The Price ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

(L to R) Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

For Arena Stage’s 20th Anniversary season, Artistic Director Molly Smith has placed her bets on Hal Linden, an actor’s actor whose comedic timing is a veritable master class.  Linden plays the part of Gregory Solomon, a Russian Jew and antique dealer in Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Price.  It’s sheer pleasure to watch Linden ply his lines and experience his instinctively smooth delivery and Old Country accent – with a hearty dose of shtick added for good measure.  Playing off an exceptional performance of Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz, a frustrated cop who failed to realize his potential, this production, artfully directed by Seema Sueko, is a well-cast delight that brings both searing drama and mood-lightening humor to the American stage.

Victor and his wife, Esther (Pearl Sun) are liquidating the estate of his late, formerly wealthy father, a failed businessman that pitted his two sons against each other.  Walter (Rafael Untalan), a successful surgeon who hasn’t spoken to his brother in 16 years, encourages Victor and his wife to keep the proceeds.  Clearly, he feels some compunction that he hasn’t returned Victor’s calls.  And though Esther encourages them to patch up their relationship, Victor is stuck in past resentments, unable to decide on his retirement date and his plans for their future.

(L to R) Pearl Sun as Esther Franz, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Rafael Untalan as Walter Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

(L to R) Pearl Sun as Esther Franz, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Rafael Untalan as Walter Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

As Gregory tries to convince Victor how worthless the antiques are, it becomes a parlor game between the two, with the old man using his considerable bargaining skills and Victor feeling taken.  Every time Victor feels as though he’s struck a deal, the street savvy Gregory turns the tables, stalling for time.  In a particularly hilarious scene, the sly swindler plops down on a chair and peels a hard cooked egg, toying with Victor like a lion with its prey.

As the brothers attempt to smooth out their acrimony, with Esther as cheerleader, they relegate Gregory to a back room from where he pops out to renegotiate at the most inopportune moments to great comic relief.  Against the backdrop of his comedic interruptions, the brothers’ long-simmering jealousies surface and the self-righteous Victor destroys any hope of reconciliation.

(L to R) Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon. Photo by Colin Hovde.

(L to R) Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon. Photo by Colin Hovde.

The action takes place in the late 60’s in the attic of their father’s former shop where Set Designer Wilson Chin piles period antiques to the rafters evoking memories of the brothers’ past and a lifetime of disappointments.

Highly recommended.

Through November 12th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Native Gardens ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 20, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle, Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle, Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

Playwright Karen Zacarías’s Native Gardens directed by Blake Robison is hugely hilarious.  I had to stop myself from typing “bigly”.  You know how things are these days.  Everything is viewed through a partisan political filter, no matter which side on the aisle you may seat yourself.  And that’s where we find ourselves in this flat-out entertaining dark comedy that pits two widely divergent couples against each other.

The very prescient Zacarías, founder of DC’s Young Playwrights’ Theater and first ever Playwright-in-Residence at Arena Theatre, crafts this social construct of two couples of different ethnic backgrounds whose hearts are in the right place but whose politics and cultural views are worlds apart.

(L to R) Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle and Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

(L to R) Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle and Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

Set in Georgetown, an aristocratic, young lawyer, Pablo Del Valle (Dan Domingues) and his pregnant wife Tania (Jacqueline Correa), buy a brownstone next door to an older couple.  Pablo is trying to make partner while Tania is studying for her PhD.  They are young, Hispanic, open-minded intellectuals, unafraid to speak their minds.

Unfortunately, their formerly abandoned backyard borders the Butleys.  Frank Butley (Steve Hendrickson), a retiree devoted to his well-manicured garden, and his wife, Virginia (Sally Wingert), a former executive who clawed her way to the top in a male-dominated industry.  Virginia is savvy, sophisticated and sarcastic.  Frank is henpecked and self-entitled.  Notwithstanding the couples’ differences, they are eager to get along.  “Old neighborhood, new neighbors,” Frank says cheerfully.

(L to R) Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

(L to R) Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

In the beginning all goes well, as the couples sip wine and swap stories about themselves and their gardening philosophies.  Tania is eco-conscious and leans towards insect-attracting native plants, while Frank tends his exotic annuals with pesticides and fertilizers. You can smell trouble brewing.

Within days of their moving in, Pablo shocks Tania with the news that he has committed to a party for his entire law firm.  They decide it must be outdoors since the house is in dire need of restoration.  They hire a team of workmen to beautify their weed-infested garden, remove a ratty chain link fence dividing the properties, and replace it with a spiffy new wooden one.

