Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Minstrel Players' production of The Game's Afoot at Trinity Episcopal Church by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Minstrel Players' production of "The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays" by Ken Ludwig at Trinity Episcopal Church was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays
The Minstrel Players
Houghton Hall
Trinity Episcopal Church (130 Main Street, Northport Village, NY)
Reviewed 10/26/14

The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays was written by Ken Ludwig, a prolific American playwright best known for his Broadway productions of Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy For You and Moon Over Buffalo. His work has been performed in 30 countries and in over 20 languages. The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays premiered at the Cleveland Play House in November 2011. It won the 2012 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Play. The boasting rights for having produced the Long Island Premier of The Game's Afoot, to my knowledge, goes to The Heights Players, who opened the show on October 10, 2014. However, this production by The Minstrel Players does appear to be the Suffolk County premier of the play. The famous phrase "The Game Is Afoot" was first uttered in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure Of The Abbey Grange when Sherlock Holmes tells Watson: "Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!" But the origin of "The Game's Afoot" in literature actually dates back to William Shakespeare's King Henry V where in Act 3, Scene 1, the King gives his soldiers the rousing speech that begins with the line, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" and ends "And you, good yeoman, Whose limbs were made in England, show us here The mettle of your pasture; let us swear That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not; For there is none of you so mean and base, That hath not noble lustre in your eyes, I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game's afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"

The main character in The Game's Afoot is William Hooker Gillette, who is hosting a Christmas Eve party at his home, the Gillette Castle,  in 1936. William Gillette, in real life, was an American actor and playwright (who died on April 29, 1937) best remembered for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage more than 1300 times over a period of 30 years. His portrayal of Holmes helped create the modern image of the detective. His use of the deerstalker cap and curved pipe became durable symbols of the character Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Gillette Castle, completed by William Gillette in 1919 at a cost of 1.1 million dollars is located on the Connecticut River in East Haddam, Connecticut. In this play, written by Ken Ludwig, William Gillette invites some recent cast members to his house along with a critic, Daria Chase, who is writing a feature article on him for Vanity Fair. William Gillette fancies himself to be a real life Sherlock Holmes and maintains a laboratory and recording equipment in his home. His real motivation for hosting the party is to try to discover who recently made an attempt on his life, and later, he tries to find out who allegedly killed Daria Chase, the evil theatre critic.

Ken Ludwig has no idea how to write a play in this genre. The Game's Afoot is derivative drivel that cheats and misleads the audience at every turn. A legitimate who-did-it murder mystery sets out clues, gives many of the characters possible motives, and invites the audience to try to solve the murder perhaps providing a surprising ending that leaves people feeling astonished and satisfied. That does not happen in this play. In The Game's Afoot, our Sherlock Holmes character wipes the murder weapon clean of fingerprints and calls the police before starting his investigation. William Gillette and his friend Felix Geisel both have no idea how to take a pulse and haven't a clue as to whether Daria Chase is alive or dead although Gillette has no problem definitely declaring "She's..." at the end of the First Act and "Dead" as the first word of the Second Act. Even the attempt on William Gillette's life is revealed in the end to just have been bad aiming on the part of the assassin, which is something an amateur sleuth in the audience could not anticipate and provides facts outside of those someone would normally consider in trying to figure out who did what to whom. By the end of the First Act, it was obvious to everyone that Simon Bright was a money hungry bad guy who probably killed his current wife's ex-husband while they were on their honeymoon in Killington, Vermont and that he was still keeping an old girlfriend on the side. Sure, some facts like the involvement of Simon's current wife Aggie Wheeler, and the fact that Martha Gillette, William's mom, was as mad as a hatter, were unexpected revelations but none that provided the audience with any feeling of fulfillment. 

The best line in the play was uttered by Madge Geisel powerfully played by the very talented Tricia Ieronimo. After the alleged murder of Daria Chase, her character said, "I guess this means we're not exchanging presents tonight." Kevin Kelly played her husband Felix, who cheated on his wife with Daria and possibly with other women as well. Unfortunately, Mr. Kelly did not play the role of Felix straight enough to be a credible heterosexual. I have no idea, nor do I care, what Mr. Kelly's underlying sexual orientation is. However, as a professional actor, he must be believable as the character he is playing. There is no room for affirmative action in a production that is charging the public to attend. If an actor's natural demeanor is to come across as a flaming Queen who appears to be a stereotypical bottom, that actor is not immune from criticism if he lets those traits creep into a performance where they are not appropriate. 

