Monday, July 25, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of Walter Michael DeForest's Van Gogh Find Yourself at 59E59 Theaters by Dr. Thomas G. Jacoby

This review of Walter Michael DeForest's Van Gogh Find Yourself at 59E59 Theaters was written by Dr. Thomas G. Jacoby and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Van Gogh Find Yourself
Written & Performed by Walter Michael DeForest
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
New York, New York 10022
Reviewed 7/15/16  

Van Gogh Find Yourself is part of East To Edinburgh (New York's Annual Edinburgh Festival Preview). The piece was written and performed by Walter Michael DeForest, who promoted the show as an "interactive portrait play." My biggest issue with Van Gogh Find Yourself might very well be a generational one. I can remember a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator visiting my school when I was young. This actor had studied the life of TR and performed a three-dimensional portrayal of the ex-President in a given year. This meant that questions from later in his career were "off-limits" in the sense that, if you asked the actor about things that hadn't happened to him yet, he would only appear mystified. All other questions were "fair game" and we certainly asked some doozies.

Walter Michael DeForest's portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh, which he calls an "interactive portrait play" is a very different animal. It's more like a person you might meet in a bar or cafe saying to you, "Hey, let me pretend to be Van Gogh for a little while and tell you some stories from his viewpoint, so you get a better appreciation for who the man was." This could be somewhat confusing for an older audience, as this is not like the impersonations of historical figures to which they might be accustomed. Before the show began, DeForest grabbed an audience member's cell phone and held it aloft: "Look at this amazing device that shows pictures and can let you communicate with people on the other side of the world!" Okay, you might think, an actual Van Gogh transplanted into the modern world. But that's not the show at all. We are presented with a Van Gogh who has certainly grown the proper red beard, but who talks freely about his own death and his perspective on his own life from after his passing, as exemplified in his comment to a person who wrote to Vincent's mother after his death questioning some of his "line choices" in his art. Van Gogh said, "I just told him he'd understand, later." You did no such thing, Vincent, you were dead!

If all this seems unbearably confusing, that's not a fair description of the performance. The stories are well told and interesting, starting with Van Gogh's earliest career, as an evangelist with the Dutch Reform Church assigned to a mining region in southern Belgium, where he became acutely aware of the poverty and suffering of the miners. He spoke of his friendship with Paul Gauguin and offered a fascinating perspective on the incident of his earlobe getting cut off, and his drunken attempt to present the severed lobe to a local prostitute. Even his explanation of his suicide raises questions about what actually happened in that field in Auvers-Sur-Oise. Clearly, DeForest has done his research and developed an artistic interpretation of Van Gogh, the man, as opposed to Van Gogh, the artist. Thought-provoking indeed, but not really an "interactive portrait play" in the sense one might expect. The type of interaction that occurred consisted of things like "What's your name? Nice name." and the constant sketching of portraits for audience members, which seems intended to portray the artist's known creative compulsion. As the portraits are given to the audience members, DeForest tells them the price, "Seven Hundred Fifty Thousand Dollars", "Two Million Dollars", and the like. DeForest has stated, in the program, his intention to break the Guinness Book of World Records' existing record for "Most Portraits Drawn In 12 Hours" at the upcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, where he is scheduled to perform this work many times. His commitment to drawing attention to "Van Gogh Find Yourself" is admirable, but the constant brand naming and "hash-tagging" with repetition of the catch-phrase can become distracting at times.

My suggestion to Walter Michael DeForest would be to find a clear intent for his considerable talent as writer and performer, to decide if this is indeed a play of interest to small academic groups or art enthusiasts, as he states at the end. If that is the case, he might do well to set aside the name-branding and the record-setting, and focus a little more on the artist's actual influences and experiences. Or, conversely, DeForest could take this in a very different direction, bringing to life an immortal steam-punk Van Gogh, not bounded by time or space or historical anachronism. 

