Costumer Soule Golden has characters dressed in odd garb in an attempt to honor the play’s 1980s setting ( gosh fashion was horrible then), but the clothes don’t scream ’80s, so instead just lend to the general confusion. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission is too long a stretch to get the play’s predictable conclusion.

Despite the flaws Barnes, who is the founder of Connectcut’s Shakepeare on the Sound and apparently who never has gotten to play Hamlet, is a treat and the hard-working cast does their best to try to entertain.

I Hate Hamlet runs through March 13 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $22.50-$35:; (860) 523-5900 x10.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Theater Review: Romeo & Juliet -- Hartford Stage

The set. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Wherefore Art Thou in a Gravel Pit, Romeo?
By Lauren Yarger
A dark, modern-age Romeo and Juliet takes the stage in Darko Tresnjak’s neorealism production featuring a gravel pit. Wherefore, I am not exactly sure. (And for your non Shakespeare types, “wherefore” doesn’t mean “where,” but “why?”

The pit sits down center on the set designed by Director Tresnjak featuring a massive mausoleum backdrop with reams of square crypts, whose dark and gloom (thanks to excellent lighting by Matthew Richards) can’t be masked by flowers adorning them (or by cheerful maidens who swing by on a rolling ladder to keep the blooms fresh). A slab juts out to create the famous balcony –significant that the few moments of joy experienced by the young couple (on Shakespeare’s pages, if not effectively portrayed here) spring from death.

The set becomes almost a character itself in Tresnjak’s tribute to the look of 1940s Italian films which focused on shapes and colors from daily life (Costume Designer helps create the feel with period-looking suits, hats and simple dresses and negligees). We’re just not entirely sure why it is the focus of the Bard’s classic tale of crossed lovers.

At first impression the pit, with its drains in the surface of tile surrounding it, looks like a rock-filled version of the pool in Metamorphoses. It’s not filled with water (the drains later prove to be vents for fog) or even with blood, as I might have expected after seeing Ivo van Hove’s tense adaptation of A View from the Bridge on Broadway in which barefoot characters  ended up in a bloody heap in a similar pit.

Romeo and Juliet’s Verona, Italy pit just offers rocks (and a couple of times an ornate slab arises from them to offer a platform for staging). I winced when a few barefooted actors walk through them and pondered the significance of crunching as others walked on the stones with footwear (Sound Design by Jane Shaw, who also provides sound effects like cars driving by or party revelry to enhance the scenes), but alas, methinks I never did get it, even when a character rode around it on a bicycle.

So I focused instead on one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the tale of woe about Juliet (Kaliswa Brewster) and her Romeo (Chris Ghaffari) and found it fairly uneven. Some performances are strong and bring delight. Charles Janasz is an amusing Friar Laurence and so commands the stage with his presence that the character becomes a central part of the story, rather than just a necessary prop to bring the lovers to their deaths.

Ghaffari is a handsome Romeo and in one inspired moment when Tresnjak has him sit among the audience to view the Capulet party at which he first spots Juliet, he wins our hearts with genuine charm. Timothy D. Stickney and Celeste Ciulla give fine turns as Juliet’s parents (even if Ciulla doesn’t look old enough to be the mother of Brewster, who doesn’t look 14) as do Alex Hanna as Romeo’s friend and cousin Benvolio, Julien Seredowych as a particularly swarthy Paris whom Juliet’s parents want her to wed and whom we rarely think so much about, and Jonathan Louis Dent as Juliet’s menacing cousin Tybalt, whose death ends with Romeo’s being banished by Prince Escalus (Bill Christ) and triggers a sad ending for the star-crossed lovers.

Kaliswa Brewster and Chris Ghaffari
The fight scenes (using knives rather than swords, to be true to the period for this production) are directed by Steve Rankin and lack realism or excitement in their staging. Also falling flat is Brewster’s Juliet as she recites lines in a monotone. We never see her passion for Romeo, feel her despair at being forced to wed Paris or enjoy much of the meaning in Shakespeare’s text. A line like “Thy lips are warm!” -- usually pregnant with despair, grief and astonishment -- simply gets uttered as part of some dialogue delivered without intonation (Voice and Text Coaching by Claudia Hill-Sparks).