Alicia James hit a home run in the role of Daria Chase. When her character burst onto the scene, we knew we were in the presence of a star. Brian Hartwig surprised me the most in his role as Simon Bright. I can't comment on whether his bathing suit was too loose in a previous production, as Daria Chase seemed to think, but I can say that is this production, he was quite prominent and well-equipped to handle the role. I look forward to seeing more of him in the future. Linda Randolph deftly handled the role of Inspector Goring and Gabriella Stevens more than adequately portrayed Aggie Wheeler. Karen Mercorella succeeded in getting us to hate her character, Martha Gillette. Ray Palen was quite believable as William Gillette and may very well be on the way to fulfilling his goal "to one day be as famous as Gillette himself for playing Conan Doyle's infamous sleuth."

Taking everything into consideration, I still recommend you see The Minstrel Player's production of The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays. You get to experience live theatre at a bargain price and get the opportunity to meet some friendly people. There is a 50-50 raffle, reasonably priced concession items and before or after the play, you can go out to dinner at one of the fine restaurants located in Northport Village. If you have extra time, you can buy some tea, get some home-made ice cream or visit some of the antique stores located on Main Street. Not a bad way to spend a few hours!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Theatre Time Productions' Night Watch at the Colonial Church of Bayside by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Theatre Time Productions' Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts by Lucille Fletcher at the Colonial Church of Bayside was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts
Theatre Time Productions
Colonial Church of Bayside (54-02 217th Street, Oakland Gardens, NY)
Reviewed 10/18/14

Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts was written by Lucille Fletcher, who also wrote Sorry, Wrong Number, one of the most celebrated plays in the history of American radio, which she adapted and expanded for the 1948 film noir classic of  the same name. Night Watch appeared on Broadway in 1972 and was made into a movie in 1973 with Elizabeth Taylor in the lead role. The play is not your traditional murder mystery where you are presented with some dead bodies and need to figure out who the killer or killers are. Night Watch is more of a "who's doing what to whom and why mystery" with many twists and turns along the way. Is Elaine Wheeler, the rich heiress with insomnia who lost her first husband in a car accident where he was found with his 20-year-old mistress, simply losing her marbles on the downhill road to "crazyville" and treatment in a Swiss sanitarium or is this apparently unstable woman "crazy like a fox"?

The play is set in a fancy apartment on East 30th Street in the Kips Bay section of Manhattan in 1972. Elaine Wheeler is an heiress. Her husband, John Wheeler, works on Wall Street. They have a German maid named Helga and an intrusive gay neighbor, Curtis Appleby, who writes for the Kips Bay Tattler, the neighborhood newspaper. Staying with the Wheelers before heading out to work at the Mayo Clinic is Elaine's best friend Blanche Cooke, a nurse, who appears to be doing all she can to help Elaine get through what seems to be a particularly difficult time in her life although it is unclear what has been triggering the recent backslide in her mental condition. We learn that eight years ago, after personally coming upon the accident that caused the death of her husband and his mistress, she lost the child she was carrying, attempted to commit suicide and went into a deep depression. But two years later, she married John Wheeler and seemed to be getting on with her life. Now, six years later, she claims to have seen a murdered man in the window of an abandoned tenement on East 29th Street and then claims she saw a murdered woman in the tenement as well. The police investigate and find no evidence that any crime has been committed and so the mystery begins. Is Elaine seeing things or is Blanche, and perhaps her husband, singly or jointly, trying to drive her over the edge, confirm her deteriorating mental condition with the help of psychiatrist Dr. Tracy Lake, and cart her off to a clinic in Switzerland? If so, what are their motivations? Flowers, broaches, and wigs Blanche brings home to the Wheelers' home seem to remind Elaine of the trauma she previously went through. Perhaps her husband has been working with Sam Hoke, the Deli owner on East 29th Street, found trespassing in the tenement, to make his wife think she was seeing things that weren't there? This becomes all the more likely when we learn that a real estate holding company John Wheeler and his wife own, recently bought the very tenement where Elaine has been seeing dead people.

