A WILDER CHRISTMAS

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Written by Thornton Wilder

Directed by Dan Wackerman

Featuring James Beaman, Victoria Blankenship, Merissa Czyz, Brad Fryman, LaMar Giles, LaWanda Hopkins, Michael Sean McGuinness,  Kristin Parker, John Pasha, Jeremy Russial, Barbara Salant, Gael Schaefer, Anna Marie Sell, Rafe Terrizzi, Barbra Wengerd  and Giselle Wolf

Before OUR TOWN won him a Pulitzer (and a place on the syllabi of countless grade schools), Thornton Wilder experimented with shorter, meta- theatrical pieces that chronicled the changing social landscape of the early 20th Century. As this opulent, if uneven revival proves, Wilder was deeply attuned to the rhythms of a society in which automobiles, railroads and factories energized the national self-image while simultaneously trampling over tradition and increasing the geographical and ideological distances between generations.

Said to have influenced the famed breakfast table scene in “Citizen Kane”, THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER telescopes 90 years in the life of the prosperous Bayard family into 35 minutes. The setting remains fixed, but the shifting  mood and carriage of the characters indicates that significant blocks of time have elapsed between scenes. The first holiday banquet takes place in an optimistic, frontier America, where Mother Bayard recalls a time when Indians lived on the land that now contains the house. A few Christmases later, her son Roderick has launched a successful business. He and his wife Lucia soon have children, Charles and Genevieve. As death (represented by a luminous gate at upstage) inevitably claims some family members, Charles grows into manhood, takes over the Bayard firm and marries his sweetheart Leonora, while Genevieve struggles to find a purpose in life. As a new generation rises, modern warfare, college education, and Jazz Age innovation replace the staid life of a small town and family business. The young depart for brighter prospects and the house grows colder and emptier, a relic of an era of simpler aspirations.

PULLMAN CAR HIAWATHA turns the microcosm of a Chicago-bound sleeper car into a spiritual journey. Like OUR TOWN, the play is narrated by a Stage Manager who interacts with the public, even calling on audience members to read passages of poetry and history. The passengers and staff of the locomotive  represent a cross section of society, each lost in a personal reverie. One woman pores over her Christmas gift list, a doctor peruses a medical journal, a regular guy reads a pulp fiction magazine, a mentally ill woman is calmed by her nurse, etc.  One of the travelers, Harriet, falls ill as she rests in a separate cabin from her husband. The doctor is urgently summoned, but to no avail. As she passes into the afterlife, figures from the Bible and Greek mythology attend Harriet’s final judgment. Looking down on the heartland from up above, Harriet sees at last the meaning that was there all along, easy to miss as she rushed through life. The infinite resides in the minutiae of daily existence.

Visually, the production is topnotch. Marianne Custer’s costumes, Nelly Reyes’s prop designs and Harry Feiner’s scenic and lighting design evoke the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and others who, like Wilder, saw nobility and promise in America’s fecund fields, booming industries and determined citizenry.  Quentin Chiappetta’s lyrical music and sound design eases the show’s transitions of time and space. Director Dan Wackerman effectively blends the ethereal with the commonplace in HIAWATHA. He is less successful in THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER, which, despite its title, feels a bit rushed. The actors nail the technical aspects, such as the period accents and the physicality of aging, but rarely get the opportunity to breathe within their roles. The audience would be better able to invest emotionally in the fates of the characters if they would linger in their struggles long enough for us to get to know them.

A WILDER CHRISTMAS continues through January 10, 2016 at the Theater at St. Clements, 423 W 46th St (at 9th Avenue), New York, NY 10036. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/2772

 

2 ACROSS

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Written by Jerry Mayer

Directed by Evelyn Rudie
Out-of-work adman Josh (Kip Gilman) isn’t the first person to swear at Will Shortz. For over 20 years, the wickedly clever cruciverbalist has challenged and confounded those brave enough to enter the daunting intellectual thicket known as The New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Like many puzzle enthusiasts, Josh gets a few clues right, then finds the whole enterprise too daunting and gives up. Not so with circumspect psychologist Janet (Andrea McArdle). In her view, a quitter never wins.

