Laughing in the Dark: Ordinary Americansat GableStage
By Tony Guzman
The second entry in GableStage’s 2019 -- 2020 Season is the World Premiere of Ordinary Americans by playwright Joseph McDonough, a co-production of GableStage and Palm Beach Dramaworks, which opened this past December in West Palm Beach before moving down to Coral Gables. Directed by William Hayes, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director, Ordinary Americansimmerses us in the colorful world of early television and one of its first hit shows, The Goldbergs, which chronicled the travails and humorous idiosyncrasies of a Jewish family in the Bronx. Written, produced and directed by Gertrude Berg, The Goldbergs, which began as a radio program in 1929, was one of the first successful TV family sit-coms, and its enormous popularity made Berg one of the fledgling medium’s first stars.
Early on, we’re shown The Goldbergs in rehearsal and we’re introduced to some of the program’s zany characters -- and the only slightly less eccentric actors playing them. Everything appears to be going swimmingly (and humorously), until the name of Philip Loeb, the veteran actor playing Molly’s husband, Jake, turns up in “Red Channels,” a published report from the John Birch Society listing purported “communists.” Although Loeb’s “subversion” seems limited to his union activism -- he was a co-founder of Actors Equity -- and his efforts on behalf of Black civil rights, the pressure on Berg to fire her close friend and co-star rachets up to the breaking point. When The Goldbergs is finally cancelled, a desperate, blacklisted Loeb (who has a sick schizophrenic son to support) is unable to find work, and Berg, despite her valiant, concerted efforts, is unable to find sponsors and a new network slot for The Goldbergs. It’s Berg’s Herculean efforts to save her show, while remaining true to her friend, that Ordinary Americans focuses on.
As Gertrude Berg and her comic creation, Molly Goldberg, Elizabeth Dimon captures Molly’s exuberant vivacity, while eschewing the chance to chew up the scenery in Berg’s more dramatic confrontational moments. David Kwiat is truly masterful as Philip Loeb. He delivers a passionate performance that is the heart and soul of this first staging of McDonough’s play. In a number of “authority figure” roles, Tom Wahl, as is his wont, crafts fully-dimensional, humanized characters, rather than facile, cut-out caricatures. Patti Gardner is amusing as Molly Goldberg’s gossipy neighbor, Mrs. Kramer, and warmly believable as Fannie Merrill, Berg’s loyal “right hand” woman. Rob Donohoe is adept as a wide array of characters, ranging from the habitually tipsy actor playing “Uncle David,” to an imperious, doctrinaire Cardinal Spellman, whom a desperate Berg attempts to enlist in an effort to get Loeb’s name removed from the blacklist.
Michael Amico’s simple, utilitarian set design is brought to vibrant life by Steve Welsh’s vivid and fluid lighting design, as well as by the finely-wrought sound design by David Thomas, which incorporates snippets of period music, audio from 50’s sitcoms, and voiceovers very effectively. The shows melding of lighting and sound is particularly striking in the sequence depicting Philip Loeb’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee where, along with Kwiat’s powerhouse performance, the effect is riveting and deeply moving.
Ordinary Americans affords an entertaining and thought-provoking window on a dark time in American history when polarization and hysterical ill-will seemed poised to take over. Sound familiar?
Through February 16 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, 305-445-1119.
End of the Line: Skeleton Crew at GableStage
By Tony Guzman
While we may not happen to think about it, when we go to see a play, we’re hoping to be drawn into a convincingly depicted world where characters we come to care about fight like hell for goals we can identify with, all while facing daunting obstacles and tough odds. In this regard, Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau, currently playing at GableStage, checks all the dramatic boxes -- in spades.
Set in the break room of a Detroit car factory at the onset of the Great Recession and its attendant auto industry crisis, we’re the proverbial flies on the wall as three African-American auto workers and their sympathetic but constrained plant foreman deal with dire uncertainties and increasingly stringent company policies. This while more and more of the plant’s production lines are shut down.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time for any of them -- as if there’s ever a good time to go from seemingly secure, well-paid and proud of your role in a thriving economy to down-trodden and teetering on the edge on the edge of the underclass quagmire. UAW union rep Faye is one-year shy of the 30-year retirement threshold. She’s also recovering from cancer and living out of her car due to a gambling problem. Young Shanita is expecting a baby she’ll be raising alone. Rebellious Dez needs his paychecks to continue so that he can open his own shop and be his own man. Plant foreman Reggie has to somehow reconcile his loyalty to the working class from which he came with the inexorable, coldblooded demands of the corporate power structure upon which his status as a successful provider for his family depends.
Morisseau’s characters are vividly, convincingly drawn and hard to forget, and director Edson Jean moves the action along in a brisk, no-nonsense fashion that makes the inherent drama of the unfolding events all the more striking and affecting.
