21 May 2016

Pillow Talk, by Peter Tolan

Peter Tolan’s Pillow Talk is a fun little comedy that explores the contours of sexuality and anxiety in modern US culture. The play spends one night with Aaron (Sean Marko) and Doug (Mack Kale Jr.) as they share a bed on the first night of their cross-country road trip. While both men are heterosexual, their exploration of anxieties about homosexuality, intimacy, and neuroses is laugh out loud funny.

Marko and Kale played really well off one another, performing like a seasoned comedy duo. Aaron gets increasingly frustrated with his neurotic friend Doug, as their attempts to sleep are continually broken up by Doug’s fears and worries about personal issues (like whether or not Aaron is mad at him), discomfort at sharing a bed with another man, and concern that he may never have had a homosexual experience—though he read that 85% of men have. For his part, Aaron tries to assuage Doug’s worries as quickly as possible, which ironically often leads to more neurotic worry on Doug’s part. However, by the end of the play, after Aaron’s grandma—in whose mobile home the men are staying—hears them fighting through the door and thinks they’re having sex, Aaron’s fears about his family thinking he’s gay come flooding to the surface, and Doug opens up and becomes the confident one.

The play itself is funny, but Marko and Kale really made the show work. Their facial expressions, timing, and inflection were all spot on. One of the best acted scenes was when Aaron tries to reassure Doug that nothing sexual is going to happen, and declares that he would not want to touch Doug. Kale perfectly played the injured party, quietly declaring that he’s just a bit hurt by Aaron’s last remark. Marko responds with a look of exasperated near defeat that had the audience roaring with laughter. The two actors played off one another really well to draw out the humor from Tolan’s dialogue.

Over Before It Began, by Travis Teffner

The MAC produced the opening run of Travis Teffner’s Over Before It Began, which unfortunately seems more like a decision based on the close working relationship between Teffner, David Beach (who directed), and the MAC, than a reflection of the quality of the play itself. The acting was fine, but the play itself is plagued with structural problems.

Over Before It Began does actually have a relatively interesting premise: it takes two characters who have an affair without ever learning one another’s names and attempts to explore the potential for establishing genuine human connection without that most fundamental of identity components—a name. And Teffner played his role (listed in the program as Man) well, in part because it is the kind of role he most excels at: a brooding, vaguely angsty, somewhat angry bad boy with a troubled past. He wrote a role at which he could excel, and it worked for him.

However, the play as a whole has structural problems that really weaken the show. To start off with, the opening portion was extremely slow. We watch a woman (Ashley Shade) somewhat awkwardly rent an apartment, pass Teffner in the hallway, then spend what seemed like five full minutes pulling a mattress, sheets, and a bedside table onto stage. So far, nothing to draw the audience in, nothing to intrigue us. Maybe we were supposed to be intrigued by how Teffner looked at Shade as they passed in the hallway, or the box marked Lindsey he gave to Chaz (David Beach), the security guard to throw away. But neither of these things was enough to pull us in for the slow process of Shade moving in.

Once we get past the slow opening, almost immediately the next thing that happens is Shade seduces Teffner a la Penthouse forum letter, with no explanation ever given, even though her boyfriend is going to be moving in with her in less than a week. And this leads to what was, in my mind, the largest structural flaw of the play—so many short scenes. The scenes were generally broken up by Teffner and Shade preparing to have sex (be really careful not to substitute sex scenes for more substantive character development), and there were so many blackouts. In such a short play—with a run time of roughly an hour—having a dozen blackouts to break up scenes really fragments the story and breaks the audience’s focus on and engagement with the play. Many of the scenes could easily have been combined, which would have given the play better flow and movement rather than interrupting the movement so often. And the fact that the blackouts were frequently long—though very little on stage changed—was an additional practical problem. When I was a techie, the rule of thumb was that if a blackout takes longer than 30 seconds the audience gets restless, and this was for full set changes. If the only change is Teffner grabbing his pants and walking out the door, it shouldn’t take 15-20 seconds in which the audience is sitting in darkness, and that shouldn’t happen a dozen times in the play.

01 May 2016

Walter Cronkite is Dead, by Joe Calarco

The MAC production of Joe Calarco’s Walter Cronkite is Dead was spectacular. The acting was superb, and the play shifted deftly between laugh out loud funny (and I rarely laugh in the theatre) and deep sadness. Directed by David Beach, the show was great.

The play is about two women, Margaret (Cindy Ulrich) and Patty (Chris Adducchio), stranded in Reagan National Airport during inclement weather. Margaret, an east coast socialite in the grand Kennedy tradition, is waiting to meet her son before taking off on a trip to Moscow. Patty, a loquacious Tennessean, is taking her annual mother-daughter trip to London sans daughter. In the crowded airport terminal the two strangers end up sharing a table, and as they talk and bond, each opens herself to a very different type of person. They argue, the laugh, they commiserate, in a play that ranges from several minutes of drunken laughter to each woman in tears.

Both actors were superb. The main strength of the MAC production for me was the performances. Ulrich and Adducchio brought their characters to life in the way all theatre goers hope for. From the very beginning Adducchio brought us into the world of the character through her loud cell phone conversation punctuated with dropping one or more of her many purses and rolling suitcase. Patty is a woman who embraces life and herself (with all her faults), and does so loudly, proudly, and with a healthy dose of southern phraseology. While Patty is generally cheerful and chatty, the role allowed Adducchio to show her skill as an actor, incorporating not only the light southern charm, but deep sympathy, righteous indignation, and genuine sympathetic joy for her companion.

Ulrich brought out the richness of Margaret’s character, alternating between a New England tartness—particular after learning that Patty doesn’t care for the Kennedys—the free spirited exuberance of her ‘bad girl’ past, and a deep unease with her own life. Initially Margaret is the more restrained of the pair, and Ulrich played the distant, distracted, and slightly haughty opening portion largely through non-verbals that left little doubt about how she perceived the continuous stream of chatter coming from Patty. But the role opened up, even showing off Ulrich’s singing ability as Margaret re-enacted the musical number that got her thrown out of prom and banned from walking at her high school graduation.

A riotously funny, and deeply moving play, with spectacular performances. Walter Cronkite is Dead was a thoroughly enjoyable theatre experience.