David Lindsay-Abaire

Theater Review – Of Mice and Men at Bridge Players Theater Company

Finally an American has produced a drama on par with Shakespeare. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men animated the concepts of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations in a way that made them distinctly American and, yet, universal. He interwove the freedom to “live off the fatta’ the land” with the quest for love and companionship. At the same time he explored the individual’s place in a society he’s no longer of value to. The cast and crew at the Bridge Players Theater in Burlington, NJ turned in performances commensurate with such high-minded concepts.

I admire director Gabrielle Affleck’s choice of projects. Several months ago I enjoyed watching her lead a production of Kimberly Akimbo; a challenging play written by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire. For her follow-up endeavor, Ms. Affleck decided to “up her game”, if you will, and selected another story with difficult and controversial material. This time a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote the script. This show also featured a dog (Ladybird “Lady” Ezell) in the live show. One can only respect this artist’s courage.

I found the interplay between Breen Rourke (as George) and Paul Sollimo (as Lenny) outstanding. A year-and-a-half ago I watched Mr. Rourke play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in Glengarrry, Glen Ross. I still recall the masterful way he voiced the role in a shrill, whinny voice. It made me wonder how he’d play a drifter from 1930s California. His authentic delivery of George’s diction and locution surprised me. As the show continued I realized I shouldn’t have been. He possesses superb acting abilities. He showed his character’s descent from rugged idealism to disillusionment very steadily and believably.

I also have to give Mr. Rourke credit for his performance in the opening scene. The playwright assigned most of the dialog to his character. At times I thought the scene a soliloquy. He impressed me for remembering all the words, let alone for the genuine manner he delivered them.

I found the casting of Paul Sollimo in the role of Lenny as somewhat ironic. The dialog described the character as “dumb”. Mr. Sollimo is a genius in the field of acting. I’ve watched him play several “sophisticated “characters extremely well over the years. I wondered what he would bring to the role of Lenny. It allowed him to exhibit his craft at its pinnacle. Mr. Sollimo brilliantly transformed himself into the character. He crawled around on the floor, giggled childishly and spoke like someone slow of mind. He pronounced words in the identical way I imagined the character would have when I read the novel. This outstanding performance led me to sympathize with Lenny more than I’d expected to.

I’ve always believed that no amount of histrionic prowess can rescue bad script writing. Rachel Comenzo’s performance of “Curley’s wife” proved me wrong. I’ve always believed, to put this as politely as I can, Mr. Steinbeck’s development of “Curley’s wife” in the novel was the worst character portrayal in the history of the English language. Seriously: Steinbeck couldn’t have even given her a name? (See my earlier review of the novel version of Of Mice and Men.) I thought the character description in the play version a bit better. Curley’s wife seemed misunderstood and longed to seek a better life. The author still failed to fully develop it.

Ms. Comenzo deserves immense credit for animating such a poorly written character so well. In her final scene with Lenny, she delivered an emotional exposition of Curley’s wife’s background leading into her desire to escape her unhappy surroundings. Ms. Comenzo’s pining facial expression and soft voice modulation actually made me empathize with the character. That’s difficult for a performer to do with a strong character. I never would’ve thought it possible with a weak one. It shows the immense level of her acting skills that she achieved that with so little assistance from the playwright.

Mr. Rourke, Mr. Sollimo and Ms. Comenzo put on an acting clinic. The rest of the cast delivered great performances, as well. I’d especially note that Greg Northam played a very moving Candy. His gingerly gait and slumped over posture added to my empathy for him. Richard Priest (as Crooks) and Fred Ezell (as Carlson) utilized memorable voices for the roles they played.

I would warn theater goers that some of the dialog contained racial epithets. The playwright had an ulterior motive for including it, however. Later in the show Mr. Steinbeck expressed his animosity towards this sort of racial bigotry. In a moving scene between Crooks (played by Richard Priest) and Lenny, the lone African American character discussed his disdain with the other characters for excluding him simply because of his race. As the original play premiered in 1937, I admired the then progressive view on race relations.

I’d also liked to give a shout out to Jeff Rife. The man did a phenomenal job with the set design. I also give him credit for engineering the set in such a way that made the intricate changes between scenes more manageable for the cast and crew.

The story in Of Mice and Men has become iconic in our culture. Mr. Steinbeck’s tale is a masterpiece of the highest order. It’s still well worthwhile to revisit; especially, when performed by such an outstanding cast and crew. The Bridge Players Theater Company’s presentation brought to mind a line from Henryk Sienkwiewicz’s epic novel Quo Vadis: “I only wish it was worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” The show runs through May 14.