The two discover each other’s differences – and a few surprising commonalities- during a chance encounter on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train. It’s early morning and there are no other passengers in their car. Janet’s lost in her own troubled thoughts, but given their shared penchant for puzzles, and Josh’s innate yenta-like nature, the two soon get to talking. Significantly, Janet does the crossword with a pen, carefully thinking her answers through before making a mark. Josh jots things down in pencil, believing errors can always be rectified. Opposites attract, but Janet is understandably hesitant to jump into a relationship with a total stranger. This leaves Josh with the challenge of winning her over in only ten or so BART train stops. If he reads the clues carefully, he just might have a chance.

Given the show’s constraints of time and space, it’s only natural that a few contrivances are needed in order to steer the story to its destination. Yet the exposition rarely feels forced, and the characters have more dimension than the  romcom cliches that usually accompany this type of premise. Playwright Jerry Mayer endows Janet and Josh with complicated lives, and the script touches, albeit lightly, on real issues like career regret and strained familial relationships. Direcor Evelyn Rudie keeps the action flowing convincingly in confining space of the subway car, while Gilman and McCardle bring buoyancy and charm even to the play’s more somber beats.  The production’s only major problem is technical one: the actors are miked in a way that feels tinny and artificial. Amplification is a necessary evil in today’s theater, but in a naturalistic presentation, the audience should never be aware of it.

2 ACROSS continues in an open run at St. Luke’s Theatre , 308 West 46th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues).  Tickets, Telecharge.com 

 

GLUTEN!

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Written by Stephen Kaliski

Directed by Stephen Kaliski & Amanda Holston

As in a 1950’s sci fi movie, the exclamation point in the title of Stephen Kaliski’s dystopian satire signals the arrival of a frightening new era. This time around, though, the menace of the moment isn’t a swarm of giant insects or a horde of hostile aliens, but the pathogens found in the very food we eat and in the air we breathe. Like all futuristic stories, it’s really a comment on its own time, and GLUTEN! uses hyperbole to highlight the absurdities of our purity-obsessed culture.

Newlyweds Copious Fairchild (Jeremiah Maestas) and Hibiscus Van der Waal (Shawna Cormier) have just moved into the Goldilocks, a state-of-the-art, sterile, “character-free” new home. They subsist on a diet of Goji berries and calming tea, and are required to wear hazmat suits when they go outside. Copious and Hibiscus are trying for a baby, but sex (for that matter touching of any kind) is entirely off limits to this germaphobic generation. Thankfully Copious lives up to his name as he saves his emissions in a jar (in a clever twist, he watches Paula Deen style high-cal cooking shows instead of porn). But  the young couple have barely begun to practice contact-free fertilization when a monkey wrench is thrown into their perfectly ordered world. Copie’s mom Linda (Maggie Low) drops by (gasp!) unannounced. As if that spontaneity weren’t anathema enough, Linda has brought a stranger along. Maple (Roger Manix), is the leader of a new movement, one in which people live as they did before the cataclysmic event known as the Great Correction changed the way people do things. Hibiscus seems curious about the wider world, but Copious is appalled at the prospect of relocating to the wasteland known as The Suburbs. Generational differences heat up and values are called into question– until at last Copious pays attention to his own yen for a more authentic life.

Much of the play’s humor is visual, and the design team rises to the show’s quirky requirements. The hermetically sealed world of the story is neatly evoked by Jason Sherwood’s traverse set design and Jessica Greenberg’s lighting. William Mellette’s costumes highlight the ideological differences between the wooly elders and the puritanical youth.  Matt Sherwin’s sound design gives the Goldilocks a mind and personality that lampoons the increasing role of artificial intelligence in modern life.

The ensemble, which also includes a versatile Josh Tobin in multiple roles, mine the comic possibilities of the script’s jargon-rich dialogue while maintaining a truthful emotional core beneath the blather. Kaliski and co-director Amanda Holston, for the most part, keep the pacing tight. The action stalls a bit in the show’s midsection, and the emotional turnarounds that drive the plot could be delivered at a more rapid clip. Nevertheless, the play’s startling, darkly hopeful ending makes a timely and touching point. This world is a hazardous place: increasingly so, if the headlines are to be believed. And yet we have to live our lives, embrace one another while we’re here, and somehow try to make sense of it all.

GLUTEN! continues through December 5, 2015 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison, New York, New York. Tickets: 212-279-4200