The truest moment of the performance occurs when DeForest as Van Gogh describes a clay sculpture of an elephant he made when only nine years old. When his mother showed off her son's accomplishment to an acquaintance, young Vincent crushed the sculpture, saying, "I did not do this for you. I did this for me." It's hard for an audience not to draw a parallel between young Vincent and Walter Michael DeForest, considering this statement and regarding the performance. For more information, visit 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of BroadHollow Theatre Company's production of Into The Woods at Bayway Arts Center by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of BroadHollow Theatre Company's production of Into The Woods at Bayway Arts Center was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Into The Woods
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Jason P. Allyn
Costume Design by Joseph Kassner
BroadHollow Theatre Company
at Bayway Arts Center
265 East Main Street
East Islip, New York 11730
Reviewed 7/22/16 

Into The Woods opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on November 5, 1987, and closed on September 3, 1987 after 765 performances. The show was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three in the categories of Best Score (Stephen Sondheim), Best Book (James Lapine) and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason). The 2002 Broadway revival began previews on April 13, 2002 and opened April 30, 2002 at the Broadhurst Theatre, closing on December 29, 2002 after a run of 18 previews and 279 regular performances. The revival won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Lighting Design. In 2014, a theatrical film adaptation of Into The Woods was produced by Walt Disney Pictures. It was a critical and commercial success, grossing over $213 million worldwide.

The musical intertwines the plots of several original Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales. The main characters are taken from "Little Red Riding Hood", "Jack And The Beanstalk", "Rapunzel", and "Cinderella", as well as a number of others. The musical is brilliantly tied together by a story involving a childless Baker and his Wife (the original beginning of The Grimm Brothers' "Rapunzel"). The Baker's neighbor, an ugly old Witch, reveals that the source of the couple's infertility is a curse she placed on the Baker's line after catching the Baker's father in her garden stealing greens, including six "magic" beans. She agrees to lift the curse if the Baker and his Wife can find the four ingredients she needs for a certain potion - "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold - all before the chime of midnight in three days' time." While in the woods, the Baker and his Wife run into many of the storybook characters, while at the same time we are given insights into their lives, challenges, morality, and how far each is willing to go to achieve their selfish goals. Does the end really justify the beans? Can you kill someone (Jack's mom) for the sake of the greater good while at the same time allowing indiscriminate death and destruction by not turning Jack over to the Lady Giant, who seeks revenge (or justice) for his having killed her husband and for stealing the golden harp and the goose who lays the golden eggs?

This production of Into The Woods, another hit for the BroadHollow Theatre Company, features high quality and talented performers, an exquisite set, and colorful costumes. Bob Butterley was very impressive in the role of Baker, a character who learned to appreciate the contribution his Wife could make to help them achieve their mutual goals. Maryellen Molfetta-Evans played the Baker's Wife and was very much his equal in terms of having a strong personality, which is probably why they always fought so much. Both were willing to justify more and more questionable actions in order to lift the curse and have a child. While the Baker's attempts to keep his Wife safe ultimately fail, he did learn not to repeat the mistake his own father made by abandoning him when times got tough. Joy Butterley rose to the challenge to successfully portray the complexity of The Witch, a no-nonsense realist willing to accept "the blame" so long as she could do what was called for. Andrew Morrison was perfect in the role of Jack, a rather simple boy, who loved Milky-White, his cow. As his mother said, "Children can be very Queer when it comes to their animals." So why should Jack's life be spared? He is a thief and a murderer. Does he get a pass because he is mentally challenged or is he protected by his friends simply because they know him? They proceed to kill the Lady Giant even after acknowledging that "witches can be right" and "giants can be good." Perhaps the ultimate moral relativism is saying that defending your friends, right or wrong, is ethically justified in all circumstances simply because you believe it is the right thing to do, regardless of the chain of events and reactions you may set in motion. So Jack lives and the Lady Giant dies! But they must not forget, "Someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we're seeing our side. Maybe we forgot: They are not alone. No one is alone!" Actions have long-term consequences!

The supporting cast was very strong, especially Londier Collier, who was Rapunzel's Prince and Wolf 2, and Caitlin Blair Thistle, who was the selfish, and yet, curious, Little Red Riding Hood who sometimes strayed from the path and, in so doing, lost her innocence. Cinderella also faced a crisis not quite knowing what she wanted in life. Sure, she wanted to go to the Ball, but as she said, "Wanting a Ball is not wanting a Prince." She also questioned, "how can you know what you want till you get what you want and see if you like it?" I had problems hearing David Kacinski, who played the Steward. I am not certain if the problem was technical or just a matter of projection. In any case, it was a distraction. Every cast member made a significant contribution to the success of this production, which I highly recommend you see.    

