AISLE SAY New York

IN BRIEF FOR MARCH

DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE by Sarah Ruhl
PARLOUR SONG by Jed Butterworth
TAKE ME ALONG, the musical Ah! Wilderness!
THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR by Michael Murphy
SECRETS OF A SOCCER MOM by Kathleen Clark
LOWER NINTH by Beau Williamson

Reviewed by David Spencer

 

Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl  at Playwrights Horizons is a mild little comedy about jean (Mary-Louise Parker), a young woman sitting in a café who finds the object of the title ringing unanswered near the fellow of the title (T. Ryder Smith: oh, yes, he’ll make his presence known, from the beyond). Jean feels a connection to the deceased—Gordon—and his cell phone; and in short order makes herself its keeper: taking messages, giving out funeral information, making appointments to meet most of the other lead players in Gordon’s life: mother (Kathleen Chalfant), mistress (Carla Harting), wife (Kelly Maurer)—and a brother (David Aaron Baker) with whom she’ll fall in love.

               The play’s purpose, of course, is to be a comment on how electronic life has compromised human connection, and diluted the concept of privacy…but for most of the play, Joan is primarily a cipher observing the other wacky characters drawn to the lightning rod that is Gordon’s wireless antenna—which keeps her remote from us—and for the most part the wackiness is too absurdist for grounded verisimilitude or meaningful humanism, so the play’s affect is the opposite of its intention. Nice direction (Anne Bogart), nice physical production (G. W. Mercier), expert cast led by the always-beguiling Ms. Parker…but Dead Man’s Cell Phone is not a season essential.

 

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Not merely inessential, but darn near ephemeral is Parlour Song. A world premiere by Jed Butterworth (author of the much lauded Mojo, which I regrettably missed), it’s about Ned (Chris Bauer), an overweight demolitions expert and his best friend (and our narrator) Dale (Jonathan Cake) a buff car wash owner. Ned becomes more and more desperate to bridge the gap between himself and his sultry wife, the ironically named Joy (Emily Mortimer), before the relationship blows up like one of his contract projects. He asks Dale for advice and to help him tone up physically. There’s also a bit of sanity-checking going on. Ned is certain his possessions have been disappearing in dribs and drabs from the house.

               Considering how (ultimately) straightforward the story is, Butterworth is very stingy with the particulars, and presents them against an atmosphere of elliptical enigma, so that by the end you’re simply scratching your head as to the point of it all. Yes, yes, I know, in several quarters Parlour Song has been praised as The Thing, but I tell you I was sitting among a group of people as bewildered as I. (My favorite post-show comment was: “I think I understand it…”)

               The cast, the direction (Neil Pepe) and the production in general are excellent, but don’t expect more than a (perhaps) intriguing exercise in style, with some cool British accents to give it Pinter-osity.

 

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Take Me Along is a minor musical from 1959, based on Eugene O’Neill’s one pure comedy, the elegiac play about the family that he, perhaps, wished he had, Ah! Wildreness! Set in 120s Connecticut, it’s about the daily travails of the Miller family, and alternately focuses on two good parents (William Parry, Donna Bullock) struggling with the coming-of-age of their nearly Yale-ready son Richard (Teddy Eck)—who is really too strait-laced and decent to fall too far off the path, in pursuit of childhood sweetheart Muriel (Emily Skeggs); and on the struggle for reformation waged within his “reprobate” hard-drinking Uncle (on his Dad’s side) Sid (Don Stephenson), newly returned home to pursue his lady-love, the long-suffering aunt (on his Mom’s side) Lily (Beth Glover).

               That sprawling focus and genteel tone is part of what’s kept Take Me Along from ever finding a meaningful place in the literature or the repertoire—the other part is a generally lackluster score by Bob Merrill.

               And yet, because it has been scaled down, smartly cut and presented modestly, the current Irish Rep production helmed by Charlotte Moore has managed to exploit the charms that are there to be exploited. Not unlike Meet Me In St. Louis (which the Irish Rep also recently revived), this sentimentalized look at the past through very rose-colored glasses seems a nice match for the intimate, postage-stamp stage; indeed, it’s a bit like a living picture post card. In musical theatre that’s rarely an asset, but in a case like this, context and presentation have their own alchemical effects, and what emerges is an evening whose feelgood vibes wouldn’t go amiss on a romantic or family outing.