Drama Review – Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies

What better topic to use for a lachrymose tale of tragedy than marital problems? Donald Margulies served up a chilling meditation on just that in his 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Dinner with Friends. This play showed how two pairs of friends coped (or struggled to) with the disintegration of one of the couple’s marriages. The atrophy of the one gave the remaining couple doubts about the state of their own union.

This play moved me. Gabe and Karen were the “perfect” couple struggling with doubts about their marriage. Following that, they discovered their friends Tom and Beth decided to divorce. It led to a deep introspection of their situation. Afterwards, then they had to listen to them explain how their lives improved without each other.

The realism in Dinner with Friends impressed me. Beth lived a bohemian life style. I thought her behavior and dialog believable for that type of person. All the dramatis personae conducted themselves like I’d imagine people in their situation. I felt Gabe’s and Karen’s shock when Beth explained that she and Tom separated. Karen’s reaction to the reason for the breakup also came across as reasonable. As did her callous behavior towards Tom. The playwright also presented the latter’s anger towards his estranged wife in a believable fashion. “Don’t underestimate rage; rage can be an amazing aphrodisiac,” Tom said. (Page 38)

In keeping with the realism, the dialog didn’t contain any great lyrical flourishes. The playwright still worked in some memorable lines.

Karen: I spent the first twenty years doing whatever the hell I could do to get away from my family and my second twenty years doing everything I could to cobble together a family of my own. I thought if I could choose my family this time, if I could make my friends my family…

Beth: Congratulations. The family you’ve chosen is as f—-d-up and fallible as the one you were born into. (Page 68)

            Here are Gabe’s thoughts on marriage in light of Beth’s and Tom’s break-up.

Gabe: (Looks at him; a beat): I guess, I mean, I thought we were in this together. You know, for life.

Tom: Isn’t that just another way of saying misery loves company? (Page 77)

Here’s an exchange between Karen and Beth. This took place after Beth mentioned she had a new boyfriend.

Karen: You didn’t want to be alone for a while? You haven’t been alone in a dozen years.

Beth: I’ve always been alone, don’t you see? I spent my marriage alone. (Page 65)

That’s a harsh observation.

I don’t normally comment on this, but I liked the book’s cover. It summed up the play’s content non-verbally. It showed a dinner plate flanked by a knife and a fork. A large crack extended from the top of the dish all the way to the bottom. I found that very clever.

Dinner with Friends reminded me of another Pulitzer Prize Winning Drama, Rabbit Hole. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s work, a husband and wife struggle to keep their marriage together following the death of their four year old son. Donald Margulies’ portrayal of marital disintegration was comparable to a death. As in Rabbit Hole, the ending left more questions than answers.

Drama Review – Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire

The worst tragedy that any person can experience is losing a child. This 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning drama delved into the impact of such a loss on a young family. The result was a moving exploration of a couple struggling to cope with their grief and at times each other. While somber in tone, Rabbit Hole still served as an excellent read.

At first I struggled to get into the story. It began with Becca folding clothes while her sister, Izzy, prattled about her recent fisticuffs. It took several pages before the playwright made any reference to a child. He did so in a very subtle way. Here’s an exchange between Becca and Izzy. This took place after the latter announced her pregnancy.

Becca: I’m washing all these clothes to give to Goodwill. I might as well save them for you. In case you have a boy. No sense in my giving these away.

Izzy: I don’t know, Bec. They’re in baby clothes for so long, it’d be a few years before he could even fit into this stuff.

Becca: It comes up very quickly. You wouldn’t even believe it.

Izzy: Plus we don’t have a lot of room to…

Becca: That’s okay. I’ll keep them here. In the basement. You’ll be happy I saved them.

Izzy: But what if it’s a girl?

Becca: Then I’ll bring them down to Goodwill. What’s the big deal? You’re gonna thank me. A couple years worth of free clothes here. Think of the money you’re gonna save.

Izzy: It’s not about the money.

Becca: Well it should be. You need to start thinking about stuff like that, Iz. Especially if the dad’s a musician. It costs a lot to raise a child.

Izzy: It’d be weird, that’s all. If it’s a boy. To see him running around in Danny’s clothes. (Beat) I would feel weird. You would too, I think. (Beat) I’m sorry. (Pages 24 – 25)

A former screenwriting professor I know gave me some great advice. “The best way to drive exposition is through conflict.” The playwright nailed it here. Izzy kept trying to avoid the issue of Danny’s death while Becca inadvertently forced her to mention it. Later in the same passage, Izzy said “I know the timing really sucks,” in reference to her pregnancy. By contrast, the pace in this passage was exceptional.

At this point I realized that the story would focus on grief and bereavement. I liked the way that we never saw Danny. He passed eight months prior to the opening exchange. I applauded the playwright’s decision to avoid the hackneyed “hero dies after a valiant struggle” plot line. This gave Rabbit Hole that much more impact.