The death of Mercutio (Wyatt Fenner) is over dramatic. Juliet’s nurse (Kandis Chappell), is an enigma as she is played contrary (though well) to expectations. Usually she is a portly, jovial sort offering friendship and comfort to Juliet – and much of the play’s humor. Here, she is thin, elegant and regal -- almost more so than Lady Capulet. She is serious, a second mother to Juliet, and her humor is lost to the somber feel of the production.

The puzzlements outweigh the insight for this production. Am I jaded by the fact that I like Shakespeare plays produced traditionally? Perchance I protest too much? I don’t think so, because I really wanted to like it – a favorite play helmed by a director I like (his Hamlet and Macbeth, for which he also designed the sets, were triumphs). I just couldn’t take the plunge into the pit for this one.

Romeo and Juliet plays through March 20 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Special matinee 2 pm Wednesday, Feb. 24.  Tickets $25-$95.  (860) 527-5151;

Special events:
  • AfterWords Discussion Tuesdays, Feb. 23 and March 1 and Wednesday, Feb. 24. Join members of the cast and the artistic staff for a free discussion, immediately following select 7:30 pm. performances on Tuesday or the Wednesday matinee.
  • Open Captioned Performances, Feb. 28, 2 and 7:30 pm for patrons who are deaf or have hearing loss. 
  • Audio Described Performance, March 5 at 2 pm. For patrons who are blind or have low vision.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lou Diamond Phillips Talks About His Burning Desire at Seven Angels

Lou Diamond Phillips at Seven Angels. Photo: Lauren Yarger
By Lauren Yarger
If there is balance to the universe, why shouldn’t the devil have dominion over love? What would happen if Lucifer were cupid?

These questions in the mind of film and stage star Lou Diamond Phillips (“La Bamba,” “Stand and Deliver,” “The 33” and The King and I) morphed into the play Burning Desire, where the devil causes a modern-day Adam and Eve to fall in love, then has fun messing things up to see whether they are willing to sell their souls to keep from losing at love.

Phillips will star in the world premiere Feb. 18-March 13 at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, CT. Could there be a more divine place than a theater which regularly sports heavenly/nun décor (thanks to Artistic Director Semina DeLaurentis’s association with Nunsense) and its Devil’s Corner Bar?  

The concept of Satan as a character on stage isn’t new. After all he’s been a regular in Dr. Faustus, Damn Yankees and more, but the challenge was to cast him in a comedy with philosophy, Philips said.

Make no mistake, Phillips has succeeded in that challenge. The two-act play I read in advance of the run  -- it was still being tweaked for production with a couple of minions for Lucifer and a choreography being added -- is very well written and contains deep layers of thought and biblical insight as well as a humor-filled plot. (Bravo! Too many plays with religious ties are sinful in their use of stereotype and propaganda).

The humor part was important to Phillips. He wanted to be in a comedy and since Hollywood mostly casts him as “the brooding ethnic,” he figured the fastest way to be in one would be to write one himself. His family tree includes Filipino, Cherokee and other Asian and European roots; the roles of doomed Richie Valens in “La Bamba,” gangster Angel Guzman in “Stand and Deliver” trapped miner Don Lucho in “The 33” and Henry Standing Bear in “Longmire” certainly attest to the brooding label….

The stage, perhaps, has been a little more welcoming. Phillips has played more than 600 performances as the King in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I in the US and around the world. He received a 1996 Tony Award nomination for the role in his Broadway debut).  In fact, Burning Desire was completed during that run as Phillips commuted on the Long Island Rail Road for performances.

It began years ago when he wrote the opening monologue following a particularly bad breakup. He had put it, and his first love of writing, on a back burner while his film career took off (though he accumulated some screenwriting credits).  With The King and I stimulating his creative juices, the ending for Burning Desire  “just descended on me.”  

