Friday, April 17, 2015

The 39 Steps at Lakewood Playhouse

Thank you, Mr. Bones
by Michael Dresdner

    Bryan Bender, Deya Ozburn                                               All photos by Kate Paterno-Lick 

You can accurately describe The 39 Steps, currently at Lakewood Playhouse, in just two words: madcap romp. I’ve reviewed iterations of it over the years in three different theaters and this one, directed by John Munn, is by far the best.

Steps is loosely based on Hitchcock’s famous 1935 “chase” thriller of the same name, but is given the extreme comic treatment a la Shakespeare Abridged. In other words, the plot – a man is roped into being both fox and hounds while trying to prevent a secret formula from getting out of the country – is almost completely irrelevant. It is nothing more than a platform on which to haul out and deliver every comic tableau you can imagine.

   L to R: Deya Ozburn, Bryan Bender, Frank Roberts, Paul Richter 

Along the way there are homages to Hitchcock in words, music, and images that are far too numerous to mention. You’ll probably pick up on Vertigo, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window (as a curiously portable prop) and North by Northwest (as a shadow puppet show,) but that barely scratches the surface. Chances are you won’t catch them all, which may be a damned good excuse to see this play more than once.

Though versions vary, this one had a decidedly vaudevillian flavor, and Munn has resurrected almost every piece of comic shtick that’s ever graced the old time stage. Thus, it requires a flawless comic cast supported by innumerable (and excellent) costumes (Diane Runkel), clever props and set pieces (Virginia Yanoff and Lex Gernon), lighting (Kristin Zetterstrom) and sound tricks (Nena Curley.) Even the booth gets into the act with gags like intentional sound cue screw-ups, so here’s a tip of the hat to stage manager Jenifer King.

    L to R: Frank Roberts, Paul Richter 

Mostly, though, a property like this requires an ideal cast, and this one has it in spades. The leading man, and the only actor who plays only one role, must first be as charming a heartthrob as Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, and Bryan Bender, who plays hero Richard Hannay, is just that. From the moment he steps out on stage and flashes a winning grin you can almost see that cartoon trick of a flashing glint of light off his teeth. That’s not all, though. He also brings flawless timing,the athleticism for very physical comedy, and a finely tuned annoyance when things (intentionally) go wrong on stage. Thus his perfectly nuanced glances at the booth when phones keep ringing after being picked up or lights that refuse to turn off and on, and his impatience when he tires of the slow-motion staging of an elaborate fight scene well before his fellow actors. In short, he’s the perfect Hannay.

His three primary female counterparts are played by Deya Ozburn, who morphs from exaggerated Germanic vamp Annabella Schmidt, through sweet but back-stabbing Pamela, to unsophisticated but helpful Margaret. As with all the roles, there are tons of physical demands along with the comedic ones, and Ozburn can keep up with the rest of this talented cast just fine, thank you very much.

L to R: Bryan Bender, Frank Roberts, Deya Ozburn 

Anchoring all the other 100-odd parts are the two rubber-faced, loose-jointed clowns, who switch personas, voices, costumes, and even genders faster than a nymphomaniac can drop her dress. Frank Roberts and Paul Richter do the honors here, and they are superb, creating wildly different and hilariously bizarre characters in the blink of an eye, flashing both tirelessly and seamlessly from one to another. These four make up the entire cast, and believe me, they make this show.

It’s spring, the sun is out today, and this is the perfect accompaniment to the mood. The 39 Steps is as pure a night of goofy, easy-to-swallow fun as one can divine. As the song says, pack up all your cares and woes and let these four delightful comics treat you to a couple of hours of mindless, non-stop hilarity.

The 39 Steps
April 17 through May 10, 2015
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shipwrecked! at Centerstage

Foley, Fanfare, and Fantasy
by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Elinor Gunn, Chris Shea, Terry Edward Moore   Photos by  Michelle Smith Lewis

Imagine, if you will, sitting in a Victorian theater in fin de siecle England being regaled by a man who took to sea as a youth and emerged three decades later with a swashbuckling tale that defies belief. That, in a nutshell, is the premise of the fulsomly titled SHIPWRECKED! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself) now playing at Centerstage.

