Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: October, 2013

Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill

(This review was originally written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

“How’s your family?” are the seemingly innocuous final words of this startling and riveting new play. Carly, a quintessentially desperate housewife, is on the phone with a female neighbor in their perfect and posh suburb known as The Falls of Autrey Mill (a real luxury community in Georgia down the road from where playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo grew up). Carly (played by Christine Lahti, in a stunning, career-topping star turn) is trying to sound chipper despite the mess her own family has turned into. Her voice almost cracks. She can scarcely hang on. Her last line is like a plea for a lifeline from someone about to drown.

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” More to the point today, each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way. And in Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill, premiering at Signature Theatre, Colaizzo gives us a doozy so deliriously unhinged that we must interrupt our laughter to gasp.

You read that right: laughter. This play at times is breath-catchingly funny.

I first recognized Colaizzo’s distinctive voice in his play Really, Really, which had its world premiere at Signature Theatre in 2012. Here was a writer with an unerring ear for the tragicomic in modern life. He could take a scene from quicksilver hilarity to pitch-dark undertow and back again. And he had crafty nerve. He could put discomfiting contemporary topics  in front of audiences (in the case of Really, Really, an allegation of sexual assault among millennials) and entertain at the same time.

To get the gist of what Colaizzo accomplishes with his latest (rather awkwardly titled) play, think of it as simply “the Carly play.” One of Carly’s recurring comic quirks is that she is constantly self-referential: She can’t seem to have a conversation with anyone without making it all about her. In truth Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill really is all about Carly. Colaizzo has put her front and center—and the front is a facade and the center does not hold. Though the play is set in 2009, Carly is like a housewife from the 1950s. She’s stuck inside a beautifully decorated aspic made from the recipe that Betty Friedan said had no name.

Carly’s existence is also circumscribed by three men who disappoint her. Neither of her two grown sons is much into a matchup with a potential wife, and that drives her round the bend from the get-go. The younger, Chad, informs her in the very first line of the play that he is gay—just one of many comic surprises Colaizzo has in store. The older, Tommy, is fat and eats all the time, which Carly says is his way of keeping away girlfriends. Colaizzo has given both brothers—Chad (nimbly played as an earnest hottie by Anthony Bowden) and Tommy  (sensitively played as a likeable oaf by Christopher McFarlan)—their own worldviews, their own intriguing lives, and their own eyeopening backstory; but in Carly’s eyes, she’s been an utter failure at launching them into wedded bliss.

Compounding matters, her own marriage is anything but. No matter how thin she struggles to make herself, no matter how frequently she primps in mirrors, she cannot get her husband Louie to desire her. He is away from home working a real lot, and he gives her all the material possessions she could possibly want—a lavish home, a closetful of costly clothes, yet another new car. But she cannot get what she wants most: to be loved. Louie (solidly played by Wayne Duvall as gruff guy with gut) lets her know in Act One he is leaving her for a younger woman.

The Signature Theatre production is as flawless as Carly’s impeccably kept home. Michael Kahn directs with deftness and depth. The scenic design by James Noone resembles the studio set for a television sitcom, a tidy metaphor for the play’s accessible surface of humor (plus, it’s rigged with some sight gags that had me chuckling long after). Even the sound design by Palmer Hefferan registers as well-off life lite.

Significantly, the story often resembles other dramatic works centered comically or tragically on women’s lives of quiet desperation inside modern marriages. I caught fleeting echoes of the recent Next to Normal and August: Osage County, the early 1970s film Diary of a Mad Housewife, the late 1970s sitcom Soap…the list goes on. Colaizzo has chosen a trope that seems familiar because in fact it could not be more commonplace. It’s a contemporary collective masterplot—a story going on in unliberated marriages by the millions—and Colaizzo has given it his own unique fresh spin: he has tracked the fallout for a whole family, and he has created in Carly a character that leaps onto the the list of great roles for women.

I realize this doesn’t sound very ha-ha funny. Well, it really, really is. Then again it really, really isn’t. All of which electrifies the stage with a crackling brilliance not to be missed.

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Extremities

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

There’s dramatic tension—and then there’s traumatic tension. Molotov Theatre Group’s absolutely riveting production of Extremities—William Matrosimone’s wicked good play about a wicked rape attempt—delivers a sustained electric charge of tension of the dramatic sort, but now and again amps up the voltage to a point of potential trauma where a fuse might blow. The full-on experience of this force field—in the close quarters of the DC Arts Center—is not for the faint of heart or recently assaulted. (That must be said by way of warning.) But for theatergoers prepared for emotions in extremis—and a stinging story line that turns pins and needles into blunt instruments—this one’s a winner.

