Dooley Gives Tough Lessons in PRC’s SEMINAR

PlayMakers Repertory Company production of SEMINAR. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

PlayMakers Repertory Company production of SEMINAR. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Seminar, currently on stage at PlayMakers Repertory Company (through Nov. 1), is not a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it is bitingly funny, as carried out by craft-master Ray Dooley and four of his students in the Professional Actor Training Program in the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Dramatic Art. Anyone who has ever survived critiques in any art form will find it particularly so. In fact, Seminar seems to have been written for the academic setting–a broader audience might find it a bit tedious with in-jokes.

Theresa Rebeck‘s 2011 play about four striving young writers, and one older, in New York, is played snappily for its comedic and farcical qualities. On opening night, the ensemble sizzled, zipping from the mildly funny to the brutally hilarious to the mildly touching again and again. Under guest Michael Dove’s direction, Seminar is a lively entertainment, highly enjoyable, more than an exhaustive peeling back of creative psyches.

Yet it touches on something very important–how easy it is for a person to be damaged, even ruined, by a society that will punish him or her forever for a relatively minor error of judgement. This links Seminar with the last PRC production, Disgraced. Those who saw that production will also appreciate how effectively much of its set has been recycled here by Robin Vest (down to the figure of Shiva), yet made strikingly different with the use of a handsome suite of elegant mid-century modern furniture.

Ray Dooley plays Leonard, a famous writing teacher who takes only a few carefully chosen students, at an exorbitant price. Leonard exudes bitterness, it enters before him like a smell, and his gaze nearly incinerates those it focuses on. His persona is high-testosterone jerk. He comes to flay, to eviscerate, the hapless authors of unworthy wordsmithing, who he keeps off-balance by the undeniable truths mixed into his cruelty.

The four students of this group, all more or less known to each other beforehand, are meeting with Leonard for their seminar at the Upper West Side apartment of Kate, a well-to-do 20-something making the most of having been at Bennington, who is very well played by Carey Cox. In Kate’s rent-controlled apartment they will get to know each other, and themselves, much better. The others include Douglas, the appallingly stylish, name-dropping guy on a fast track because of his connections. Schuyler Scott Mastain excels, particularly in the moments of unguarded emotionality he slips into the comic routines. Allison Altman is a delight as the feckless, gorgeous Izzy, who’s all about sex and the pursuit of fame. And then there is Martin, a real writer. Myles Bullock gives a fine performance, with a wide and finely shaded emotional range, and his Martin gives the play a depth beneath the glossy comedy of sex and ambition. Writing’s not a joke to Martin, and it is up to Martin to pull the real lessons from Leonard–and give one in return.

The play’s final scene, between Martin and Leonard, in which each requires honesty of the other, and in which they reach a grudging trust, is most satisfying and most ambiguous. It’s possible, with Dooley looking so Mephistophelean, that a deal with the devil goes down.

Ray Dooley, left, and Myles Bullock in PRC's production of SEMINAR. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Ray Dooley, left, and Myles Bullock in PRC’s production of SEMINAR. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Following is my review of DISGRACED, published on cvnc.org. last month.

Disgraced: An American Tragedy at PRC

PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened its 2015-16 Mainstage season with an unusually powerful recent drama. Ayad Akhtar‘s Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013; this season it is the most-produced play in the US, according to American Theatre Magazine. The play is of its time, certainly, and highly relevant because of its topic, but the deeper themes will serve to make it timeless. The PRC production, directed by Shishir Kurup, leaves you with much to think on — after you’ve gotten over the body-slam of its dilemmas and tragedies, and its astonishing array of insults.

There is not a good way to recap this play without making it sound slight, or giving away its many shattering twists. But briefly: Amir, a Pakistani-American and Muslim apostate, is a mergers and acquisitions attorney in New York who has labored with willing spirit for years in hopes of becoming a partner and seeing his own name alongside those of his Jewish colleagues in the company name. His wife, Emily, a white American, is a painter and advocate for Islamic culture. Their “friends” Isaac and Jory are, respectively, a Jewish-American art curator at the Whitney and a black American corporate attorney at the same firm as Amir. And then there’s Abe/Hussein, Amir’s nephew, a teenager actively searching for a viable self-identity as a brown person in post-9/11 USA. He is the instigating character who sets off the chain of events that leads to the devolution of the foursome’s relationship, and to Amir’s disgrace.

Along the way, playwright Akhtar skins and guts any number of social absurdities — his send up of the art curator is priceless — so that one laughs, even as the tension builds. You don’t have to know anything about the play to realize early on that something terrible is going to happen, that the veneers of civility will crack and peel away before you. (It reminds one of both God of Carnage and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in this way.) And from the first scene, you understand that Emily, with her cultural appropriation of Islamic forms and her incomplete understanding of Islamic culture, is going to unwittingly bring about the wreck. (Blessedly, Akhtar refrains from using the terms “cultural appropriation” and “cultural imperialism” even while scrutinizing the subjects.)

