As a former BBC comedy writer, award-winning playwright and graduate of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, Bathsheba Doran can turn a phrase as merrily as she can turn the screw – so it’s no surprise that her tightly crafted dramedy gifts an audience with two plus hours of solid laughs. Director Stella Powell-Jones, a veteran of numerous, stellar Off-Broadway productions, knows precisely where and how to take us on this bumpy ride, affectionately described in the playbill as a “love story”.
Shayna Blass (Charlotte) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.
In The Mystery of Love and Sex Doran offers up four angst-riddled characters for comedic dissection. Charlotte and Jonny are recent college grads on the cusp of nowhere. That they are besties since childhood is revealed, but what they struggle with is if a lifelong friendship translates to marriage. Lucinda (Emily Townley) and Howard (Jeff Still), Charlotte’s parents, hope so, and though their own marriage is on the rocks they have buckets of encouragement for the young couple who share everything but a bed.
Jeff Still (Howard), Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny), Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Jones takes us on a journey led by stereotypes, a liberal New York Jewish intellectual writer father, Howard, and his genteel southern Christian wife, Lucinda, fondly called ‘Lulabelle’. As mundane as that seems on the surface, it provides the anchor to a story that takes us far beneath what may be superficially assumed.
Jonny (Xavier Scott Evans), an English Lit major, and Charlotte (Shayna Blass) are not your average young couple beaming with the promise of the future and following a predictable path to parenthood. They have issues. Tons, as we soon see. Those involve, but are not limited to, race, sexuality, religion and jealousy. Hot topics and even hotter wellsprings for situational comedy. And in this age of torturous self-examination and serial introspection, they are in no way assured a shared future.
Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.
In their exploration of an honest relationship, the pair alternately mock and comfort each other, seeking a scapegoat for their insecurities. There’s a moment when Charlotte strips naked and offers herself up to the virginal Jonny. “We are in love, Jonny. We should get married,” she implores. But Jonny has secrets, and Charlotte is still trying to puzzle out her own. Confessing his newly discovered sexuality to Charlotte, Jonny reveals his dilemma. “It’s like ear wax. It’s in so deep you don’t know it’s there, but it makes everything fuzzy.”
Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.
It could prove maudlin, but assuredly it is not, especially as other people’s neuroses are a sure passage to the funny bone, and dysfunctional families have become comedic fodder for tweaking millennials.
Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.
When Howard tries to keep them together despite their differences he explains to Jonny, “Life is weird. Look at a fish.” Lucinda has her own issues. In trying to combat the stress of her family and quit smoking at the same time, she she snaps her fingers and blows into the air – an oft-repeated response delivered in delicious deadpan by Townley. There are scads of scathing one-liners and enough personality quirks to sentence the lot of them to a lifetime on a psychiatrist’s couch. But those are the funny bits, skillfully delivered by a fantastically confident, gleefully quirky, utterly lovable cast.
Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Highly recommended with a caveat. Wear loose clothing, lest you burst your buttons.
Through May 8th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
Thaddeus McCants (Avery) and Evan Casey (Sam) in The Flick. Photo by Margot Schulman
Playwright Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a series of conversations between three movie theater workers. You know, the silent, near invisible youth who sweep up the spilled popcorn and sticky candy wrappers between showings. In Baker’s imagining two 20-something young men, Sam played by Evan Casey, and the new hire Avery by Thaddeus McCants form an unlikely friendship. The third member of this incongruous wheel is Rose (Laura C. Harris), the projectionist, a green-haired, self-absorbed, utterly conflicted lost child who changes the reels in this repertory cinema. The trio form bonds, sometimes strong, sometimes tenuous, as do most people who work together. Maybe they’re light-hearted connections and maybe a romance blossoms, as it does here – but they’re just as complex and bittersweet as any other in the known world.
In this absurdist comic drama James Kronzer gives us a simple set – rows of red theater seats and a projection booth facing us, the audience, all the better to focus on the evolving relationships. As the men push their brooms and mops through the aisles, perfecting their technique, they begin to form a friendship of shared labor and mutual loathing of the theater’s owner, Steve, interrupted only by Rose, who Sam is obsessed with. To keep Avery at bay he tells him Rose is a lesbian and introduces him to their scam of robbing the till for “dinner money”. “It’s a tradition,” they insist.
Laura C. Harris (Rose) and Thaddeus McCants (Avery) in The Flick. Photo by Margot Schulman
Avery, a terminally shy college student between semesters, is a film geek with relationship issues. Little by little Sam begins to pull him out of his shell, by playing to his strengths – primarily his ability to connect movie stars through the game of six degrees of separation to which Avery is a near autistic savant. The young men bond over their love of 35mm film and their loathing of digital film. “I think the phrase digital film is an oxymoron,” Avery contends, drawing on Steven Spielberg’s continued use of 35mm film to make his argument.