At the beginning of the play, Marjorie, alone in the remote farmhouse she shares with two female roommates, fends off a fiendish intruder who tries to rape her. As played spell-bindingly by Sherry Berg, Marjorie is petite next to the hulking predator Ray, played with sly menace by Alex Zavistovich. The scene with the attempted rape—which comes but five minutes into the play—is deeply disturbing. My advice to anyone who finds this scene hard to watch: Pay attention to the artful acting. Notice how extraordinarily Berg and Zavistovic embody, instant to instant, their characters’ authenticity. Observe the details by which this duo does their high-risk duel with completely credible intention and  transparent emotion. See the taut precision with which director Michael Wright and Zavistovic (doubling as fight choreographer) have staged this crime scene. You might have to detach and distract yourself that way, because the brain can barely contain the actual action.

There’s no spoiler in saying what happens next (this story point is in all of Molotov Theatre Group’s promotion): Marjorie turns the tables on her attacker. She disables and binds him, cages him in the fireplace, and begins referring to the now-cowering beast as Animal. The plot tension, which first turned on “Will he hurt her and how bad?,” now goes into turnabout:  “Will she hurt him and how bad?” For anyone who has ever entertained fantasies of exacting revenge against an assailant, this show will be especially satisfying. Like watching Kill Bill in a cozy black box theater.

The whole play takes us to outer edges of the nexus between art and real life. And the aforementioned tension is relieved only rarely. There are some amusing moments and one-liners, but don’t expect a whole scene’s worth of  laugh-out-loud comic respite. In fact, the only real breathers from this breathtakingly intense drama are the brief blackouts between scenes. The first one is particularly welcome, when, after witnessing the horrific rape attempt, we can dimly see Zavistovich the actor get himself roped and hogtied before going back into character as restrained Animal. There’s momentary reassurance in being reminded that the monster we’ve been watching was artistry not actuality.

You might think the suspense of that near-rape scene would be hard to top. But Mastrosimone has masterfully crafted a sequence of scenes thereafter that ramp up the drama by taking us deep into the dynamics between Marjorie and her two housemates, Terry  and Patricia. They arrive on the scene and find Marjorie intent on putting the Animal down—not down as in derided, down as in dead and buried—and she wants them to be accomplices. Sure, sounds far fetched, but the way this all unfolds is devilishly clever and engaging.

We get to know now three particular women and see in fascinating detail how they each deal with the situation. Remember how Sex and the City gave us four women, all coping with men in illuminatingly distinct ways and then disagreeing with one another about it? Well, here we have three, and it’s more like Sex and the Shithead. Picture Terry, played with simpering uncertainty by Jennifer Osborn, as a sort of Charlotte. And imagine Patricia, played with no-nonsense level-headedness by Alexia Poe, as mirroring Miranda. Then think of Sherry Berg’s Marjorie as a character from another world altogether: She’s more like Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer—she’s ready to off the wolfman. What Mastrosimone’s high-stakes story has in store next is not only Marjorie’s revenge but irreparable damage to three women’s friendship.

One has to marvel at what Molotov Theatre Group has managed to accomplish in this small space on a spare budget. Matt Vossekuil’s lighting design together with uncredited sound and set design create a bare-bones environment in which the fine cast make present compelling characters—and where a powerful play just really plays.

Because of the potentially triggering content of this work, I felt a responsibility to do my subjective best to vett it for gratuitous or pandering elements. I also wanted to offer an informed opinion as to whether it could be recommended for date night, or whether instead—with an obvious Animal onstage—it would appeal to the audience for Animal House. I can report that I found nothing that would give me pause before I gave it praise. To the contrary, I found evidence of the theater company’s heightened conscientiousness—including this program note: “October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you or someone you care about is being abused go to http://womenshealth.gov/violence-against-women/.”

This don’t-miss production of Extremities exemplifies everything that’s best about DC’s thriving small-theater scene: wonderful writing and performances, provocative content, a vivid window on the world, worthy insight into who and why we are. When you go, expect to want to talk about it after. The play is decidedly important, but that conversation might be more so.