The play received some readings and Richard Zavaglia (who directs the show at Seven Angels) expressed an interest. He and Phillips reconnected on some professional projects over the years and each time Zavaglia asked about the play. It led to a reading at St. Malachy’s church in New York and eventually to its world premiere at Seven Angels in a time slot that “divinely” fits into Phillips schedule between press appearances for the recently released “The 33” and filming for his TV series “Longmire” which begins shooting season 5 for Netfix in March.

Phillips had a lot to say on the religious subjects in Burning Desire and felt the desired comedy format and entertaining the audience would be the best way to get the message across.

“If you lecture people, they tune out.”

Phillips has done a lot of exploration when it comes to religion: his Filipino background made him comfortable in Catholic churches, he was a devout Southern Baptist as a teen in Texas, he has embraced religions of his Native American heritage and he also has “dabbled” in the Jewish religion followed by many friends.

So with all of that grounding, has he landed somewhere in particular on the religious spectrum?

“Not in an organized way,” he is quick to respond.

“I have faith. I believe in something greater. I believe in the morality in the play. . . I pray every day. I believe that there has to be hope at the end.”

Getting people to think about why they believe what they do is the goal, he said.

“It’s all about choices,” he says. “That is the journey that gets us to faith.”

He hopes he has given his four daughters a foundation for faith, but says he will be OK with whatever choices they make as they find their own way “to that greater power.”
He is hoping in particular that young people will enjoy the play at Seven Angels. After all, dating truths are the same regardless of which generation is experiencing them.

Burning Desire runs Feb. 18-March 13 at Seven Angels Theatre, 1 Plank road, Waterbury. Performances are Thursday through Sunday at 8 pm with some matinee performances at 2 pm (check box office for exact schedule). Tickets range from $38 to $57: 203-757-4676;

Theater Review: The Moors -- Yale Repertory

Birgit Huppuch, Kelly McAndrew, Hannah Cabell, Miriam Silverman, and Jeff Biehl in The Moors. Photo © Joan Marcus, 2016.
The Moors
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Jackson Gay
Yale Repertory
Through Feb. 20

By Lauren Yarger

What's It All About?
Well, think Gothica meets Jane Eyre. In this world premiere from playwright Jen Silverman and directed by Jackson Gay (Elevada and These Paper Bullets! at Yale), this is the tale of two spinster sisters, a maid, a governess and a dog on the lonely, foggy Moors. It has a tongue-in-cheek dark humor to it that appeals to my sense of humor. Let me give you the character descriptions as written in the script, and maybe you'll catch a bit of the flavor:

  • Agatha  (Kelly McAndrew) -- Elder spinster sister. Spidery. Dangerous. Cold. 
  • Huldey  (Birgit Huppuch) -- Younger spinster sister. She has a diary. She wants to be famous.
  • Emilie (Miriam Silverman) -- The governess. A romantic with a sweet face. 
  • Marjory (Hannah Cabell) --  The scullery maid. Down-trodden. Strategic. 
  • The Mastiff (Jeff Biehl) -- The dog. He looks fierce and brutal but is a sad philosopher-king. 
  • A Moor-Hen (Jessica Love) --  A small chicken. Practical but easily frightened. 

This odd crew interacts while mysterious happenings, like a walled-up brother and murder plots unfold while the family mastiff waxes poetic and speaks philosophically with a chicken. Seriously fun. Deliciously brilliant. Agatha's horrible lullaby to her despised sister is one of the funniest things I have seen in a while.

What Are the Highlights?
The script is funny without going too far over the edge. It's not a parody as much as an appreciative nod to the genre while making some rather smart comments on humanity, companionship and loneliness.

Alexander Woodward's oppressive, creepy brooding green with animal heads and antlers surrounded by family portraits is perfection. Sound Designer Daniel Kruger's original music, Fabian Fidel Aguilar's costumes and Andrew F. Griffin's lighting design all contribute moor (sorry, couldn't resist).

What Are the Lowlights?
This might not be for everyone, like those who don't have a dark sense of humor.