Ultimately Steve sells the theater to a hard-nosed businessman who plans to go digital. At this point the new owner believes Avery (who is black) has been robbing the till, a scam Sam and Rose instituted and insisted Avery go along with. When they turn on him as a college elite to take the fall, Avery goes ballistic.
Director Joe Calarco divides the vignettes with sweeping sound track endings of the greatest known classic flicks – putting punctuation to each scene and affording us the time to reflect on the nuances of the unfolding relationships. It takes riveting performances by an excellent cast to pull off three hours of conversation. So settle in, sans popcorn, for an honest depiction of the curious art of the mundane.
Through April 24th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
Josh Lamon (Addison Mizner) and Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
The many reincarnations of Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show that began with a workshop in 1999 called Wise Guys, then opened in Chicago in 2003 as Bounce, and later in New York in 2008 as Road Show, might reveal a story of the vagaries of business in and of itself. But it wouldn’t be half as juicy, nor nearly as fun as the tale of Addison (played by the rivetingly hilarious Josh Lamon) and Wilson Mizner (played by the captivatingly suave Noah Racey), the musical’s main characters. Determined to see his show get the attention it deserved after four scripts, three titles and two out of town tryouts, Sondheim thought he’d finally gotten it right. Now it’s up to us.
But what’s not to like? Those who adore Sondheim will find his familiar chord changes and emotionally sophisticated lyrics in these eighteen numbers that take us from the brothers’ ordinary upbringing in California to a glamorous world of fame and fortune with all the trappings and pitfalls. Taking to heart their father’s dying words in the tune “It’s in Your Hands Now”, they set out to make their fortune – – at first in Alaska during the gold rush of the early 20th century – – where the brothers have the first of their many fallings out in a hilarious sleeping bag dust up and an emotional, and financial, parting of the ways.
Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner), Josh Lamon (Addison Mizner) and Sherri Edelen (Mama Mizner) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
It’s a tale as old as Cain and Abel, here sprinkled with the glitz of Palm Beach and the high stakes world of real estate, driven by two ambitious brothers who co-opted Barnum’s hucksterism and Ziegfeld’s showmanship to craft an empire along Florida’s Gold Coast.
Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Director Gary Griffin sticks to a bland stage set of wooden planks, a ramp, and an underutilized second story flanked by winding staircases, its plainness redeemed by an excellent cast, hilariously quirky souvenirs from Addison’s risky ventures in far-flung outposts – – from Hawaii where he buys a share in a pineapple plantation that promptly burns down to India where his gem emporium succumbs to a hurricane, and Hong Kong where his fireworks factory blows up to a Guatemalan coffee plantation upended by a revolution – – and a story with a rib-sticking plot.
When, after all his failed businesses, Addison returns home to his mother, played beautifully by Sherri L. Edelen, he is greeted by her immortalizing his ne’er-do-well brother in the song “Isn’t He Something”, which she sings to Addison from her death bed. Here’s a mother who clearly knows how to play two ends against the middle.
Stefan Alexander Kempski (Ensemble), Angela Miller (Ensemble), Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner), Jacob Kidder (Pianist), Bobby Smith (Ensemble), Matthew Schleigh (Ensemble) and Erin Driscoll (Ensemble) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Eight other actors handily play a slew of roles – – Erin Driscoll, Dan Manning, Bobby Smith, Stefan Alexander Kempski, Jason J. Labrador, Jake Mahler, Matthew Schleigh, and Angela Miller with Jacob Kidder on upright piano onstage for the duration of the show.
See it for Sondheim’s music, tons of laughs and a rollicking good tale of fame and fortune won and lost in the quest for the American dream.
Through March 13th in the MAX at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
Jennifer Cordiner (Graziella) and Max Clayton (Riff). Photo by Christopher Mueller
There’s a rumble going on at Signature Theatre as Director Matthew Gardiner reinterprets West Side Story in a production that breathes new energy into the story of two rival New York City gangs, the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) and the Jets (a local white gang). Based on Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet, the modern version of the two star-crossed lovers, was written and created nearly 60 years ago by four members of theatre royalty with music by the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, book by the highly esteemed writer Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Broadway great, Stephen Sondheim. The original production, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, debuted on the Great White Way in 1957, but its relevancy to modern day racial conflicts cannot be ignored.
MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria) and Natascia Diaz (Anita). Photo by Christopher Mueller
Parker Esse stays true to Robbins original choreography. Yet in placing the action on a rectangular stage no more than 20 feet from any seat, we are rewarded with the bonus of visceral energy and muscle coming from the dance and fight sequences. In this condensed setting it is easier to witness the intensity of the 30 dancers and singers who, surprisingly, share space with a 17-piece orchestra. Such intimacy makes character interaction immediate and explosive and renders the tender, forbidden romance between Maria (played winningly by the adorable Mary Joanna Grisso) and Tony (played by local actor Austin Colby), more heartfelt. Juxtaposed with the gang fights, it is riveting to the core. As Riff, the leader of the Jets, tells his gang founder Tony in their motto of solidarity, “Womb to tomb, worm to sperm.” It’s that close.