Shishir Kurup directs with extraordinary skill. He raises the intensity at such a gentle pace that you are in a state of twanging anxiety before you know how you got there, and still he leaves you unprepared for the blow-up. Rajesh Bose gave a heart-wringing performance as Amir. As his secrets and his rage were revealed and his behavior breached the bounds of the acceptable, he became more and more pitiable and lovable. His final scene amidst the wreckage of his life had a verisimilitude rarely seen on stage. He literally shrank into himself, imploded.

Nicole Gabriella Scipione was excellent as Emily, happily paddling on the surface of her easy beliefs, until she was sucked under in their riptide. Rasool Jahan was fantastic as Jory, cool as could be until an incident fanned the latent flame in her. Benjamin Curns, the only PRC/UNC cast member, played his pompous curator to a T. Samip Raval as the young nephew was very touching, but sometimes difficult to hear.

The scenic design by Nephelie Andonyadis is clean and informative, as is Geoff Korf’s lighting, which changes subtly with the changing tone of the proceedings. Bruno Louchouarn’s sound design is equally subtle and very affecting. Altogether, this was a tight production of an important play — one that successfully combines careful thinking with tragic drama.

Sweet Summer Youth Conservatory: GUYS & DOLLS

L to R:  Colin Kless as Benny Southstreet, Ryan Widd as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Daniel Johnson as Rusty Charlie,  on the set of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

L to R: Colin Kless as Benny Southstreet, Ryan Widd as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Daniel Johnson as Rusty Charlie, on the set of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

PlayMakers Repertory Company has slowly but surely been winning me over to the pleasures of good musical theatre. One of its prime strategic weapons has been Jeffrey Meanza, who understands musicals in his bones, and has been known to steal a show or two. Meanza came nine summers ago to start PRC’s Summer Youth Conservatory. He meant to stay three months, but instead stayed on as education director, then as associate artistic director for PRC. Now he’s departing, to join Joseph Haj at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater–but not before one last SYC swan song.

The Meanza-directed classic musical Guys & Dolls opened last night on the Paul Green Theater stage at the UNC Center for Dramatic Art in Chapel Hill, and it is a delight. The high school-age students in the summer intensive program have excelled–there are no weak links in this professionally-mounted production. The on-stage talent is augmented by that of the technical student apprentices in a parallel program in back-of-the-stage theatrical work. The young people in the SYC programs come from many schools all over the Triangle area, so to put on this glittering, big-hearted show, they’ve not only learned lines and music and stagecraft, but the great lesson of bonding with strangers to make something bigger than any of them.

The Ensemble in  PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

The Ensemble in PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Guys & Dolls, with its music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is based on stories and characters by Damon Runyon from the 1920s and 1930s. The musical was first staged in 1950, and promptly won a Tony Award. It has been made for film, and re-staged any number of times. Some of its songs have been recorded and sung so often by so many that their origin is nearly lost in the haze of popularity. The reason for this? They are just plain good.

Meanza and crew have set this production in the New York of the mid-1930s, and it’s carried off with panache. Scenic designer Robin Vest makes the most of the possibilities of the stage’s lift and slide mechanisms, and together with lighting designer Dominic Abbenante, gives us grit and glamour galore. Jade Bettin has, as usual, produced a stageful of gorgeous costumes, and music director Mark Lewis, as always, accomplishes small miracles.  After several weeks of total immersion in the choreographies shown at the American Dance Festival, Matthew Steffens’ work didn’t strike me as particularly exciting, but it suits the show, and there are several really charming bits.

Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide with The Hot Box Girls, in Act II of  PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

“Take Back Your Mink:” Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide with The Hot Box Girls, in Act II of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

But it is the young actors who bring all the troubles and hopes of the guys and dolls to life, and for whom you will laugh and clap. Several have strong singing skills, and some have real voices. Most notable is Maya Ison, who plays the Mission sergeant Sarah Brown. High, clear, powerful and nuanced, this voice will be going places. Ison is also lovely in her characterization. Also strong–and funny!– is Ainsley Seiger, who plays Miss Adelaide, the Hot Box revue star engaged for 14 years to Nathan Detroit, organizer of the oldest permanent floating craps game in New York. Seiger and Ison’s duet near the end of Act II is perfectly fabulous.

Although his voice is not as strong, Ethan Fox makes a good Nathan Detroit, quick with the patter and believably harassed by the exigencies by his undertaking and by Lt. Brannigan (Jack Carmichael). He is, however, overshadowed by the fourth lead, gambler Sky Masterson, dashingly played by Gideon Chickos. Chickos’ portrayal of his character’s transformation from heartless, insouciant risk-taker to honest lover is mature beyond his apparent years. His scenes with Miss Sarah (Ison) are particularly winning, although he commands the entire theater space with his rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” as he prepares to roll for the souls of his fellow sinners.