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

At first the Butley’s are overjoyed to have a lovely new backdrop for Frank’s formal garden, mere days before the Potomac Horticultural Society is to give out their “Best Garden” awards.  But the couples soon hit a snafu when legal eagle Pablo, who has had his property’s boundaries surveyed by the city, tells Frank his beloved roses and hydrangeas are encroaching on their property.

Racist insults fly from both sides of the fence as the couples reveal their prejudices.  “They must be Democrats,” Virginia claims while Tania flings Spanish curses and shows her solidarity with the Hispanic workmen.  Meanwhile the Butleys bicker amongst themselves, plotting to invoke squatters’ rights.  It becomes all-out war with a rapid-fire pace when Pablo accuses Frank’s plants of being “Colonialists”.

Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley and Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley and Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

The surprising set by Joseph Tilford of an enormous tree flanked by the backyards of the two brownstones – one shabby, one straight out of House and Garden – is a standout.  You’ve probably passed homes in Georgetown just like this, though you won’t find any fixer-uppers left.

Highly recommended for multiple viewings.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

Through October 22nd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Ed Gero Returns in His Triumphant Role in The Originalist ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
July 13, 2017 

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Welcome back Supreme Court Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia!  A lot has happened since Ed Gero inhabited your body.  Donald Trump became our president (I think you would have been delighted) and the whole Roe v. Wade thing continues to be a hot button issue which might tickle you as a strict constitutionalist.

As you may recall Gero brilliantly portrayed you in a tour de force performance in The Originalist in 2015 shortly before you left this earth in 2016.  Was that the nail in the coffin?  On a lighter note you’ll be pleased to know your legacy has carried on much as you had hoped, with your alma mater Harvard University establishing a professorship in your name.  Unfortunately, George Mason University, who got a cool $30 million to rename its law school after you, chose the initialization ASSol for Antonin Scalia School of Law, which became the “butt” of many jokes.  As of this writing your place in history is secure, and you can stop spinning in your grave in that it has been more appealingly amended to read ASLS.  –  – Yours truly, J. Wright

Having reviewed Arena’s initial production in the Spring of 2015, I can say that this one is snappier, more irreverent, if that’s possible, and just as timely as my first viewing when Playwright John Strand was Arena’s Resident Playwright.  Its unprecedented success inspired Director Molly Smith’s “Power Plays” initiative in which the theatre commissions 25 new plays or musicals focusing on American political history.  These will reflect Presidential Voices, Women’s Voices, African-American Voices, Musical Theatre Voices and Insider Voices.

 (L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as Cat in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

(L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as Cat. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In this refresh the role of Cat (Jade Wheeler), Scalia’s liberal law clerk intern, has been purposely expanded.  She is given a lot more lines – and latitude.  And Wheeler takes it on with brio, charm, feistiness and terrific comic timing.  The broadening of her role goes towards leveling the playing field between Cat the progressive liberal vs. Scalia the combative, law-and-order conservative and adds measurably to the sharp-as-knives verbal sparring.  “Law is carved in stone,” and “Emotion is whatever you had for breakfast,” warns Scalia.  References to Facebook, Politico and recent past Presidents keep it updated.

Accompanied by interstices of grandiose operatic arias (the Sicilian-born Scalia was a known opera buff as well as gun rights advocate), he delivers arguments and pronouncements like bullets on a battlefield, but so does, Cat, an equally cerebral Harvard Law grad determined to change his mind.   “I dissent!” is his most oft repeated line from the man who once had acting aspirations.  He later confesses, “The court is my theatre.  I am not an ideologue.  I am an originalist!”

(L to R) Jade Wheeler as Cat and Brett Mack as Brad in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

(L to R) Jade Wheeler as Cat and Brett Mack as Brad. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In explaining his reason for hiring her he reveals, “Every now and then I like to have a liberal around.  It reminds of how right I am.”  Cat, who views the court as a “fantasy palace”, is determined to upend his intransigence.  She seeks his heart, while he wants her soul.  “You’re stuck alone in your bunker.  Your constitution is just a shield you hide behind,” she mocks, defining his brand of government a “monsterocracy”.

Strand uses the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as the centerpiece for the characters’ arguments pitting Scalia’s strict interpretation of the law as it was written centuries ago against Cat’s humanistic philosophy.  Yet notwithstanding their legal and psychological parrying, there develops a firm respect, moreover an admiration, for one another’s unflinching will and unwavering opinions.  It’s irresistible to anyone interested in the workings of the law, SCOTUS or the evolution of the Court’s decisions.