Directed by Roger Curtis, who also directed Jack and the Beanstalk and Aladdin, it’s not surprising that it has some of the upbeat feel of a Panto.

The action begins with Louis de Rougemont himself stepping out on stage and introducing himself to us, the audience. Adroitly crafted by Terry Edward Moore, he graciously welcomes us to the story of his life, then launches into the tale, acting it out as he goes.

    Terry Edward Moore (center). L to R: Chris Shea, Elinor Gunn 

Moore does a superb job of becoming the charismatic and picaresque de Rougemont. Starting from his sickly childhood at his mother’s side, his story drags us along through a stint on a Coral Sea pearl hunting boat and a storm induced shipwreck in which he and the captain’s dog are the only survivors. Left washed up on a deserted shore, he eventually saves three lost aboriginals, bonds, and returns with them to their homeland, where he, of course, becomes something of a hero.

Through it all, his story is amplified by two fellow actors. As good as Moore was, his two sidekicks quite litterally ran circles around him.

Watching the amazing Elinor Gunn and Chris Shea spin through a dizzying array of characters, both human and canine, was captivating. In the space of a second or two they’d change gender, personality, action, and voice, go up and down levels and ladders, and grab (and discard) a staggering stream of clever props, costume pieces, and headgear. Think of the character changes of Shakespeare Abridged or 39 Steps coupled with the gaudy energy and splashy accoutrements of a Panto and you’ll have some idea of what they offer.

  L to R: Terry Edward Moore, Elinor Gunn, Chris Shea 

Gunn went smoothly from mother to publisher to waif to ship captain, and dozens of others, all without a flaw. Ditto for Shea, who took on tars, gents, suffed shirts, primatives, and a variety of femmes, both fatale and elegant. His repeated appearance as Louis’ trusty canine companion, coupled with short shots of him as either a fetching or prim woman, were alone worth the price of admission.

Together they filled the stage with all the sounds, characters, and props needed to flesh out de Rougemont’s tale and make it come to life audibly and visually. In short, they were wonderful.  

But wait; there’s more. In spite of the heavy and atheletic character load, they find the time to also provide all the play’s elucidating sound effects. Armed with an array of gizmos and period machines, they create sea gulls, waves, rain, thunder, falling masts, and all the sounds of London, Australia, and an island of primatives. They’re living proof that fancy sound programs in use today have nothing on a pair of skilled Foley artists.

A huge range of innovative, often makeshift, costumes by Rachel Wilkie, including an ungodly number of hats, helped the actors transform roles, often using as little as one item of clothing or gear. Cunning lighting changes by Amy Silveria offered everything from the suble change in an oil lamp being blown out indoors to dark skies, hot sun, and even an underwater scene. It’s all done on a clever set by Benjamin Baird that works as home, theater, ship, island, and street scene, replete with trapdoors for fire pit, buried treasure, and a hot bath. There’s even a shadow puppet screen that, among other things, let’s us watch a giant octopus take down a sailing ship.  

Of course, if you shy away from bombast, high energy exposition, frivolous folderol, and “squash-buckling tomfoolery,” this may not be your cup of tea. Even so, you’d miss some of the finest performaces I’ve seen from three incredibly tallented actors.

For those who love the tall tale told first hand, cast off the present and let Centerstage plop you into a seat anchored firmly in the late 19th century. Sit back while de Rougemont’s thoroughly implausible tale washes over you in all its breathless glory.

SHIPWRECKED! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself.)
March 20th through April 4th, 2015

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Picasso at the Lapin Agile at Tacoma Little Theatre

Diamond in the rough

by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Rodman Bolek, Jacob Tice, Bryce Smith             Photos by DK Photography

Written by comedian Steve Martin, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, now at Tacoma Little Theatre, is a seriously funny play. The lines are brilliantly comic, the concept interesting, and the characters, if not wholly fictional, are certainly charismatic.

The conceit is that it’s 1904 and we’re eavesdropping in a bar visited by both Einstein and Picasso as young men, just before either of them made his first big breakthrough. Other characters come and go primarily for comic value, and there’s plenty of that. As for the plot, what little there is has slim import. For the most part it’s all about setting up funny characters in funny situations and giving them even funnier lines.