There are many serious problems with the program that made it difficult to figure out who played what roles. Elizabeth Degennaro and Kristen Keller are both listed as playing Jack's Mother. Kami Crary and Nikki Sislian are both listed in the role of Step Mother. If these actors were playing the role in different performances, this should have been noted in the program or in a supplement handed out to the audience on the evening of the show. No one is listed as having played Cinderella. Perhaps it was Tamralynn Dorsa, for whom no role is listed. In addition, no one is listed as having played the Narrator, but based on custom, I am going to assume it was James R. Lotito, the same actor who played The Mysterious Man. Although his was a small role, he handled it extremely well and left a lasting emotional impact on the audience especially when encouraging his son not to run away as he did. ("Running away, let's do it! Free from the ties that bind. Trouble is, son, The farther you run, The more you feel un-defined. For what you have left undone, And more, what you've left behind.") That is good advice for anyone considering running away from their problems. You end up facing, "Just more questions, different kinds."

Some of my favorite lines in this musical are when The Witch tells Rapunzel, "Princes wait there in the world, it's true, Princes yes, but wolves and humans, too." The Baker's Wife cautions, "If you know what you want, you go and you find it and you get it. You many know what you need but to get what you want, better see that you keep what you have." Finally, reflecting his complete resignation and emotional pain upon the loss of his wife, the Baker said, "No more riddles. No more jests. No more curses you can't undo. Left by fathers you never knew. No more quests. No more feelings. Time to shut the door. Just - no more!" And yet, faced with his own child, a princess who lost her prince and castle, a girl who lost her grandmother, and a boy who lost his mother, the Baker rallies. Cinderella says, "Hard to see the light now." The Baker responds, "Just don't let it go" and together they say, "Things will come out right now. We can make it so." I wish!

There are two remaining performances of Into The Woods on Saturday, July 30, 2016 at 8:00 p.m. and on Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $23.00 for adults and $21.00 for seniors 65 years of age or older. You can call 631-581-2700 for reservations or else visit BroadHollow Theatre Company's website at 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of Maggie's Little Theater production of Guys & Dolls at St. Margaret Parish Hall by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Maggie's Little Theater production of Guys & Dolls at St. Margaret Parish Hall was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Guys & Dolls
Music & Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows
Director: Barbara Auriemma
Choreographer: Nic Anthony Calabro
Music Director: Frank Auriemma
St. Margaret Parish Hall
66-05 79th Place
Middle Village, New York 11379
Reviewed 7/16/16  

Guys & Dolls is a musical with characters and plot elements based on "The Idyll Of Miss Sarah Brown", "Blood Pressure", and "Pick The Winner" - short stories by Damon Runyon written in the 1920s and 1930s. Runyon's stories concerned gangsters, gamblers, prostitutes, bootleggers, and other characters of the New York underworld, who had colorful names such as Nicely Nicely Johnson, Big Jule (from Chicago), Angie The Ox, Liver Lips Louie, Society Max, Harry The Horse, Rusty Charlie and Benny Southstreet. The plot involves a constant search for a "safe location" to hold a crap game and an unlikely love affair between Sargeant Sarah Brown, the head of the Save-A-Soul Mission, and Sky Masterson, an unrepentant gambler. Meanwhile, after a 14-year engagement, Miss Adelaide continues her efforts to snag Nathan Detroit, the imperfect man she loves. Both women decide in the end it is better to marry the men they love now and "bring them in for alterations" later.

The musical premiered on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre on November 24, 1950. It ran for 1,200 performances, winning five 1951 Tony Awards, including the award for Best Musical. An all-black cast staged the first Broadway revival of the show, which opened on July 11, 1976 in previews, officially on July 21st, at The Broadway Theatre. The show closed on February 13, 1977 after 239 performances and 12 previews. The 1992 Broadway revival at the Martin Beck Theatre was the most successful American remounting of the show since its original opening. It ran from April 14, 1992 to January 8, 1995, with 1,143 performances. It received eight Tony Award nominations and won four, including Best Revival. A 2009 Broadway revival of the show opened on March 1, 2009 at the Nederlander Theatre. That revival closed on June 14, 2009 after 28 previews and 113 performances.

This was my first time seeing a show produced by Maggie's Little Theater and I must say I was very impressed. The main actors in this production were top-notch, talented performers. Alan Perkins was perfectly cast in the role of Nathan Detroit and Dolores Voyer was very perky and effervescent as Miss Adelaide, his long-suffering fiance. I was particularly impressed with Anthony Edward George Faubion, who stole the show as Benny Southstreet, and Joe Paciullo had a strong stage presence as Nicely Nicely Johnson. Michael Perkins was very believable in the role of Big Jule, the gun-wielding Chicago gangster who Sky Masterson slugged. In real life, Big Jule wouldn't have just let that pass when he regained consciousness. While Alex Jamison (Sarah Brown - The Mission Doll) and Nic Anthony Calabro (Obadiah "Sky" Masterson) acted and sang extremely well, I found their chemistry lacking. In addition, not a lot of discretion was used when selecting actors to play many of the supporting roles in this show and more time should have been spent coordinating their dance moves. As it was, many of the minor characters visibly came across as amateur actors, included for the sake of being inclusive. The show featured a live orchestra, whose members included Frank Auriemma (Piano), Ed Voyer (Bass), Kevin Neyer (Drums), Jared Newlen & Erica D'Ippolito (Reeds), Scott Kulick (Trumpet), and Stephen Souza (Trombone).