 

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I was distressed at the few (and one key among the) reviews that painted The Farnsworth Invention as a lifeless, docudrama-style history lesson, because it was anything but. It was (as my review here says in more detail), a pulse-thumpingly full-blooded, big American saga; and any straightforward “narrative” device tended to pointedly emphasize the ambiguities of history.

               But The Conscientious Objector, by Michael Murphy, is precisely that kind of stiff “re-enactment.” Even if it means to be a conjecture, it’s not that far from Jack Webb, just-the-facts-ma’am, juicelessness. It focuses on the period in Martin Luther King’s career when he (24’s DB Woodside) decides to go very public with his condemnation of the Vietnam war, and thus go toe-to-toe with his most powerful civil rights ally, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (the ubiquitous John Cullum).

               Judging from the enormous differences between the script given to the press and the play as performed, director Carl Forsman (directing for the Keen Company at the Theatre Row complex) clearly did much work with the playwright (and, I have to assume with the playwright’s blessing, perhaps some of his own) which resulted in some very smart streamlining and cutting. (Gone are a wealth of long speeches, some of them public speeches. Forsman was savvy enough to realize that by the time we reached such passages, what they had to say was already implicit [if not flat-out stated] in the scenes previous, so he nimbly leaps over them to their consequences. We never miss them and the jumps seem entirely logical, in a dramaturgical sense.) But even this doesn’t help the play seeming long, the characters feeling over-written (behavioral details over-emphasized, beliefs and objectives restated multiple times), and the sum total doing little to stir the soul for seeing vital American history played out.

               Mr. Woodside is a competent but disappointingly flat King; and Mr. Cullum doesn’t even vaguely try to imitate the Lyndon Johnson persona, though because he’s a Southerner to his bones, the Cullum persona (which most of us have by now seen dozens of times) is sufficient unto the task. And it helps that (ironically) the playwright’s portrait of the President is much more interesting and rich than his portrait of the Reverend.

               As a plain, by-the-numbers historical (or at least as a play that seems like one, whatever it might be changing or positing), The Conscientious Objector is respectable and education-friendly. As a drama meant to fire the blood and inspire passions…not so much…

 

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Kathleen Clark’s new comedy Secrets of a Soccer Mom, directed by Judith Ivey, at the Snapple Theatre, is arguably a bit mis-titled, as its focus is three soccer moms, played by Nancy Ringham, Deborah Sonnenberg and Caralynn Kozlowski. Over the course of a game, they get the chance to see past each other’s “masks” to a few more personal truths and revelations, and bond in ways that are, to them, unexpected, but for us, pretty predictable. They learn about communicating better, sticking up for themselves and a lot of Dr. Phil type stuff.

               There’s nothing particularly wrong with this gentle, little, feelgood, intermissionless 90 minutes…but nothing terribly strong to recommend it either. By the end we haven’t learned all that much (the secrets are mild, dramatically speaking, this being a portrait of average soccer moms) and it seems a long way to go for short reward. Performances are lovely, direction is no-frills but fine, but if I were venturing out to see my favorite TV show live, I wouldn’t set my DVR to record this play.

 

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At the Flea Theatre downtown there’s another 90 minute straight-through three-hander, this one about three guys stranded on the roof that is now high ground in the wake of the Hurricaine Katrina flood. In Lower Ninth by Beau Williamson, Gaius Charles plays the irreverent younger of the three, James McDaniel is the more prayerful and practical—and Gbegna Akkinagbe is the dead guy they tried to rescue, rotting away under a tarp.

               There is more that could be said by way of summary, but part of the play’s tactic is to deal with ambiguities in the relationships slowly, and to reveal salient details in its own good time, so rather than spoil any of that, I’ll just say that the struggle here is for the two living guys to contain their natural contention and concentrate on mutual efforts toward survival. Which is not easy: under the sun the heat is brutal, under the moon it’s too cold, none of the water that surrounds them is safe for drinking or even swimming, and there isn’t a sign of rescue in sight. Yet. As to the dead guy: since he speaks for himself, I’ll let it stay there.

               Though Lower Ninth is certainly not a great play, nor even memorable in any profound sense, it is nonetheless a nice little downtown surprise, with a high octane cast under the direction of Daniel Goldstein, and enough of an interesting new playwright’s voice that I’d be interested to see Williamson’s next.

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