To say more would ruin the ending for you. So I will stop here but even after you see the play, there will still be some unresolved mysteries. What role, if any, did Sam Hoke (the Deli owner and face of the man Elaine claims to have seen murdered in the tenement window), and Curtis Appleby, the gay neighbor, play in the machinations? Did Blanche, who was familiar with the work of Dr. Tracy Lake, recommend her to John Wheeler? Did Helga "ask" for $500.00 from John Wheeler to go back to visit her mother in Germany because she thought she knew something that Mr. Wheeler wanted to keep secret? To what extent was John Wheeler in on the plans Blanche Cooke seemed to be cooking up and finally, what did Blanche see across the alley in the boarded up tenement that caused her to scream before any gun shots were heard? If you consider yourself an amateur sleuth, you will love this story.

Night Watch is another home run for Theatre Time Productions. There isn't a weak link in the entire cast. Everyone performed beautifully. Mary Lynch and Frank Freeman played Elaine and John Wheeler. Stephanie Lenna was Blanche Cooke. Cecilia Vaicels appeared born to play Helga, the German maid. Jim Haines was particularly impressive as Curtis Appleby. Joanne Engfer was Dr. Tracy Lake. Rene Bendana made a brief appearance as Sam Hoke, as did Paul Robilotto as Det. Vanelli, and Michael Zurik as Lt. Walker. 

The play is being presented "in the round" and is expertly directed by Kevin C. Vincent. There were some glitches out of the sound booth that caused an underlying "ringing" sound during the first act but that problem was corrected during the second act. The cast joined the audience for a dessert buffet after the show but only decaf coffee and soda were offered so if you preferred tea or caffeinated coffee, you would have been out of luck.

I highly recommend you see Theatre Time Productions' Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts while you can. You will be thoroughly entertained. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Chip Deffaa's Theater Boys at 13th Street Repertory Theater by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Chip Deffaa's musical Theater Boys at 13th Street Repertory Theater was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

"Theater Boys" - Book, Music & Lyrics by Chip Deffaa
13th Street Repertory Theater (50 West 13th Street, NYC)
Reviewed 9/28/14 at 3:00 p.m.

The world premiere engagement of Theater Boys took place at the Kaufman Theater in the summer of 2008 as part of the Sixth Annual Fresh Fruit Festival. It has now returned for a run at 13th Street Repertory Theater and although a cast album is scheduled to come out in two weeks, Chip Deffaa still introduced the musical "as a work in progress." While that may be so, the cast in this production is extraordinarily talented, the writing is crisp and funny with many references to well-known local cabaret artists, and the music is upbeat and entertaining. 

The flyer for the show says, "In Theater Boys actors auditioning for a gay musical are asked to bare their souls...and a bit more. They share coming-of-age stories both comic and heartfelt." While this description is literally true, I was shocked that even in "an off, off, off, off, off Broadway" gay musical in Greenwich Village, there was no full-frontal nudity. As cast member Joris de Graaf (who played Casey) said in the talk-back, "nudity is common on stage in the Netherlands." Yet somehow, in 21st century puritanical America, full frontal nudity was intentionally avoided in a show promoted as a "gay musical" where the actors were "to bare their souls...and a bit more." As for the "coming of age stories both comic and heartfelt," the show is divided into two very distinct acts. The first act is primarily an audition for a gay musical where the sets and script are "still in the director's head" and so each of the actors tells their own story by singing about some aspect of their life in the theater or of the struggles and obsessions they have faced in their private lives. This act is a satire of the theater and the directors, auditions and actors that are a part of it. The second act is basically a flashback dealing with the first sexual experiences of the Director and Kipp, the boy who the Director "discovered" as he just got off a bus from Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada (Note: In Halq'emeylem, the language of the Sto:lo communities, chilliwack means "as far upriver as you can go before having to switch to a pole."). Then there is a desert musical finale where the cast first performs wearing bed sheets and then finishes off dancing in their underwear.