You can get lucky yourself with this show tonight through Sunday, and again next weekend. PRC box office: 919.962.7529.

Ethan Fox as Nathan Detroit and Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide in the happy ending of  PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

Ethan Fox as Nathan Detroit and Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide in the happy ending of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Through July 25, 2015.  Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Excellent Production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE at PlayMakers Rep

I don’t know whether to be more relieved or depressed by the acute timeliness of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of An Enemy of the People. On the one hand, Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 script tells us that people in power have acted against common sense and the public good at least since then, and Arthur Miller’s 1950 update makes it clear that the problems were the same in his era–in other words, our time, though out of joint, with its spyware and its science-deniers and its ghastly secret fracking chemicals and its brave, unworldly warriors like Edward Snowden, is not anomalous in history. On the other, humanity has not made much noticeable improvement in itself since Ibsen penned his blistering critique of the politics of power and money in the everlasting joust between the truth-armed individual and an obtuse majority.

The Ensemble (Allison Altman as Petra, Julia Gibson as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, facing) in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,  by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

The Ensemble (Allison Altman as Petra, Julia Gibson as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, facing) in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

 

Directed by Tom Quaintance, the PlayMakers company and guest artists give Enemy an intense immediacy, highlighted by the astute design choices (McKay Coble, set, and Patrick Holt, costumes) that place it in the 1950s, but also in the 2015  infatuated with “mid-century modern” and snap brim hats. Quaintance has paced the show for clarity and, without excess, for maximum wallop, allowing the excellent actors to work naturally in Ibsen’s and Miller’s tautly drawn situations in which their characters’ psychologies must be dissected. It’s the most satisfying show of the PRC’s 2014-15 season thus far.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann, and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, in PRC's AN EMEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann, and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, in PRC’s AN EMEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Briefly, the storyline is: Dr. Stockmann (Michael Bryan French, naive, flustered and implacable) has with his brother (naturally, it needs to be his brother) the Mayor, Peter Stockmann (Anthony Newfield, neurotic, politically skilled and implacable) have created a spa that’s bringing economic hope to their town. But after everything is built, the doctor discovers that the water is dangerously polluted. When the play opens, he’s just received the test results from the university, and he’s all set to tell the world, so that the healing spa waters won’t sicken anyone. The Mayor’s having none of that!

Julia Gibson and Michael Bryan French as Catherine and Dr. Stockmann. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Julia Gibson and Michael Bryan French as Catherine and Dr. Stockmann. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

On hand to make the most of this conflict are a firebrand newspaper editor, Hovstad (Benjamin Curns) and a high-strung reporter (Gregory DeCandia) and their waffling editor, Aslaksen (Jeffrey Blair Cornell, just perfect) ready to twist in whatever way will benefit them the most. The doctor’s eccentric father-in-law, Morten Kiil (David Adamson, fiendishly good) bumbles around the edges, looking for the spot to drive in a wedge. The doctor does have a family who love and support and hector him–Julia Gibson as Katherine Stockmann and Allison Altman as their daughter Petra also keep the testosterone levels from becoming too overwhelming. All these excitable people in this little town are counterbalanced by the doctor’s friend, the taciturn sea captain Horster (Derrick Ivey), who’s been about the world and seen places where people weren’t allowed to speak their minds. He didn’t like that.

Ivey continues to amaze. Here he stands like granite, so dense he draws your eye again and again, even though he has only a handful of lines. His Captain Horster contains a vital paradox: He stands behind the doctor not because he understands anything he’s on about, but because he believes he is free to say it. Yet if that’s not the way it’s to be, he’ll morph from the stable to the flowing, and take them all to freedom in America. (That’s about the only thing in the play that seems dated, that belief in a bighearted, clear-thinking America.)

The production was slightly marred on opening night by some technical difficulties involving smoke and water, and maybe the mob could use a few more bodies (although John Allore, as the drunk, is a host in himself), but it’s a powerful play, powerfully done. It runs only through March 15 in the Paul Green Theater. Tickets online or call 919-962-7529.

You can read the play, with a good introduction by Arthur Miller, here.

Most readers will already know that PlayMakers has announced the forthcoming departure of company producing artistic director Joseph Haj this July, when he will leave Chapel Hill for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. If not, see Byron Wood’s Indyweek piece here. I’d hoped we’d get to keep Haj for a couple of more years–he’s been a very positive force for this theater scene, beyond transforming PlayMakers. See my 2010 feature on Haj for a sense of how far we’ve come, and how lucky the Twin Cites will be to have him there. Bye, Joe.

Now the question is–who will be the next PRC artistic director? And–when?

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 - March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 – March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

 

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