Director Rick Hornor’s pacing was briskly satisfying, and the ensemble cast was solid. Yet, I had a nagging feeling that there was a spark of eclat that was missing. What was good could have been greater.

That’s not to say it was not sprinkled with some great moments. The opening absinthe/vodka exchange between barkeep Freddy (Jacob Tice) and Einstein (Rodman Bolek) was perfect in both timing and delivery, one of many humorous gems that sparkled in this play. An amazing piece of brilliance from Tara Jensen as a gorky fan was another all too brief shooting star of comic perfection. Then there was Dan Lysne in a bit part, rushing through like a bracing breeze as an inventor with delusions of adequacy. Add in the stolid, sensible foil Germaine (Colleen Bjurstrom) and you have my personal handful of on-stage favorites.

  L to R: Colleen Bjurstrom, Jacob Tice 

As usual, the production values were very much up to par. Blake York’s set, dazzlingly dressed and propped by Jeffrey Weaver and superbly painted by Maggie Knott, is both beautiful and clever. In what has become eerily familiar at this theatre lately, it not only stood out, but at times, especially during the last scene, damned near stole the show from the actors. Costumes by Michele Graves and lighting by Pavlina Morris were smoothly integrated and had their own moments in the sun, the latter particularly obvious in the closing sequence.  

So, then, what’s the problem? Often, when doing Shakespeare, directors will tell you to let the words do the work. While Steve Martin is definitely not Shakespeare, his strength resides not in the physical acting, but in his finely tuned comedic lines. In this case I feel the best way to let the humor shine through is to take a more subtle, less-is-more approach as far as the acting is concerned.  

To be fair, it was only opening night, and these things have a way of ripening with age, so don’t let that hold you back from coming to see this more than pleasant gaggle of onstage oddballs. Focus on what is, rather than what could have been, and you’ll still have a very funny, very lighthearted evening of pure entertainment.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile
March 13 to March 29, 2015
Tacoma Little Theatre

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Miracle Worker at Lakewood Playhouse

The life of a soul  
by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Liberty Evans-Agnew, Deya Ozburn         All photos by Kate Paterno-Lick 

Disabuse yourself of any notion that this play will be depressing, maudlin, or dispiriting, for it is anything but. The Miracle Worker, now playing at Lakewood Playhouse, is as superb and enjoyable a production as you can imagine. As easy as it might have been to slip into the noir, it is instead gripping, hopeful, and at the end, thoroughly rewarding, thanks both to skilled direction by Pug Bujeaud and simply amazing acting by the cast.

Yes, there are wonderful period costumes by Rachel Wilkie, especially Kate’s outfits, lighting (Daniel Cole) used to change our focus to make one stage appear as five distinct settings, and an unobtrusively convincing set by James Venturini that worked beautifully without drawing focus. But it is the cast, and in particular three leads, who made this show the absolute winner it is.

The play itself is superbly written, laced with foreshadowing, subtle parallels, and even some circular connections, all rewards for the observant theater denizen. For instance, the figurative ongoing tug of war for control of Helen between Annie and mother Kate actually plays out literally in one scene. The play even does a fine job of adroitly answering the classic question of why Annie Sullivan would devote such superhuman effort and patience to Helen. It’s all part of an ultimately closed circle of guilt and redemption surrounding Annie’s deceased younger brother, and comes complete with an insight into Annie’s own horrendous childhood.

You probably know the story. Helen Keller, struck blind and deaf by disease before the age of two, had morphed into a spoiled wild-child thanks to the guilty indulgence of her parents. When she was seven, they hired 20-year-old Annie Sullivan, herself almost completely blind in spite of several operations, who through extreme patience and tenacity set out to break through the wall of dark silence Helen occupied. After a frustrating start, Annie realizes that Helen’s enabling parents are undermining her efforts with well-meaning and loving over-indulgence. She insists that the only way she can get through to Helen, and get her to behave as well, is to have her to herself, isolated in an out building on the property. There, with no one to turn to but Annie, the two finally start to make some progress.