More information:
The Moors received a 2015 Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award.
Tickets are $20–$98:; 203-432-1234; Box Office, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Student, senior, and group rates are also available.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Love Letters with Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw -- The Bushnell

Note on seeing the show
:  MacGraw and O'Neal have a nice rapport on stage. MacGraw makes Melissa much more likable than usual -- maybe just because we like her so much. O'Neal brings more emotion to the closing scene than I ever have seen. It's real.

The one big drawback to this production directed by Gregory Mosher: the sound. It's s awful. Designed by Scott Lehrer for the Broadway revival (where there were no issues), the sound in The Bushnell left most audience members complaining after that they couldn;t hear (especially the soft-spoken MacGraw). I was in row H and had to strain to hear. Peter Kaczorowski's set design has no backdrop to it, so the voices echo and bounce on the cavernous Mortensen Hall stage. The volume isn't turned up much and sounds thin in the speakers. It is a disappointment as some lines of dialogue, particularly some that give insight into the characters, are simply lost.

Ali MacGraw and Ryan ONeal.  Photo: Austin Hargrave
By Lauren Yarger
The Bushnell has fired an arrow right through the heart of Valentine's day this year by scheduling the tour of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, which reunites "Love Story" stars Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw.

At a press event yesterday moderated by local arts journalist Frank Rizzo, and later in personal interviews, MacGraw, O'Neal and Gurney chatted about the play which opens tonight for a run through Sunday. Love Letters premiered in 1988 at Long Wharf Theatre and ended up being a finalist for the Pulitzer. It follows the 50-year relationship between Melissa (MacGraw) and Andrew (O'Neal) through letters written from shortly after the two meet as kids at a birthday party through adulthood. They share successes and failures, relationships, hardships, but most of all, a deep love and friendship.

It's not unlike the relationship between MacGraw and O'Neal, who burst upon American culture when they were paired as the ill-fated young lovers in the 1970 movie blockbuster "Love Story." They have touched base over the years, MacGraw said and have seen each other from time to time, and the affection they feel for each other hasn't waned.

"We are the generation this is written about," MacGraw said. "We really do have a past."

Love Letters is a dream come true to work with MacGraw again, said O'Neal, He finds it very moving every they perform the script (it is read, as the characters communicate through their letters) because when he hears his costar's voice, he hears "Jenny" from "Love Story" and is transported back. Only this time, his character does say he is sorry a lot, he joked.

The two make no effort to hide their obvious regard for each other. It's a casting match made in heaven.

Ryan O'Neal, Ali MacGraw, A.R. Gurney and Frank Rizzo.
Gurney said he couldn't have imagined when seeing the movie back in 1970 that these stars would one day be in a play of his. In fact, a lot of stars have sat in those seats. In its most recent Broadway revival, Mia Farrow, Carol Burnett, Candace Bergen, Alan Alda and Brian Dennehy were the pen pals. Interestingly, Gurney said that seeing different actors rarely gives him a new take on the characters. His reactions are more along the lines of whether someone has captured the character (he hadn't yet seen MacGraw and O'Neal in the roles.)

For these actors, they both feel they can relate to what they are reading.

"I have had some sad things happen in my life," O'Neal said. "I am able to use them in the story." O'Neal spoke about losing his longtime companion Farrah Fawcett and how the couple had once been approached to perform Love Letters in Las Vegas. It just didn't seem right for them at the time, he said. Then he heard his former "Peyton Place" costar Mia Farrow was doing the play on Broadway and he was a little miffed that she didn't ask for him.

She read with Brian Dennehy, I told him.

"Yeah, what's that?" he quipped.

But now playing opposite MacGraw, he realizes this is the right fit. He's even considering whether he can leave behind his four beloved rescue dogs in California to continue the tour to Australia.

MacGraw brings years of wisdom to the role. She's redefined her life and lives in New Mexico where, happily, she isn't under Hollywood's constant scrutiny.