The Laramie Project

If you’re a theater buff who’s worried that the shutdown’s shuttering of Ford’s Theatre and the shunting of The Laramie Project to a nearby church means audiences there must be getting something second rate, I have a news flash:  The show temporarily onstage at the First Congregational United Church of Christ is not only first rate; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime theater experience—a historic convergence of site and substance that is not to be missed.

Remember how MTV used to have great musicians perform “unplugged”? And remember how piercingly the music and lyrics came through, how authentic the musicians’ voices sounded, how intimate the experience was, how phenomenal the songs were on their own? That’s exactly what’s going on now over at 945 G Street NW except it’s better. It’s The Laramie Project unplugged. And it’s a theatrical epiphany so pure of heart, so raw with ache and hurt, so brimful of unadorned hope that by the end it feels more like a benediction than a play.

The familiar story that is the source of this show is still deeply disturbing: Fifteen years ago a young gay man named Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. He had been tied to a fence outside town, beaten brutally, and left alone and bleeding until by chance a bicyclist found him 18 hours later. In critical condition, he died a few days after. Two young men were convicted of the crime, which was said at trial to have been motivated by hatred of homosexuals. A troupe of documentary play makers named the Tectonic Theater Project, led by playwright Moisés Kaufman, trekked from New York City to Laramie, where they conducted more than 200 interviews with townsfolk. Those interviews, together with selected public records, have been deftly edited and structured into the text that is The Laramie Project. The DC cast of ten had been expecting to perform it in the theater where the Great Emancipator was shot. But that was not to be. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the party of Lincoln pulled the plug.

The show has been stripped down to essentials. The scenic design, lighting design, and projections intended for the Ford’s Theatre stage have been left behind. It’s just superb acting on a bare wood stage surrounded by the sanctuary’s all-white walls. There are a few props, costume changes, and pieces of furniture, minimal light cues, a semblance of sound design. Yet the entire performance feels right at home, as if it was meant to be done here, as if it could not possibly be more immediate anywhere else. Not only is nothing missing; what’s there takes on fresh meaning. The flat-white chancel background functions like an art gallery in which are showcased human portraits brought to life by ten gifted actors. Each actor channels multiple characters with such empathy, particularity of mien and dialect, and transformational precision that a castful of Anna Deavere Smiths could scarcely surpass them.  The flat snow-covered plains of Laramie, the open sky, the vast beauty and desolation at the outskirts of town, are here evoked honestly, without fake effect or stagecraft. Through the actors’ and characters’ human-oh-so-human voices, the barren landscape where young Matthew Shepard had his last look at the world becomes completely vivid in the mind. And suddenly, solely from simple, untricked-out storytelling, the heart cracks open. Again and again.

The circumstances that led to this site-specific emotion-letting are awash in irony and symbolism. Totally by a fluke of insane fiscal brinksmanship—fueled by the same fanatic, far-right, religiously fundamental faction that espouses hatred of homosexuals—theater history’s most moving and spiritual parable about gay people’s sacred right to their humanity is now playing, mirabile dictu, in an LGBTQ-welcoming house of worship. Rarely in the eons since theater first arose as religious rite can one find such synchronicity of place and performance.

There’s a lot of God talk in the script of The Laramie Project. The play is populated by plainspoken, mostly religious plains people and an assortment of well-meaning clerics who preach and teach them their various faiths, from  liberal to conservative. The wrong-reverend Fred Phelps even shows up spewing bile about God’s hatred for gay people and others consigned to hell. Each resident of Laramie is wrestling in their own way to make sense of what happened to Matthew against their shared backstory of scriptural strictures interpreted as condemning homosexuality. Looming over the whole play is the figure of Matthew as murdered martyr, and the crucifixion-like image of his beaten and bloodied body bound to a wooden fence. So when the religious language comes up—as it does often, all across the doctrinal spectrum—it has, in this hallelujah happenstance, a resonance of metaphor and meaning that it could not possibly have in a federally funded, therefore strictly secular, stage space.

One does not have to be a believer to get that something unbelievably beautiful is going on here. In this sanctified edifice that has given temporary sanctuary to actors in economic exile, one can fleetingly glimpse, in the purest light possible: this is why there is theater.

So praises be.

* * *

Also not to be missed is the exhibition “Not Alone: The Power of Response,” through November 3, across the street from Ford’s Theatre. It features letters written to Matthew Shepard’s parents in the aftermath of his murder, as well as a wall-length photograph of the probable scene of his death. Perusing those moving letters, and taking in the painful panorama, is the perfect prelude to seeing the play.