While the entire cast was worthy of praise, three women in particular stand out. All were completely endearing, and I found myself genuinely caring about these people whether their actions were right, wrong, kindly, or seemingly cruel. That’s the first step toward creating a play well worth watching.

   L to R: Liberty Evans-Agnew, Gretchen Boyt 

First, there’s Gretchen Boyt, who plays Kate Keller, Helen’s mother, and takes us convincingly through a range of severe and conflicting parental emotions. Struck with horror at Helen’s illness-induced debilitation, Kate becomes the classic enabler, showering Helen with extreme forbearance, love, and unfortunately, pity, to assuage her unfocussed guilt. Later she is forced to come to grips with the fact that she is a very large part of Helen’s problem, and Boyt lets us see the struggle of her internal battle between well-meaning indulgence and tough love.

Helen herself is played by Liberty Evans-Agnew, and it’s hard to imagine a young actor doing a better job of holding her own bracketed by such pros. With no dialog to fall back on, everything she does is physical, yet she both wins us over and thoroughly conveys the range of emotions Helen indulges in, from frustration and anger, to fear, trust, and love. This young woman does the part yeoman service in a performance that would be called marvelous by an actor of any age.

   Top to bottom: Deya Ozburn, Liberty Evans-Agnew 

Last, and most certainly not least, is Deya Ozburn’s staggering portrayal of Annie Sullivan. I have in the past praised Ozburn for very varied roles here at Lakewood in The Children’s Hour, Twelfth Night, and The Importance of Being Earnest, but this was a new high. Ozburn brings the tireless, highly focused Annie to life. She wears dark glasses to protect her sensitive eyes, and reads hunched over with her face a mere inch or two from the page. The bulk of her portrayal is physical, but when she does speak, her terse, emotionally vibrant words reveal a young woman with a tormented body and soul who somehow found uncommon strength and confidence from her travails, and one seriously worthy of our respect and admiration. 

Not surprisingly, much of the interplay between Helen and Annie is wordless, but highly energetic. During one scene in the first act, Annie chases everyone out of the dining room to be left alone with Helen. What follows is a long battle of wills between Helen and Annie that is surely both physically and emotionally taxing in the extreme for both actors. Not a word is spoken the entire time, yet that scene, the high point of the play for me, was by itself a brilliant tour de force for which both Ozburn and Evans-Agnew deserve kudos.
By the time the play ends with the final, uplifting reward of Helen’s breakthrough at the water pump, the audience has been treated to some of the finest performances of the year. This is a theatre experience that can take you well outside your comfort zone, then cap the adventure with palpable relief and pure elation. Grab your calendar and schedule a time to see The Miracle Worker. You will not be disappointed.

The Miracle Worker
Feb. 20 to Mar. 15, 2015
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Great Gatsby at TLT

The great gamble  
by Michael Dresdner 

Rarely do people say “it’s better than the book,” but The Great Gatsby at Tacoma Little Theatre is one such example. By putting together a flat-out amazing cast, director Dale Westgaard turned a multiple, triangulated love story into a showcase for outstanding performances, from the strong, compelling leads right down to the solid supporting ensemble parts.

    L to R: Daisy (Veronica Tuttell), Gatsby (Rodman Bolek)   Photos courtesy of DK Photography

Make no mistake; it was the cast who made this play a wonderful experience. Yes, the production support was there, but this is one case where the acting, pardon the phrase, took center stage.

The story begins on the fashionable shores of East and West Egg in 1922, where nouveau riche Jay Gatsby throws endless stylish parties fueled by bootleg booze. Said parties are spied on by old-money conservative Tom Buchanan and his yearning wife, Daisy, who was in love with Gatsby before he became wealthy, and before she married Tom. Gatsby’s goal is to win Daisy away from her husband and pretend the intervening years never happened. Tom’s goal is to bed other women but still keep Daisy. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, Daisy’s cousin, an appropriately moral Midwesterner who observes and gets involved, but can never adopt the loose ethics of this crowd of exciting Eastern swells. Naturally, it eventually all goes wrong, and everyone ends up either disappointed or dead.

Now for the fun part; the players.