Nearly three-quarters of the musical deals with issues of sexual seduction, sexual experimentation, denial and the importance of self-labeling. It is in these areas where the show shines the most and I believe Chip Deffaa needs to make a full commitment to bringing the musical in that direction. The elements are there. The show starts off in a most promising manner. The Director, a self-described "visionary" who claims to know everything and everyone (including having known Joan of Arc), has just convinced Kipp, a young actor from Canada, to come to his 5th Floor walk-up apartment for an audition and in the first musical number suggests Kipp take off his clothes "For The Theatre." The fact that Kipp can't memorize lines or dance doesn't deter the Director. But Kipp is too resistant. Even if he were straight, he probably would have given in with all the convincing arguments the Director made. Similarly, when Nathan LaChance is suggesting hypnotism as a method of his own seduction in "Tell Me Why," Chris (the Director at age 16) takes an eternity to get the message. Timing is everything and in certain scenes the resistance goes on too long. In others, the story line moves too quickly. If Chris's friend gets horny while smoking pot and somehow convinces Chris to give him a "helping hand," we need to know the actual lines he used to successfully complete the seduction. Another example would be the need for a deeper exploration into Braden's psyche and how two "straight" friends might convince each other they were in a straight bromance instead of a gay romance (No Homo!). Perfect timing was exhibited in the scene where bad boy Reese Brock convinced Kipp to take off his white briefs on a raft in a lake because it might attract snakes. Still, even that scene seemed incomplete because we never saw any sexual interaction between the two boys, even though that was clearly Reese Brock's goal.

The very attractive and talented actors in this production captured the audience's attention resulting in a relaxing and enjoyable experience. Future stars of stage and scene are in this cast! Michael Czyz, who played Kipp, is a fresh new face making his New York City stage debut in this show. With his innocent, boy-next-door looks, he was perfectly cast for the part of a young man from Chilliwack but perhaps that is the case because Mr. Czyz "is a proud Western Canadian afflicted with OCD and UW (Ukelele Withdrawal)." Daniel Coelho, who played Nathan La Chance, is also acting in his first New York production, having previously performed with the Papermill Playhouse Show Choir in Millburn, New Jersey. I feel Mr. Coelho struck just the right balance between playing a character who was, on the one hand unseducible pledged not to have sex until marriage, and on the other hand, a boy eagerly looking for an opportunity to allow his hormones to fly free. Daniel Coelho is a very talented actor with a great future in the theater. Sam Donnenberg was excellent in the role of Reese Brock, the brooding bad-boy who was best friends with Kipp back in Chilliwack. Although his part was a small one, he made a big impression on me. Philip Louis Calabro was very charismatic in the role of Rocky Kreeger, the actor who formerly performed as a scantily-clad French maid in the fictitious show Naked Maids Dancing and was inspired by his brief interactions with columnist Liz Smith. Mr. Calabro exhibited exuberant energy and has a strong stage presence. Taylor Martin played Braden Walker, the "straight" former child star willing to appear in a gay musical as long as it involved an artistically challenging role. Mr. Martin hit a home run portraying a man willing to engage in a sexual bromance so long as no one perceived him, or the relationship, to be gay. This perspective and attitude has a long history and Mr. Martin nailed it with his performance. 

The part of the Director was played by two actors. Joseph Spitale was the Director as an adult, and Andrew Lanctot, played Chris, the Director at age 16. Both actors executed their respective roles flawlessly. From a psychological viewpoint, I found it fascinating how Chip Deffaa wrote the book so as to clearly exhibit how the behavior of the Director at 16 seducing his less experienced friends continued to be reflected in the adult Director's efforts to use his position to seduce young, inexperienced actors eager to make it in the theater. The Director's sexual modus operandi is unlikely to change, which makes the ending of Theater Boys and the new relationship between the Director and Kipp one that is very unlikely to last. Joseph Spitale is a very accomplished actor who was a pleasure to watch. Andrew Lanctot has great versatility and an abundance of raw talent. I look forward to seeing more of him in the future. 

Chip Deffaa, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for Theater Boys, was also the show's director. Mr. Deffaa is the author of 15 published plays and eight published books. He is an extremely talented individual. This show, Theater Boysoffers many laughs, extraordinarily actors and some toe-tapping musical numbers, many of them that deal with the moon. There was "The Moon Montage" (a medley of moon songs), "Under The Chilliwack Moon", and the finale "Under The Mellow Arabian Moon", which literally ended with the cast full-mooning the audience. Theatre Boys plays Thursday nights at 7:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through October 26, 2014. Tickets cost $25.00 for adults and $18.00 for students/senior, which you can purchase athttp://www.13thstreetrep.org/

If you are looking for a fun, upbeat show featuring some of the best actors New York theatre has to offer, then I highly recommend you see Theater Boys!