Guys & Dolls contains such popular Broadway show tunes as "Fugue For Tinhorns", "I'll Know", "Bushel And A Peck", "Adelaide's Lament", "Guys & Dolls", "If I Were A Bell", "I've Never Been In Love Before", "Take Back Your Mink", "Luck Be A Lady", "Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat", and "Marry The Man Today". There are also some very funny lines in the show. On his way to the Save-A-Soul Mission located at 409 West 49th Street, Big Jule says,"If it gets around Chicago that I went to a prayer meeting, no decent person will talk to me!". When Sky Masterson is told the missionaries are, unsuccessfully, "out every day trying to find the sinners," he responds, "Have you tried the nighttime?". Nathan Detroit, who is having trouble finding a location to host his crap game, tells Police Lt. Brannigan, "The heat is on, as you well know, since you now have to live on your salary." Finally, reflecting on how she is going to enjoy being a wife instead of a showgirl, Miss Adelaide says, "I'm going to love being in the kitchen...I've already tried all the other rooms."

Maggie's Little Theater is a very professionally run operation. The staff is friendly. The concession items, on sale before the show and during intermission, are reasonably priced ($2.00 for hot dogs, $1.00 for soda). They even sold home-made brownies for a buck a square. I bought four myself! If you are looking for something interesting and entertaining to do on a hot summer night, I highly recommend you see one of the remaining performances of Guys & Dolls on Friday, July 22nd at 8:00 p.m., Saturday, July 23rd at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, July 24th at 2:30 p.m. Tickets cost $20.00 for adults, $15.00 for seniors and $12.00 for children and can be reserved by calling 917-579-5389 or online at 

If you have seen Guys & Dolls before, you will be impressed with the quality of this production. If you haven't, you don't want to miss this opportunity to experience it for the first time. If you are a man who has never seen a musical before, Neil Patrick Harris wants you to know that theater "is not just for gays anymore." ( Still, it may be true that many men may have experienced live theater for the first time at the urging of a woman. So if you see a man in a theater, perhaps "you can bet even money he's only doing it for some doll!"

Monday, July 18, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of The First String Players' production of Harvey at Our Lady Of Mercy Roman Catholic Church by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The First String Players' production of Harvey at Our Lady Of Mercy Roman Catholic Church was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Written by Mary Chase
Directed by Mary Lynch
Produced by Paul Morisi & Stef Morisi
Our Lady Of Mercy Roman Catholic Church
70-01 Kessel Street
Forest Hills, New York 11375
Reviewed 7/15/16  

Harvey is a 1944 play written by Mary Chase, who received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work in 1945. It premiered on Broadway on November 1, 1944, at the 48th Street Theatre and closed on January 15, 1949, after 1,775 performances. A Broadway revival at the ANTA Theatre ran from February 24, 1970 to May 2, 1970. In May, 2012, a new production of the original play began previews in New York City at the Studio 54 Theatre. This Roundabout Theatre Company production ran from June 14, 2012 to August 5, 2012. The play is about Elwood P. Dowd, an affable, amiable, alcoholic who lived with his mother in the Old Dowd Mansion. Upon her death, he inherited the home and invited his sister Veta Louise Simmons, and her daughter Myrtle May, to live with him. Elwood claims to have a best friend named Harvey, a 6 foot, 1 1/2 inch white rabbit (or Pooka), who can predict the future and stop time. He introduces his invisible friend Harvey to everyone, thus making him "the biggest screwball in town." Veta conspires with Judge Omar Gaffney, the executor of her mother's estate, to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium, Chumley's Rest Home, while Veta's daughter Myrtle places her uncle's house up for sale in anticipation of her mother being named his guardian.