When the play began I assumed the drama would center on Becca’s efforts to cope. At one point when Howie suggested she return to work she replied, “No I can’t. That’s not who I am anymore. I left all that to be a mom.” (Page 46) That’s a pretty powerful line.

But Mr. Lindsay-Abaire had a twist in store. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of gender roles. Howie’s first scene introduced him using wine and Al Green music to seduce his wife. What a contrast to Becca’s! While the two battled grief in their own ways, Howie became the more emotional of the two. He spent his evenings watching a video tape of Danny and him. When Becca accidentally erased it, Howie became unhinged.

(Losing it.) It’s not just the tape! I’m not talking about the tape, Becca! It’s Taz (the dog), and the paintings, and the clothes, and it’s everything! You have to stop erasing him! You have to stop it! You HAVE TO STOP! (Page 86)

In another unique plot twist, the boy who accidentally hit Danny with his car contacted the family. Jason sent them a letter asking to meet them. Later he stopped by when the family hosted an open house. Howie threw him out. Later Becca met with the boy. That was the only scene in the play where she cried.

Rabbit Hole focused on the bereavement process and how people cope in different ways. Becca delivered the most trenchant observation on the subject. Here’s a comment she directed at Howie.

You’re not in a better place than I am, you’re just in a different place. And that sucks that we can’t be there for each other right now, but that’s just the way it is. (Page 87)

While an otherwise superb work of art, I did have one criticism of the play. I thought the playwright added some gratuitous references to pop culture. Izzy worked at Applebees. Becca worked at Sotheby’s before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Izzy had a Three Stooges shower curtain. While I understand any writer strives to make his work relatable, these examples were a bit much for my taste.

A few days ago, I watched a local community theater group perform this play. The show was very powerful and really affected me. It led me to remember times when I experienced grief and how I coped with it. I think all this led me to re-read Rabbit Hole as a form of closure. How many dramatic works can inspire people like that? While an uncomfortable subject matter, I’d still encourage people to try it. It’s a phenomenal example of brilliant writing.

Theater Review – Kimberly Akimbo at 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Treading the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy challenges any thespian. The cast and crew of 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters did so brilliantly this April. They selected the perfect script in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo (directed by Gabrielle Affleck) to showcase their skills.

Phyllis Josephson delivered an inspiring performance as Kimberly: a teenager suffering from an incurable disease. The nature of the disorder compounded the tragedy of her situation. This malady caused her to age four-and-a-half times as quickly as a normal adolescent. Ms. Josephson flawlessly expressed the mannerisms and speech inflections of a 16 year old. In an exhibition of her range, she also acted the part of a heart attack victim. After the show I didn’t know if it more appropriate to send her flowers or take her out for ice cream.

Ms. Josephson unveiled her true forte in the emotional scenes with Kimberly’s alcoholic father, Buddy. (Very convincingly played by Zach Palmer.) She cowered like a scared little girl, but also lashed out venomously when he asked embarrassing questions to her love interest, Jeff. (Exceptionally played by Tim Schumann) Palmer’s comedic tirade against the evils of Dungeons and Dragons evened out the scene nicely.

After witnessing Kori Rife’s portrayal of Buddy’s hypochondriac wife, Pattie, I could understand his issues with the bottle. Ms. Rife played the role of a narcissistic, self-obsessed, pregnant woman while still delivering solid comedic chops. In her first appearance on stage she revealed the depth of her talent. Pattie struggled to dictate a message to her unborn child into a tape recorder. The bandages which covered her fingers, due to perceived carpal tunnel syndrome, prevented her from hitting the record button. She slapped it with her hands, and then tried her tongue, and eventually her chin.

Lisa Croce played an exceptional Aunt Debra. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I know Ms. Croce personally.) I haven’t witnessed a devious character played with such humor. She mixed the comedy and criminality very well. I liked how she dragged a mailbox involved in Debra’s scheme across the length of the stage.

2nd Stage featured an unusual set-up. Upon entering, the audience walked through the performance area to their chairs. Seating was limited, and the room got cramped, but I didn’t mind. I liked being up-close. At times I felt part of the show.

In terms of the play itself, I thought it extremely well-written. It began with a family on the verge of disintegration. In spite of the alcoholic father, the self-absorbed mother, terminally ill child, and homeless aunt with a criminal record the comic yuks didn’t stop. That’s an astounding accomplishment from a gifted playwright.

I’ve got bad news and good news. I’ll give you the bad news first. Unfortunately for theater goers, Kimberly Akimbo completed its run at 2nd Stage this past Saturday. Now the good news: the performers actively participate in other community theater projects. Based on the range they showed in this play, you can’t go wrong seeing them in either a comedy or tragedy. I hope we’re lucky and get to see them in a show that fuses the two like Kimberly Akimbo.