Rodman Bolek plays a cool, stoic Jay Gatsby, convincing in both his love for Daisy and as a character who could have gone from rags to riches quickly through sheer determination (and a handy mob connection.) Veronica Tuttell crafts a Daisy that is fragile, passionate, weak, and confused, with a timorous voice and a winsome mien that makes it easy to see why both Jay and Tom want her. Jacob Tice, as her husband Tom, is amazing as the quintessential swaggering, sneering bully; a wealthy, right-thinking member of the superior race.

   L to R: Myrtle (Stacia Russell) and Tom (Jacob Tice)

Daisy’s recently arrived Midwestern cousin Nick Carraway is well-crafted by Kelly Mackay, who shows a fine balance while straddling the innocent, moral imperative with which he was raised and the enticing allure of money, women, illicit booze, and the pursuit of pure fun. He’s loved and pursued by the exceptionally sultry Jordan Baker, appealingly brought to life by Ana Bury.

     L to R: Jordan (Ana Bury) and Nick (Kelly Mackay)

Stacia Russell treats us to, among other scenes, a wonderful drunken rage as Myrtle Wilson who is in a rather one-sided illicit affair with user Tom Buchanan. She also does a great contentious scene with her poor, benighted husband George, played by Mason Quinn, who gives us a painfully accurate portrayal of a timid man taken advantage of by both his wife and her lover, a man he thinks is his friend.  

No less impressive was the thoroughly believable chemistry between all the couples, whether loving or contentious. That goes for Nick and Jordan, Tom and Daisy, Jay and Daisy, Tom and Myrtle, and George and Myrtle.

I won’t mention all the supporting players (I’ll leave that to my dear friend Lynn Geyer) but I will say they were worthy of the leads, from Kerry Bringman’s mob heavy Meyer Wolfsheim to the earnest witness, Mrs. Michaelis (Kaylie Rainer) ­­­­who, behind the main action, recreates the events of the car accident in mime for the policeman’s benefit.

To solve the insurmountable problem of a play with many lavish indoor and outdoor scenes, designer Blake York gambled on minimalist; no sets at all. Instead, there was a large screen at the back of the stage on which was projected images of an appropriately elegant room, picturesque garden, roadside, or shoreline. The one downside to that was that when the stage lighting came up, it washed out the image a bit, and there were times when actors cast shadows on the scrim.

Nor were there a lot of props or furniture pieces; just a few chairs that doubled as couch or car seats, a drink cart or two, and at one point, an armoire. What scene changes there were, mostly moving chairs and drink carts on and off stage, were done not by shadowy, black-clad stagehands, but by minions in livery, yet another delightful touch.

The upshot of this was that the actors were very naked on stage; they had almost nothing in the way of props, furniture, or set to distract the audience or aid them. Consequently, there was intense focus on their acting alone. Such a minimalist set could be a disaster for a weaker cast, but in this case it reinforced just how outstanding these actors were. In short, the gamble paid off, thanks to a superb cast.

And the costumes? Divine. Frequent changes meant MANY lavish period costumes by Michele Graves, appropriate not only for the time and income, but for the character personalities as well, right down to Gatsby’s swim suit and Daisy’s classic fringe flapper dress. Equally outstanding were the sweet wigs by Jeffery Weaver. A nod as well to Ben Levine for sound design and Pavlina Morris for lighting, but a double nod to choreographer Elizabeth Richmond Posluns, who must have had her hands full getting a few of the less-than-spritely dancers on stage to do flapper era steps.   

While this production is a surprise and delight, there’s a bit of bad news. This is a short run; only three weeks. So GO NOW! Don’t miss it. And if there are any high school groups out there listening, seeing this is vastly more pleasant than trudging through the book. If you have to read The Great Gatsby, plan a trip to TLT. I wish I could have done that when I was in high school.

The Great Gatsby
Jan. 23 to Feb. 8, 2015
Tacoma Little Theatre

Girls Night at Centerstage

An outsider’s view
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Hilary Heinz, Meg McLynn, Anna Clausen, Kate Alden

Let me say at the outset that I am not the target audience for Girls Night: The Musical, now playing at Centerstage. It appears to be aimed at the past 40, unerringly heterosexual female, preferably one who has been married (at least once), had children, and imagines herself wilder and raunchier than she really is.