In the reality of the show, Harvey is definitely real but he is also "choosy and takes his time making up his mind about people" before deciding whether to allow them to be able to see and talk with him. He is a Pooka, from old Celtic mythology, defined in the play as "a fairy spirit in animal form - always very large. The Pooka appears here and there - now and then - to this one and that one - a benign but mischievous creature - very fond of rumpots, crackpots" - and eccentric raconteurs such as Elwood P. Dowd, who will invite telephone magazine salespeople, taxi cab drivers and even other men's wives down to a bar for a drink or over to his home for dinner. His sister, Veta Louise, has seen Harvey, as has Dr. William R. Chumley, his psychiatrist. Harvey has even spoken to Duane Wilson, the sanitarium attendant, who has a brief physical encounter with Myrtle May, not the refined society debutante she portrays herself to be.  

In response to a query about how he met Harvey and how he knew that was his name, Elwood P. Dowd explained, "I'd just put Ed Hickey into a taxi. Ed had been mixing his rye with his gin, and I just felt that he needed conveying. Well, anyway, I was walking down along the street and I heard this voice saying, "Good evening, Mr. Dowd." Well, I turned around and here was this big six-foot rabbit leaning up against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that because when you've lived in a town as long as I've lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everyone knows your name. And naturally, I went over to chat with him. And he said to me, 'Ed Hickey was a little spiffed this evening, or could I be mistaken?' Well, of course, he was not mistaken. I think the world of Ed, but he was spiffed. Well, we talked like that for awhile and then I said to him, 'You have the advantage on me. You know my name and I don't know yours.' And right back at me he said, 'What name do you like?' Well, I didn't even have to think twice about that. Harvey's always been my favorite name. So I said to him, 'Harvey'. And, uh, this is the interesting thing about the whole thing: He said, 'What a coincidence. My name happens to be Harvey'." 

In trying to psychoanalyze Elwood, Dr. Lyman Sanderson, the Assistant Director of Chumley's Rest Home, said, "Think carefully, Dowd. Didn't you know somebody, sometime, someplace by the name of Harvey? Didn't you ever know anybody by that name?" Elwood responds, "No, no, not one, Doctor. Maybe that's why I always had such hopes for it." Dr. Chumley, who drank to excess with Harvey and now can't shake him, responded by saying, "Fly specks, fly specks! I've been spending my life among fly specks while miracles have been leaning on lampposts at 18th and Fairfax!" Elwood P. Dowd is an easy going guy who always has "a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I'm with." His mother used to say to him, "In this world, you can be oh so so smart, or oh so pleasant." Elwood said, "Well, for years I was smart...I recommend being pleasant." He went on to say, "I've wrestled with reality for 40 years and I'm happy to state, I finally won out over it."

Dr. Chumley tried to warn Elwood about what was going on. He said, "This sister of yours is at the bottom of a conspiracy against you. She's trying to persuade me to lock you up. Today, she had commitment papers drawn up. She has your power of attorney and the key to your safety box, and she brought you here!" Expressing no "righteous indignation," Elwood said, "My sister did all that in one afternoon. That Veta certainly is a whirlwind, isn't she?" Elwood was willing to place his family's happiness over that of his own, and once he confirmed Veta wanted him to take Formula 977, which would prevent him from being able to ever see Harvey again, he consented. Formula 977 would return him "to the state of a perfectly normal human being." Harvey came to the rescue by temporarily hiding Veta's change purse so she was unable to pay the taxi driver for the ride out to the sanitarium. She asked him to wait five minutes so she could get the money from Elwood but he wouldn't wait, so Elwood was called out. The Taxi Driver got paid and then mentioned to Veta what a pleasant fellow Elwood was. He explained that once patients are "treated," their sense of wonder disappears  and their personalities change. They become "perfectly normal" and as the taxi driver said, "You know what bastards they can be!" Fearing the effect of treatment on her brother's personality, she decides to accept Elwood as he is, even if  that means living with Harvey as well. In the end, love of family wins out over greed.

In the beginning of the play, we are presented with Veta, a selfish sister who is more concerned about her social standing in society and the marriage prospects for her daughter Myrtle May, than she is with the happiness of her brother, who invited them to live in his home. Veta is bad enough but slutty Myrtle May is even worse. She tells her mother, "people get run over by trucks every day. Why can't something like that happen to Uncle Elwood." Elwood's unselfish, infectious love may have ultimately changed Veta's mind about wanting Elwood to take Formula 977. The second major theme is a criticism of psychiatric institutions. It views psychiatric treatment as damaging perfectly pleasant people and turning them into regular, normal human beings. That may have been true in 1944 when women who didn't want to clean the house, have sex with their husbands, or take care of their children, were sent to sanitariums for "treatment," but it is less true today when the goal of treatment is to help you to function more effectively in daily life. Nevertheless, the play must be interpreted in the context of the decade in which it was written. Veta eventually recognizes there must be more than mere reality to make life worthwhile. She reflected this understanding when she said, "I took a course in art last winter. I learned the difference between a fine oil painting, and a mechanical thing, like a photograph. The photograph shows only the reality. The painting shows not only the reality but the dream behind it. It's our dreams, doctor, that carry us on. They separate us from the beasts. I wouldn't want to go on living if I thought it was all just eating, and sleeping, and taking my clothes off...I mean putting them on."