J. Morgan White (Snow Boy), Joseph Tudor (Baby John), Tony Neidenbach (Big Deal), Ryan Fitzgerald (Action), Kurt Boehm (Diesel) and Ryan Kanfer (A-Rab). Photo by Christopher Mueller
In this hyper-physical production, all movement must be tightly executed and solidly synchronized to work well in such close quarters. And it is. To expand the real estate, Esse makes use of a second story steel catwalk as tenement fire escape. Spanning three sides of the perimeter, the metal walkway clangs and clatters directly above the audience’s heads when the gangs are in hot pursuit. It is a highly effective, heart-poundingly sensory experience aswirl with romance and conflict.
The cast of West Side Story. Photo by Christopher Mueller
As an ensemble the cast is solid, though some gang members lack the credible machismo expected from street-hardened blood rivals. Max Clayton as Riff, stands out, as does, Natascia Diaz, as Anita, the spitfire who is Maria’s protective older sibling. Another captivating performer is dancer Shawna Walker in a secondary role as Pauline. She’s the one with the short blonde hair who has the movements of a gazelle and the fierce tenacity of a leopard. You can’t miss her. And not to be overlooked is the charm of J. Morgan White as Snowboy, who has a scene stealing dance moment in Act Two in the number “Gee, Officer Krupke”, and Maria Rizzo as Anybodys, the androgynous Sharks’ gang groupie. Notwithstanding the humor, the artistry of the dancers and the sweep of the memorable score, there is an important message here – one of tolerance, inclusion, and hope told through such classic songs as “Something’s Coming”, “Tonight”, “Somewhere” and “America”.
Austin Colby (Tony). Photo by Christopher Mueller
Through January 31st, 2016 at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
As part of this fall’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, Director Joe Calarco commissioned American playwright Sheri Wilner and lyricists Julia Jordan and Adam Gwon to write Cake Off – – an original musical. What they came up with is a musical comedy, so off-the-wall sidesplitting that I’m still trying to catch my breath.
Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman
The storyline derives from a nationally known baking competition which in 1996, when the prize money jumped to $1 million, was won by a man for the first time. Sponsored by the ever so slightly altered company name of Millsbury, the plot centers around two competitors, Paul Hubbard (Todd Buonopane) and Rita Gaw (Sherri Edelen), and one emcee from hell, Jack DeVault (Jamie Smithson does triple duty as former contestants Lenora Nesbit and Nancy DeMarco).
Rita is a divorcee and three-time finalist whose talent derives from an unrequited career in chemistry. A science nerd in the art of baking, she lives vicariously through her doctor-to-be daughter.
Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) and Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman
Newcomer Paul has chosen his 12-year old son Wyatt’s (IanBerlin) favorite cake recipe, Chocolate Junior Mints Cake, but becomes tormented with beginner’s angst, “I’ve never been a winner, I’m in the ‘Average Hall of Fame’,” he tells Rita, hoping to convince her he’s a better man than the personal trainer his wife has run off with. Rita just wants to prove to her five kids and deserter husband that she’s more than just a housewife and mother. They bond after Rita ignores contest rules to bail out his baking faux pas, and together they rhapsodize about their perfect ingredients in the number “Round One”.
Things heat up, and not just the ovens, when Jack snubs Rita to shower Paul with plenty of live air commentary as the event becomes a battle of the sexes. “This is a TV show,” Jack warns Rita. “They can’t taste the cake!” In “Be a Little Sweeter” veteran baker Lenore cautions Rita that the judges are looking for a telegenic personality something her legendary Roasted Apple Cake can’t overcome. That, and the fact that she’s a woman.
(l to r) Jamie Smithson (Jack DeVault) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) // Jamie Smithson (Jack DeVault) and Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw). Photo by Margot Schulman
Designer Jason Sherwood sets the stage with back-to-back stoves to mimic the layout of the famed bake-off as Rita and Paul measure and mix their delicious creations in a frantic rush to beat the clock.
Jordan and Gwon’s lyrics are catchy, quirky and even tender when it calls for it. But the real winners are Edelen whose voice and comedic timing are reminiscent of Lucille Ball, Buonopane who bookends her seamlessly, and Smithson whose extensive vocabulary of facial expressions is mind-altering.
Mix in a few cups of Erma Bombeck’s feminist domesticity with Fannie Flagg’s heartland hilarity, add some candy sprinkles, chocolate frosting and fourteen catchy tunes, and, dare I say it, you’ve got a recipe for success.
Highly recommended if you want to laugh your buns off!
Through November 22nd at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.