Chrissy Wick

Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite at Riverfront Community Players

The Riverfront Community Players made the perfect artistic decision to present Plaza Suite just before summer. It’s doubtful that Neil Simon’s pessimistic, but comical, take on marriage would’ve been a good choice for Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving weekend or the Holiday Season. I attended the June 9th evening performance at the Samuel M. Ridgway Middle School in Edgewater Park. Linda Golden directed.

Plaza Suite seemed a bit of a misnomer for this Neil Simon piece. For in it, the playwright provided three takes on marriage that were anything but ‘sweet.’ The show consisted of three separate acts involving different characters. Each occurred in Suite 719 of the Plaza Suite Hotel. The first allowed audiences to witness the disintegration of a 23 (or 24) year marriage. Act II placed two affection starved characters in the same hotel room. The male lead had endured three failed marriages. The woman, lips loosened by liquor, let out that her marriage was imploding. The finale showed a bride too timorous to leave the bathroom on her wedding day. She loved her fiancé, but she feared that their marriage would become like her parents’.

See what I mean about not staging this show from November through February?

Mr Simon subtitled the first act Visitor from Mamaroneck. In this vignette, Karen Nash (played by Chrissy Wick) planned on celebrating a romantic anniversary with her husband, Sam (played by Zach Wishnefsky). For this event, she reserved the same suite where they spent their honeymoon. The festivities turned into anything but joyous within moments of Sam’s entering the room. The two got into an argument regarding the precise date and year of their marriage. They also disputed Karen’s age. The subtext showed a marriage in despair. Sam’s behavior demonstrated his experiencing a ‘mid-life crisis.’

Chrissy Wick turned in a superb performance as the dutiful wife. Ms. Wick portrayed a woman yearning for her husband’s affections who steadily realized she couldn’t have them. She transitioned from a happily married woman into a figure coping with an unexpected tragedy very well. Her tears at scene’s end seemed genuine.

As Neil Simon wrote this script, the character still needed to make the audience laugh: with physical humor. Ms. Wick didn’t disappoint. While wearing a single galosh, she got laughs as she dragged her foot across the floor.

Zach Wishnefski portrayed the austere, career oriented husband. The performer selected a warm voice that well suited the role. Mr. Wishnefsky made Sam into a man always in control. Whether barking orders into the phone or (repeatedly) correcting his wife, he always remained in command…until he told his wife he didn’t know what he wanted out of life. The performer brought out this change very credibly. He played a well-ordered man suffering from inner turmoil that even he didn’t understand. Mr. Wishnefsky executed this task with profound ability.

The Visitor from Hollywood skit comprised Act II. In this one, successful Hollywood producer Jesse Kiplinger (played by Marc Steinberg) invited his high school flame Muriel Tate (played by Amy Bannister) whom he hadn’t seen in 17 years to…wait for it…Suite 719 at the Plaza Suite Hotel. Following three failed marriages, and dealing with insincere Hollywood types, he longed to reconnect with the one woman he believed “authentic.” Star struck at first by her high school beau’s success, Muriel became very nervous. She imbibed a series of vodka stingers to help her relax. In the process, she revealed her own marital woes.

Marc Steinberg played the jaded Hollywood power broker very well. He talked in a nonchalant fashion about the famous people with whom he worked. While discussing his own capability for making profitable movies he sounded bored. During the scene’s opening, Mr. Steinberg convinced the audience Jesse was a lothario looking to score with his former girlfriend. By its end he transitioned the character into a person seeking a more meaningful relationship. Mr. Steinberg portrayed this change very convincingly.

Amy Bannister made Muriel the funniest character in the show. When she first appeared on stage, she fidgeted and commented about how “nervous” she felt in the presence of such a famous producer. I enjoyed how she contradicted herself with her dialog. After using a hairdressing appointment as her reason for needing to leave, she kept changing the time. When Mr. Steinberg questioned the equivocation, her riposte “it’s flexible” made the audience chuckle. As Ms. Bannister’s character continued drinking, she spoke with the slurred speech and loosened inhibitions of someone under the influence. The performer fused this with her dialog to make Muriel a joy to watch.

The Visitor from Forest Hills made up the most comical scene. Mimsey Hubley (played by Jaclyn Clark) locked herself in the bathroom on her wedding day. Norma Hubley (played by Lisa Croce) and Roy Hubley (John Hughes) spent the act attempting to coax her out of it. When they couldn’t, they determined to discover her reason for doing so.

Following the show, I spoke with Lisa Croce. She said that she and Mr. Hughes worked together in the past. It showed. The two displayed marvelous stage chemistry with one another in Plaza Suite.

With the nature of the situation, Mr. Hughes’ dialog contained many comical lines. The performer expressed them flawlessly. It’s ironic that his best stage time entailed non-verbal communication. After speaking with his daughter off stage, he re-entered with a forlorn look on his face. His expression allowed me to guess what she told him. That’s superb acting.