Cecilia Vaicels and Nicole O'Connor played Veta Louise and Myrtle May, respectively, in this production. They successfully portrayed their characters as perfectly despicable, hateful people with few redeeming qualities. Jim Haines hit the right balance in the main role of Elwood P. Dowd, a friendly alcoholic who spent his days in bars, in firehouses playing pinochle, and inviting all sorts of strangers to his home for dinner or downtown for a drink. I was impressed with the performance of Jeremy Lardieri, who played sanitarium attendant Duane Wilson. He exhibited just the right amount of raw sexual energy to make his character interesting. Nick Radu was excellent as Lyman Sanderson, M.D. but his love/hate relationship with Ruth Kelly R.N., played by Malini Singh-McDonald, lacked passion and credibility. Kevin Abernethy had a strong stage presence as Judge Omar Gaffney and the rest of the cast exhibited many talents in their respective roles.

Harvey is a play for those looking for light-hearted entertainment and a story with a happy ending. Dreamers, Believers & the Young At Heart will particularly enjoy this show. This is the second production I have seen by The First String Players ( and I highly recommend you check them out. They present quality entertainment at a reasonable price! Friendly staff, general seating, and reasonably priced concessions only add to the good experience you will have at one of their shows!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of Neil Simon's God's Favorite at Studio Theatre Long Island by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Neil Simon's God's Favorite at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

God's Favorite
Written by Neil Simon
Directed by David Dubin
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
Reviewed 6/30/16 

God's Favorite opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on December 11, 1974. It closed on March 23, 1975, after 119 performances and 7 previews. In the original Broadway production, Vincent Gardenia played Joe Benjamin (a pious, God-fearing rich man living with his wife, three children, and a maid in a 19-room Long Island Mansion, full of original artwork and priceless jewelry) and Charles Nelson Reilly played Sidney Lipton (who is first thought to be a burglar, but who later reveals himself to be a somewhat odd-acting Messenger of God "who carries important documents only - no packages"). Sidney starts putting Jo.B. through all sorts of temptations and afflictions in an attempt to get him to renounce God. If you have read the Old Testament, you will find a very similar story in the Book of Job. In the biblical account, Job is a wealthy man who is "blameless" and "upright" always careful to avoid doing evil. One day Satan appears before God and gets tired of God boasting to him about Job's "goodness." Satan argues Job is only good because God has blessed him abundantly and that if God would give him permission to punish "God's Favorite," Job will turn and curse God. God accepts the challenge and Sidney Lipton (as perhaps an arbiter of God and Satan's bet, who lives with his wife in Jackson Heights, Queens) is sent to deliver the message and carry out the trials and tribulations Joe Benjamin is about to experience. The play attempts to address the eternal question regarding why bad things happen to good people. Without any good answers, the religious, and the Benjamin's, eventually, chalk it up to "God's will." ("Whatever happens, it's God's will.")

Joe Benjamin is a successful Jewish businessman who has become rich making quality boxes. He lives lavishly on an estate on the North Shore of Long Island that has a Baskin Robbins with 97 ice cream flavors in the clubhouse (because his youngest daughter loves ice cream). His diva wife Rose wears a lot of her expensive jewelry to bed. When a burglar is suspected, she doesn't want the police called because she believes they'd steal more than the crooks. David, Joe's oldest son, is brilliant and has three academic degrees yet he still lives at home, is an alcoholic, and curses his father because of the materialistic lifestyle they live. Sarah, Joe's youngest daughter, constantly has to be reminded to close her robe (or later, her garbage bag) and appears to fantasize about getting raped by the burglar even though her father has assured her that "with a half million dollars of jewelry in the house, rape is unlikely to be the first thing on the burglar's mind." Ben is Joe's most loyal son and Mady, the live-in maid, appears to sincerely care for the welfare of the Benjamin family. After all, as Rose points out to Joe, "Look. Mady is praying for you and it's her day off!" 