As I am a retirement age male, please feel free to intone “but it’s not MEANT for YOU” after any unflattering or uncomprehending comment I might utter. With that out of the way, we can dive in.

Neither a play or a true musical, Girls Night is collection of loosely strung together song and dance numbers. There’s no real plot or arc and little in the way of cohesive flow.

Set in a karaoke bar, the conceit is that four longtime friends get together to drink, get down and dirty, and remind one another of their checkered past and patchy present. The official occasion is the engagement of the fifth friend’s daughter. We don’t meet the daughter, but missing mom, who died in a motorbike accident at the age of 17 and keeps watch as an angel, narrates and adds needed exposition.

The women, engaging in almost non-stop singing and dancing, are decidedly better than the property they are working with. They are all quite good, in spite of being cast as rather unrealistic, two-dimensional stereotypes.

    L to R: Alicia Mendez, Anna Clausen, Kate Alden, Meg McLynn, Hilary Heinz

Alicia Mendez plays Sharon, the aforementioned dead-at-seventeen, not-so-guardian angel trying to join in the fun, if only vicariously. Her job is to stitch together the otherwise unconnected chunks of energetic song and dance.

Statuesque and clear-voiced Anna Marie Clausen creates Liza, the snarky, athletic, well-heeled presentation wife brimming with self-confidence. I’m sure I’m not the first to compare her (favorably) to Cameron Diaz. 

Then there’s Anita (Hilary Heinz Luthi) who functions normally only thanks to mood controlling drugs, a matured version of the sweet but dippy paste-eater we all remember from grade school. Luthi reinforced Anita’s essential lack of cool with a lanky, puppet-like style of dancing and movement that was quite endearing.

Carol (Meg McLynn) is an overtly sexual, decidedly raunchy character whose clothes clearly blare “slut.”  She dances hard, sings harder in what some call “belter” style, and vaguely reminds one of a 40-year-old Bette Midler with untamed hair.

My easy favorite among the five was Kate Alden as (coincidentally) Kate, a married school teacher – make that schoolmarm – who was always well-behaved but plain, and except for cutting loose at this karaoke night, still is. Alden managed to maintain the overlay of her somewhat gawky character even while singing and dancing vastly better than her mousy persona had any right to be capable of doing. She then clinched it in the second half (there are no acts here) delivering an entirely delightful drunk Kate, something that is difficult to do convincingly. She did it all marvelously.

Both the musical director, Amy Jones, and the choreographer, Leslie McQueen, deserve props for the flow and energy, while costume designer Karl Ruckdeschel did a nice job of identifying the various personalities definitively by their outfits.

And what of the property itself? Let me just say that it’s a far cry from the cleverly crafted and smoothly integrated barbs of, say, a Tina Fey or Amy Sedaris. The humor was more like a series of giggly, dirty Facebook memes, often dabbling in penis, merkin, and other sexual themes. Like most memes, they were generally familiar, a bit ham-handed, and easy to see coming. If I were downright cruel, I might call the writing vacuous. Luckily, I’m not.

At the core of this production are song and dance numbers mostly fitting into the karaoke genre; songs with more elan than relevance. At times it seemed the dialog existed more to cue a song than the other way around. The women on stage did their all to extend the energy to the crowd, encouraging everyone to get up and dance in the aisles along with them, but it was much more fun watching them.

Unfortunately, some of the song choices have been forever tainted by their popular culture connections. It is hard to hear “Don’t Cry Out Loud” without seeing the anorexic beauty queen from Drop Dead Gorgeous, and impossible to avoid images of The Birdcage during “We Are Family.”

Come to think of it, this whole play would have been more compelling done at The Birdcage, since drag queens are easier to swallow as female stereotypes. Perhaps next time. 

Again, this was aimed not at me but at the mostly female audience. They seemed to be having a good time and relating to the genre, so take that for what it’s worth. I’ve done my best to paint an accurate picture. Perhaps the best thing is to see it for yourself and either agree or disagree. 