Lisa Croce possesses a gift for delivering comical lines with aplomb. She didn’t disappoint in Plaza Suite. My favorite occurred when the character’s daughter slipped a note through the bathroom door. Mimsey wrote that she wanted to speak with her father. She’d scribbled it on the only source available. Ms. Croce commented, “It figures she’d write it on that” in reference to the toilet paper.

Ms. Croce also displayed some exceptional non-verbal cues of her own. Her best took place when Roy said something to the effect, “I did my best raising her. I don’t know why she’s like that.” I found Ms. Croce’s expression even funnier than the punch line. Only someone as talented as she could get laughs with a serious look.

Mr. Simon crafted each scene very well. All contained strong conflict. He added some surprise plot twists that made Plaza Suite a solid work of drama. The script did contain some poor dialog, however. I’ve written before that one can’t blame actors for bad writing. It’s not fair to criticize them for following instructions as Shakespeare wrote, to “speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” (Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2) It is, however, appropriate to criticize playwrights for not providing them better material with which to work.

The Visitor from Hollywood section began with an excessive amount of backstory. At times I thought the actors were reading their characters’ biographies. I give Mr. Steinberg and Ms. Bannister credit for doing their best to make the lines sound like a natural conversation.

While worrying that his daughter may cancel her wedding, Roy Hubley talked about the wedding’s cost. And talked about it. And talked about it some more. At one point, I wanted to shout out, “I get it! A wedding’s expensive! Next!” Mr. Hughes worked around this by pacing and talking like someone muttering in disgust. He put on a clinic for how actors can handle getting stuck with bad dialog.

I would also credit performers Jackie Clark and Bill Upham for their contributions to the production.

Neil Simon found the humor in marital troubles. The cast and crew of the Riverfront Community Players made them absolutely entertaining in Plaza Suite. While the show wrapped this weekend, we can look forward to watching these performers apply their craft to other tragedies of the human condition in the future. Hopefully, they won’t make us wait until Thanksgiving to do so.

 

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24 Hour Play Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

How’s this for a challenge? You and a group of your fellow performers arrive at the theatre. Someone hands you a hat. From it you select first a genre, then a prop, during the third round a character, after that a task, and finally a style of delivery. Then you’re given a line that must appear in the play. You and your team then have 24 hours to write an original dramatic work based on the criteria you selected. Once the time runs out, you and your team will perform the play to a live audience. Now who would have the courage to attempt this?

Well, on February 23rd, a select group of 14 brave performers accepted this dare. They chose to participate in Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage’s Sixth Annual 24 Hour Theatre Festival on February 24th. The three teams they assembled treated an audience to superb performances. They followed these shows with some outstanding improv.

The teams presented remarkable writing. All the plays included compelling characters, conflict and plot twists; that quite an achievement for works written less than a day before show time.

The one unifying factor in all the plays included the use of the line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” All the teams worked around the difficulty of applying a statement written in the present tense to their stories.

The team called the Space Cadets opened the evening’s festivities. The troupe consisted of performers Kelly Deeny, Pat Frazer, Tim Kirk, Kathy Smith and Chrissy Wick. They presented an interstellar speed dating play called “What Planet Are You From?” The group interpolated characters from some popular space themed films, a lovelorn woman…and a cat. Even with only 24 hours’ notice to put the show together, they still engaged in some creative casting. It seemed appropriate that the gentleman named Kirk took the lead in a sci-fi story.

The Space Cadets were tasked with writing a science fiction play that included the use of an overhead projector, a character who rapped whenever speaking, and the use of “positions.” The players received instructions to deliver their lines “seductively.”

The Sutter Home Girls comprised the next team to take the stage. Its members included Angel Ezell, Carla Ezell, Tasha Holmes, Nina Law and Eylis Skamarakas. Their “Not Going Home for Christmas” show featured a melodramatic take on a group session at a mental health institution. Their assignment included use of a Christmas tree, one character who only spoke in Disney lyrics, a character who used a hula hoop the entire play and a “sweet” delivery.

I liked how they began and ended their show the same way by lighting the Christmas tree. It also impressed me how, in spite of the play’s brevity, Tasha Holmes even managed to work in a couple of costume changes.

The Chun-Kay team rounded out the evening. Members DJ Hedgepath, Stephen Jackson, Matt Maerten and Darryl Thompson presented “The Transfigured Night” in the mystery/detective genre. To craft this whodunit they received direction to use a foot measurer, include a clown as a character, and to deliver five tongue twisters excitedly.

The latter instruction served as a starting point for this group. Almost every line Mr. Thompson spoke included at least one. Even with the limited rehearsal time, he expressed the dialog clearly and without tripping over his words.

Footlighters 2nd Stage put on a much better triple bill than I expected. All the teams wrote strong scripts. Every performer sounded much more prepared than the rehearsal time allowed.

Then the real ‘improv’ portion of the program commenced. At the beginning of the show, the master of ceremonies, Gaby Affleck, asked audience members to give ideas for ‘quirky’ characters. The players then drew these suggestions from a hat.