Setting the tone and highlighting the majesty and gravity of the Court and its private chambers, Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills gives us two massive crystal chandeliers in order to appropriately frame the pronouncements from Scalia’s Kingly Court of Conservatism.  Set Designer Mischa Kachman adds floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes trimmed with golden tassels: lest you forget the import of where you are.

Highly recommended.

Through August 6th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

 

 

Smart People ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 23, 2017 

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

When the lives of four Harvard brainiacs intersect while working out their personal challenges, what do you get? Smart People – a cerebral journey into self-analysis jam-packed with laughs and droll repartee.  Ensconced in the intellectual bubble of Cambridge, Massachusetts are four recent grads – Valerie (Lorene Chesley), an aspiring black actress and part time housekeeper; Brian White (Gregory Perri), a cognitive neuroscientist and researcher on race relations; Ginny Yang (Sue Jin Song), a clinical psychologist and shopaholic; and Jackson Moore (Jaysen Wright), a bright, black doctor who wonders if he’s being held to a different standard.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Seema Sueko, Arena’s Deputy Artistic Director, creates tension in Lydia R. Diamond’s nifty play by pitting the characters’ self-absorbed egos, one against the other, in a feverish merry-go-round of insecurity and anxiety with each one desperate not to be misunderstood in a world where motives are misjudged and innocent intentions are fraught with suspicion.

The interaction is broken down into small solo vignettes until the couples begin to pair off, Valerie with Jackson and Ginny with Brian.  Set Designer Misha Kachman along with Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce and Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi lend focus to the characters by setting them into boxes on a two-level set until they begin to connect emotionally from the catwalk and onto the lower level.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

White professor Brian, whose impending tenure is shaky, is convinced the world is dominated by whites with a predisposition to racism, discrimination and prejudice, though he has a blind spot in his treatment of Ginny who believes he is treating her as the stereotypical Asian woman. And Valerie believes Jackson demeans her because she cleans houses while waiting for her big break.  The miscommunications and assumptions keep us in stitches and Chesley’s depiction of an actress called to audition the stereotypical angry, ghetto girl is uproarious (she’s been told the casting is “brave” because it’s diverse) as is Song’s representation of an Asian hooker and Wright’s mischaracterization of Ginny’s attempts to study Asians in his health clinic, as racist.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It all comes to a head when they converge at Ginny and Brian’s for a dinner party and Valerie sees that Brian, whom she has been trying to avoid since he told her she was not “black enough”, is one of the guests.

“It’s complicated,” Valerie tells Brian.  And indeed, it is – in the most hilarious way.

Highly recommended.

Through May 21st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.

A Raisin in the Sun ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 10, 2017 

Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Smack dab in the middle of the civil rights era, African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered on Broadway and it’s just as relevant today as it was in 1959.  This sensitive, often humorous, and searing drama based on African-American life in Chicago’s Southside ghetto still resonates, though today’s real world challenges may read differently.  As Lena (Lizan Mitchell), the matriarch of the family, tells her son Walter, “It used to be about freedom.”

(L to R) Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger and Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger and Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Walter (Will Cobb) is a 35-year old man trying to find his place in a white man’s world that offers little hope of his success.  His sister Beneatha (Joy Jones) is a radical feminist and pre-med student whose idea of defining her culture is to deny her American heritage and embrace her African roots guided by her adoring suitor, Joseph Asagai (Bueka Uwemedimo) a Nigerian transplant.  His wife Ruth (Dawn Ursula) is a loving wife and supportive mother to their boy, Travis (Jeremiah Hasty), and together with Lena they live in a modest apartment carving out a respectable existence on their meager salaries while toiling in service to wealthy whites.

(L to R) Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hansberry was ahead of her time, looping in issues of feminism with Ruth’s dilemma of whether to have an abortion to avoid the expense of another child, Walter’s disapproval of Beneatha’s desire to be in a man’s job, Beneatha’s desire to be a free spirit in a strict religious household, and Lena’s position as moral leader of the family.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger, Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger, Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Taken from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, the title is a metaphor for the family’s dashed dreams – the slow withering of hope.  As Walter says, after he has squandered the insurance money Lena’s late husband left them to pursue a better life, “I didn’t make this world.  It was given to me.”

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Tazewell Thompson guides a brilliantly interlocked cast to powerful performances – most especially from Mitchell who is the centerpiece of the play.  Her gestures and facial expressions are both economical and meaningful and her delivery is pure magic reflecting a time when Southern gentility could dominate with an iron hand in a velvet glove.

Donald Eastman’s 1940’s one room kitchen/dining/living room set in the round frame the humor, tough love and inspiration that take the family on a journey from poverty to the promised land.

Highly recommended.

Through May 7th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.