Asked whether she's tired of being asked about her grey hair (men apparently never get this question -- just look at the Carrie Fisher issue when the new "Star Wars" came out), she laughed and then went on to speak eloquently and passionately about the need for older women to be included on stage and in films. Every stage of life has its gifts -- young and old -- she said, and we shouldn't be eliminating some from view.

When she was in her 20s, the things she thought were important have turned out to be "just a gnat's bite on my ass," she said.  Love isn't just about sexual attraction, she said. It's about forgiveness, confession, understanding differences, not trying to control and passion. Real life doesn't line up the way you plan, she said. There are ups and downs and the characters in this play experience that. They grow closer and grow apart, but what remains constant underneath it all is love.

Asked what his next project might be, O'Neal said he's not done with this one, saying he wishes he had tried out stage acting before. It's a dream come true. He feels like he should pay for the privilege of getting to act with MacGraw, it's such a pleasure, he said.

"And she's really good," he added with regard to her performance.

Aww. Now doesn't that sound like a fun way to spend Valentine's Day?

Love Letters runs through Feb. 14 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are
Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm. Tickets are $26 to $81:; 860-987-5900.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Theater Review: The Chosen -- Playhouse on Park

Jordan Wolfe, Joshua Whitson and Dan Shor. Photo: Rich Wagner
Of the Same Belief, But Worlds Apart
By Lauren Yarger
All of us struggle with purpose in life. Why are we here? What are we called to do. What happens, though, when a purpose is chosen for us? And what if what's chosen isn't what we want to do and how do we forgive?

These are some of the thought-provoking questions raised in Playhouse on Park's The Chosen, the story of two Jewish boys and their fathers, adapted by Chaim Potok and Aaron Posner from Potok's novel.

The two families live in the same neighborhood in mid 1940s Brooklyn, where realization about the Holocaust is just setting in. Reuven Malter (Jordan Wolfe) and Danny Saunders (Joshuah Whitson) meet playing baseball on the playground and form an unlikely friendship. It's a friendship that has to be approved by Sander's father, Reb Saunders (Damian Buzzelrio) who is a renowned, strict Hasidic rabbi. Danny is being groomed to take the religious leader's place as generations before him have done.

Young Reuven wins the rabbi's approval and even joins him and Danny for religious instruction and the two 15 year olds become best friends.

"Two friends are like two bodies with one soul," we're told.

Until something tears them apart...

That something, unwittingly, is Reuven's father, David (Dan Shor), who starts speaking out in favor of a cause in which he believes strongly: Zionism.

The rabbi declares that Danny and Reuven may no longer be friends and Danny obeys his father. It's a tough choice, because Danny has his own struggles with his father who refuses to speak to him for years, but gives no reason why. In fact, the rabbi often spoke to his son through Reuven. The communication breakdown makes it next to impossible forDanny to tell his father that he wants to be a psychologist, not a rabbi.

The strained relationship between the Malters is sharply contrasted  with the loving father-son relationship between Reuven and David, who easily puts his his son's needs and desires above his own plans for his son's future. Shor creates such a kind, loving character that we can't help but wish he would adopt a lot of children so they can benefit from his care and wisdom too.

The story is told by an older Reuven (David Gautschy) as he reminisces about these six years of his life and the path to understanding and reconciliation walked through them. Directed by Dawn Loveland, the characters are depicted warts and all and while we don't always understand or agree with their actions, we're engaged and want to know how it all turns out.

Lighting Designer Aaron Hochheiser skillfully helps shift attention from the narrator to the action in the past and back again. Christopher Hoyt's simple set relies on props to set the stage without drawing attention from the story.

A couple of disappointments: 

-- It is hard to understand Buzzelrio at times.
-- The run at two hours and 20 minutes seems a bit long. This is another play that would benefit from some edits and a 90-minute, no intermission run time, which worked well for Posner's adaptation of Potok's My Name is Asher Lev.

The Chosen runs through Feb 14 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday matinee at 2 pm, followed by a talk back with the cast.Tickets are $22.50-$35: 860-523-5900 x10;

Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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