First, the performers put on a version of a dating game. The bachelorette, Chrissy Wick, asked questions of three actors who took on the ‘quirky’ roles. Ms. Wick received the task of guessing the character’s description.  Eylis Skamarakas took on the role of a Wookie with laryngitis, Angel Ezell played a pilot who hated to fly, and Kelly Deeny performed as doctor with a case of the giggles.

Some performers as well as some daring audience members participated in the hat game. Individuals put on comical hats and then gave a brief talk as though making a dating video.

The ‘improv’ section concluded with a party scene. DJ Hedgepath played the host tasked with identifying the quirky character each guest played. Stephen Jackson performed as an angry bartender, Tim Kirk acted the role of a child learning to count, and Darryl Thompson acted the role of a disgruntled priest.

I’d also give kudos to Gaby Affleck and Jim Frazer for the professional way they ran the evening’s events.

The performers played eclectic roles extremely well and with very little preparation. That demonstrated the level of talent they all possess. While both funny and entertaining, I’d classify the evening as inspiring above all else. They proved that American ingenuity thrives in the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

 

Theatre Review – Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

While set in the 1930’s, 2009’s Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical could have depicted modern American society. The violence, anxiety about financial security and a background rife with religious fervor made me feel like I was channel surfing between CNBC and Fox News. The performance of Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s proficiently directed show brought me back to Burlington County Footlighters’ theatre.

The drama centered on the lives of the two eponymous characters. Still, it was like watching the musical equivalent of an American take on Plutarch’s Lives. I enjoyed the dichotomy between the outlaw Clyde Barrow (played by Connor Twigg) and his ‘reformed’ brother Buck (played by Brad Kenney). Rachel Comenzo did a phenomenal job in the role of Bonnie. Her unconditional love and blind devotion to Clyde served as an outstanding contrast to Becky Moseley’s performance as Buck’s wife, Blanche. Ms. Moseley really nailed the role of a conflicted wife. While a devoted Christian often citing religious reasoning, her own commitment to her husband won out. Even without the stellar musical numbers, these conflicts alone would’ve made for a memorable show.

Mr. Twigg delivered an energetic performance as the hooligan. He animated all the character’s complexities with equal dexterity. His depiction of Clyde’s reaction to a brutal prison assault convinced me he actually became unhinged. The role of a suave conniver also entered his repertoire. When Bonnie’s mother (played by Gabrielle Affleck) walked in on the two during a romantic tryst, he calmly went along with Bonnie’s dubious explanations. Mr. Twigg also brought great tenderness into his romantic scenes with Ms. Comenzo. He delivered a ukulele accompanied serenade to her while he sat in a bathtub. I have to admit: I never thought I’d watch a ruthless character do that.

Rachel Comenzo played an exceptional Bonnie. Due to the strength of her performance, it’s difficult to select one ‘best’ scene. With that noted she truly shined in her rendition of the ballad “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad”.  Ms. Comenzo has a very strong voice. She modulated it very well on this moving song. The tune opened with the following lyrics.

Dyin’ ain’t so bad.

Not if you both go together.

Only when one’s left behind does it get sad.

But a short and lovin’ life, that ain’t so bad.

I only hope to God that I go first.

I couldn’t live on memories.

Her vocal inflections and facial expressions made me feel it.

The variety of musical numbers enhanced the show. It featured some well composed ballads. Ms. Moseley delivered a somber rendition of “That’s What You Call a Dream”.  I’m preferential to more soulful material. I really enjoyed “Raise a Little Hell” by Mr. Twigg and “Made in America” by the Preacher (played by Michael Melvin) and the ensemble. The Gospel influence in those tracks gave them a unique sound.

While a great show overall, one of the subplots was too cliché. Prior to meeting Clyde, a police officer named Ted Hinton (played by D. J. Hedgepath) took a romantic interest in Bonnie. The interest recurred several times in the show. This is the stereotypical nice guy falls for girl who loves the bad boy. The play had enough romantic conflict, already. I thought this element of the story totally unnecessary.

Mr. Hedgepath played his role very well through a great range of emotions. In scenes with Ms. Comenzo he softened his voice like a bashful suitor. When serving in the posse to gun down the fugitives, he showed remorse. I enjoyed his dolorous rendition of “You Can Do Better than Him” with Mr. Twigg. An actor that talented deserved a better story line with which to work.

Set Designer Jim Frazier and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick deserve a lot of credit for their work. A lot of scene changes occurred in Bonnie and Clyde. The production even included a car that emerged from the back of the stage several times. The crew executed these intricate shifts flawlessly.

The real life Clyde Barrow and his brother Buck are buried together. While Bonnie wrote poetry, Clyde came up with the epitaph on their headstone. It reads: “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Burlington County Footlighters’ run of Bonnie and Clyde ends this weekend. I can’t think of a more fitting encomium.