Girls Night: The Musical
Jan. 22 through Feb. 8, 2015

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Glengarry Glen Ross at Lakewood Playhouse

Half past midnight in the afternoon  

by Michael Dresdner

  L to R: Joe Grant, Mike Slease, Kyle Sinclair, Alan Wilkie, James Winkler  
   Photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

Lakewood Playhouse, under the tutelage of John Munn, who also directed this play, is presenting David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross as this season’s “out of the box” offering, their term for shows that are more challenging to audiences. Yes, it’s risky, for a number of reasons, but it’s also a play that won both a Pulitzer and a Tony, so it’s got pedigree.    

Most of the action is set in an office of men selling real estate for investment purposes to hoi polloi dazzled by dreams of greed, a practice once derogatorily termed “swamp busting.” The set by James Venturini is spot on accurate, dressed with beyond-perfect props and amazingly sweet details by Jeffery Weaver. Costumes are right on the money, as they always are when done by Alex Lewington.

   L to R: Joe Grant, Kyle Sinclair

The main denizens of the office are the office manager, a nepotism-placed ferret named John Williamson (Kyle Sinclair) and four salesmen. W. Scott Pinkston does an outstanding job of creating  Richard Roma, the slick, self-confident predator currently at the top of the sales heap. Similarly, Joseph Grant is excellent as Shelly Levene, once a powerhouse salesman now reduced to desperation, trapped in a job that has squeezed him out like a used lemon, but forlornly trying to prove he’s still got it.

  L to R: James Winkler, Alan Wilkie

Dave Moss (Alan Wilkie) is a crude, conniving man, easily driven to the unethical, but cagy enough to protect himself by roping others into his nefarious schemes. George Aaronow (James Winkler) is the nebbish of the office, a plodder who is perhaps more aware than anyone else of how much he hates his job, and for good reason.

   L to R: W. Scott Pinkston, Frank Roberts 

Theirs is soul-sucking work where the brief exhilaration from landing a sale barely makes a dent in the constant degradation of what they do; sell land for more than it’s worth to people who don’t want it and often can’t afford it. The stink of stress and self-hatred clings to an activity where the only job satisfaction is money. Not surprisingly, they’ve come to despise their customers, more marks than clients; each other, because of the competition; and ultimately, themselves.

Rounding out the cast are short but well-delivered appearances by Blake (Mike Slease), a successful and arrogant bully from the head office there to apply pressure and pit the salesmen against one another, James Lingk (Frank Roberts), a timorous, hen-pecked client with buyer’s remorse, and a refreshingly calm and focused cop named Baylen (Dave Hall.)  

It’s a strong cast, top to bottom, the proof of which came from a comment by my co-reviewer. She said she just kept looking at Joe Grant (who plays the furtive, pathetic Shelly Levene) and thinking “there must be something else you could do to make a living.”

Here’s a nugget I rarely share: Just past my second decade I was pressed to work in a “swamp busting” office somewhat like this one. My horrified reaction to it went a long way to convincing me to spend my life, as I in fact did, as a guitarmaker.

For those of us who abhor such characters and endeavors, and there are many in the community theatre circle, it’s hard to imagine leaving the theatre any way but depressed. Of course, that may well be the point. Mamet is showing us the dark reality of one particularly ugly facet of the working world, and to be fair, that is one of the jobs theatre is supposed to do.

And what of the famed “bad language” the play is noted for; all the “fucks” and related verbal coarseness? Do men – and it is only men in this office and this play – who are locked in a soul-numbing job in which they scorn their customers and hate one another almost as much as themselves actually talk this way? Yes, Virginia, they really do.

Granted, there are patrons who would ask “But is that really necessary?” That’s the wrong question. One should ask “is it really appropriate?” and the answer to that is “yes, that level of realism is very appropriate,” and frankly, that’s what makes it necessary, if theatre is to be honest.   

Now for the big question one must always ask after a night of theatre: Did I enjoy the experience?

 No, I didn’t.

But that’s not because it wasn’t well done (it was), or because it was a bad property in the sense of it being a poorly written play (it isn’t). It was because it opens a doorway into a piece of reality that I’d rather not immerse myself in for two hours.

As they say, your results may vary; it might be just the thing your psyche needs.   

Glengarry Glen Ross
Jan 9th to Feb 1st, 2015
Lakewood Playhouse