Sidney starts the tests by burning down Joe's business (he had no insurance because he trusted in God) and his 19-room home including all his family's clothing (they were left wearing hefty garbage bags but his wife still wore her jewelry around her neck over the bag). Still not willing to renounce God, Joe found himself not able to chew or to swallow and his entire body hurt. His wife then implores him to stop all their suffering by renouncing God asking him how he could love someone who makes them suffer so much. She questions why Joe couldn't have "loved" a mistress like other men instead of "loving" his God. Joe still stands by God and his wife and two younger children leave him. Sidney then tries to trick him into renouncing God and reports to him that "the entire city of Detroit recently renounced God" - how difficult can it be! Eventually, David, the older son, returns home blind. Joe flies into a rage and angrily scolds God for "blinding his first-born son." However, Joe just as quickly apologizes to God saying, "Still, I do not renounce you." The test now being over, David's sight returns to him and Joe's family comes home with food his wife won on a game show. 

Early on, Joe Benjamin comes clean and tells his family, "Two weeks ago, I had an experience with a man." Clarifying he was referring to Sidney, the man with the big "G" on the front of his sweatshirt, he reveals the tests of faith God has decided to put him though. However, I see something completely different in God's actions and motivations here. After Joe is criticized by his son David for being too materialistic, Joe questions whether the degree of his success is "too much for one man" and says "I'd give it all up to hear David one day say, Thank you, God." Perhaps all Joe's suffering was intended by God to grant him his wish, because after all the ordeals are over and David is asked if he is O.K., he says, "I'm O.K.. Thank God." Showing he has matured, David then tells his younger sister to pull her hefty bag closed and in the next to last line of the play, he says, "God, thank you for sparing my father's life!" So perhaps, it is true that God acts in mysterious ways.

God's Favorite may not be one of Neil Simon's funniest or better-written plays. However, with the excellent cast featured in Studio Theatre Long Island's production of this comedy, you have an opportunity to see and enjoy it in the best possible light. The talented Gary Milenko absolutely shined as Sidney Lipton. He was perfect for the part. Kevin Ganzekaufer, another rising star, appeared in this production as Ben, Joe Benjamin's younger son. He has extraordinary talent, a great stage presence, and a certain charisma, which I feel guarantees a future successful career in the theater. Brooke Barbarino matched Kevin's energy on stage in the role of Sarah, his sister. I did think it a bit creepy, and not funny, that Neil Simon wrote the young Sarah as a teenage girl fixated on the fact that the burglar might rape her while touching her body "up and down with his hands." Angelo DiBiase pulled off Joe Benjamin with just the right balance necessary for the part, and Dolores dePoto, as his wife Rose, perfectly portrayed a Jewish American Princess who was a demanding and domineering spouse. Ravi Tawney was perfectly pitched as David, Joe's troubled oldest son, and RoseMarie Amato did a fine job playing Mady, the live-in housekeeper/maid.

God's Favorite plays through July 10, 2016 at Studio Theatre Long Island. Tickets cost $25.00 each and are still available for Friday, July 8th at 8:00 p.m., Saturday, July 9th at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, July 10th at 2:30 p.m. For reservations, call 631-226-8400. To purchase your tickets directly, visit 

Applause! Applause! Review of Samuel D. Hunter's The Healing at The Harold Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row by Kathy Towson

This review of Samuel D. Hunter's The Healing at The Harold Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row was written by Kathy Towson and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Healing
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Stella Powell-Jones
Produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers
Scenic Design by Jason Simms
Lighting Design by Alejandro Fajardo
Sound Design by Brandon Wolcott
Costume Design by Christopher Metzger
The Harold Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York, New York 10036
Reviewed 6/30/16 

The evening began with a very odd practice - no programs until "after" the show (I pointed out I needed mine to do my job), which set a questionable tone for me but, fortunately, the show itself proved to be anything but odd. There was no intermission. The play flowed smoothly and quickly. The set and lighting were warm and inviting with a clever design to accommodate the wheelchairs utilized by two of the characters. The pre-show music had an unusual, new-age feel, setting a very calming and relaxing atmosphere. The costumes gave the audience a good sense of location and season. 

The theme of the show was not an unfamiliar one - a person in a group dies and friends who may have lost touch with one another, get together to mourn their mutual acquaintance. In this case, that gathering takes place in a small town near Idaho Falls where Sharon (Shannon DeVido) and Donald (David Harrell) have travelled to attend their friend Zoe's funeral and have stayed on to clean out her cluttered home. Sharon has been in town "handling all this funeral crap" for the past three days. She has control issues and is very angry, especially since she is having trouble finding an aide to fly home with her. Sharon is a successful entrepreneur but is confined to a wheelchair due to her having a spinal condition. She hasn't seen Donald for many years. Donald is surprised and saddened to learn that Zoe, who seems to have committed suicide, had no family and few friends in town.

I was pleasantly surprised how uniquely, an otherwise familiar plot, was handled - all of the characters (and the actors themselves) had disabilities which, after an initial surprise reaction, became comfortably blended into the story line - which was based in part on these very disabilities. As more of Zoe's friends arrive, we learn that this particular group met as children when they spent summers at a Christian camp. After years of listening to a zealous Christian Scientist woman tell them, "if you pray hard enough, Jesus will heal your broken little bodies," the kids came away brainwashed. The Healing, a new play by MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner Samuel D. Hunter, was written specifically for Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a company of disabled actors. It deals with the harm sometimes done to vulnerable people in the name of religion. Hunter's earlier play - The Whale - also dealt with the dangers of religious mania, but given the age of the Christian camp attendees in The Healing, the false hope appears crueler. Some of the children grow up to embrace their faith and some renounce it but in all circumstances, there are long-term emotional consequences. The characters of Sharon and Zoe represent both ends of that spectrum. Sharon lost her faith but for Zoe, faith was her lifeline, to the point where she risks her very life, relying on her faith in Jesus to heal even the most serious health issues. When her prayers are not answered, she becomes disillusioned and takes her own life in light of her new realizations.

One might expect the mood of the piece would be somber but it was refreshingly handled by playwright Samuel D. Hunter with a great deal of very clever humor, starting with the fact that a shopping channel played throughout the show because no one could find the remote to change it. Little did we know just how important that remote would become when it was symbolically "found" at the end of the show. Additionally, the discussion of "coffin" vs. "casket" between Sharon (Shannon DeVido) and Donald (David Harrell) was perfectly placed dark humor, to set the tone at the top of the show, for a somewhat more lighthearted approach to an otherwise sad gathering.

The dialogue throughout was very natural, relaxed, and realistic, further making the disabilities of the characters (and actors) truly a secondary focus. A relatable example is when Sharon speaks of being single and not being the tragedy the world might imagine - "I can be alone, watch a movie and not feel terrible about being by myself." A good message to any singles in the audience.

I also very much appreciated that the playwright took the bold stand of having Bonnie (Jamie Petrone) try to describe, with sign language, how she sang a song about waterfalls to the deaf Greg (John McGinty) - truly a hilarious moment, appreciated by equally bold laughter from the audience. How clever of Mr. Hunter to put us all at ease about an otherwise, sometimes uncomfortable encounter with disabilities. This is then followed by a very poignant recounting of Bonnie discovering an orphanage she grew up in, giving us an immediate connection to her gentler side and then putting us back into a positive mood when Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold) explains an unfortunate statement she just made with "I guess I shouldn't take Vicodin." It is also a clever device to have the dead Zoe (Pamela Sabaugh) come in and out of the action in flashbacks. Watching her possessions carted away around her, as her faith was carted away before her passing - is flawlessly handled by Stella Powell-Jones' brilliant direction. 

We become very involved with all of the characters through some very personal and heartfelt stories, especially as they re-bond with the recalling of the time they spent being lectured on the power of faith by Joan (Lynn Lipton), the head of the summer camp they all attended as children. Not only do they need closure regarding those experiences but it also appears that Joan needs closure as well. In the play, she comes back to the house to get her own closure with all of those campers - thus the title - The Healing. It is here that the symbolism of the simple remote sends a huge message - Joan sits down on the couch, reaches under the cushion and pulls out the remote - symbolizing her time spent with Zoe - a moment of forgiveness for everyone, especially Sharon, with an appropriate exchange between Joan and Sharon of moving on - a perfectly written ending, arrived at through a well-structured literary journey.

This theater company is true to its name - Theater Breaking Through Barriers. It has certainly done just that with this unique and overall stellar production. This group of actors shows us they are very talented and that their disabilities are totally overshadowed by the magnitude of those talents. I was impressed by this company not only for this production but also because of the fact that they travelled all the way to Croatia to share their gifts. I look forward to following their future journeys.

The Healing is a definite must see! It plays through July 16th at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre (410 West 42nd Street, between 9th & 10th Avenues) with performances on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $55.00, available at 212-239-6200 or at For additional information about this show and this theatre company, visit