The part of Faye, especially, is one of extraordinary depth and resonance and Patrice DeGraff Arenas invests it with memorable insight and life. As Shanita, Rita Cole strikes just the right balance between inner city toughness and an almost poetic sensitivity. Jovon Jacobs is so good at conveying foreman Reggie’s agitation and stress, it’s all one can do to keep from running on stage and wiping the sweat from his brow. As Dez, Jean Hyppolite resists taking the edge off of his character’s sometimes off-putting arrogance and aggressiveness.
Talk about finding the universal in the particular. While presenting a deeply felt and convincing depiction of African-American blue collar workers, Skeleton Crew powerfully illuminates the dilemma of American capitalism itself. When you live under a system that puts greed and corporate profits over people, everybody’s life is inherently on the line. As Faye puts it, “Any moment one of us could be the other. One minute you passin’ the woman on the freeway holdin’ up the ‘will work for food’ sign. Next minute, you sleepin’ in your car.”
Skeleton Crew runs from July 20 - August 18, 2019 at GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables, FL 33134, Telephone GableStage Box Office 305-445-1119
Follow the Money: Kings at GableStage
By Tony Guzman
Currently on view at Joseph Adler’s GableStage is Kings by Sarah Burgess, a biting sendup of American electoral politics in the age of “Citizens United,” and of our woefully mercenary system of governance. One infers that the play’s title – Kings – refers to the wealthy elite who rule our country more or less according to their will, thanks to the stranglehold big money has on our realpolitik. As a playwright, Burgess is adept at focusing our attention on the moral rot eating away at our society by showing the pernicious forces at play in the form of skillfully drawn characters, situations and actions. A couple of seasons ago, GableStage presented Dry Powder, Burgess’ dramatization of the dynamics and rationales of predatory venture capitalism. Kings is the latest entry in an unfolding series that might be entitled Why We’re F*cked.
The play’s storyline follows the travails of Sidney Millsap, an African-American Gold-Star widow and tax code wonk who, after having won a special election to fill a vacant House seat in her Texas congressional district, struggles to maneuver the morally murky waters of power (read money) politics, while actually representing the interests of her constituents, rather than “cashing in.” We see Sidney in her party’s call center making her mandatory fundraising calls; at sundry fund-raising events, fending off the attempts of Kate and Lauren, two well-connected lobbyists, to get her to see “reason” and cave to the special interests they represent, etc. Particularly effective are scenes of Sidney in campaign mode, on the stump giving a speech and, later, debating the sitting Senator, John McDowell, who she’s decided to challenge for their party’s Senate nomination.
The danger in a political play like Kings is having characters who are exemplars, stand-ins for political positions, rather than compelling, flesh and blood people whose personal journey you become absorbed in. With Kings, everything hinges on getting a powerhouse performance from the actress playing Sidney Millsap. Happily, Karen Stephens knocks it out of the park. Charismatic and engaging, she touches all the bases thematically and emotionally, while being immensely entertaining to boot. Tom Wahl manages to be nearly as compelling in the less fleshed-out and developed part of Sen. McDowell. Leah Sessa and Diana Garle are bright and effective as the two lobbyists working on Rep. Millsap, angling to get her to “play the game.”
If anything, Kings presents a more disheartening picture than Dry Powder. In the latter, nothing precludes the possibility, at least, of moral behavior and common decency prevailing, whereas in the world depicted in Kings, the system is so ginned in favor of the moneyed interests that true democracy seems inevitably unattainable. That said, one does need to look at a problem and understand it in order to effect meaningful change. Pitchforks, anyone?
Through June 6 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. 305-445-1119.
Edge of Destruction: The Children at GableStage
By Tony Guzman
The third entry in GableStage’s 2018 – 2019 season is a compelling production of The Children by British playwright and screenwriter Lucy Kirkwood. Kirkwood’s work tends to deal with emotionally charged socio-political issues and The Children is no exception. The play’s scenario transposes the chain of events of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, to the eastern coastline of England. After an earthquake followed by a tsunami disables the local power plant and leaves it seeping radiation, Robin and Hazel, a retired couple, both of them former nuclear engineers at the plant, try to cling to some semblance of normalcy at their seaside cottage just outside the “exclusion zone.” Despite rationed water, sporadic electricity, and the need to keep a Geiger counter handy, the couple have soldiered on, Robin daily visiting what remains of their organic farm within the exclusion zone, and Hazel keeping to a vegetarian lifestyle and yoga practice. As the play begins, Rose, another former engineer at the plant, has suddenly reappeared in the couple’s life after decades. Considerable suspense ensues regarding her purpose in coming until, towards the end, she springs a sort of ultimate challenge on them – a call to come to terms with issues of culpability and of our responsibility to the future – the “children” of the title.
Angie Radosh (Rose) always brings poignancy to a role, whether wackily comedic, or deeply serious, as here. She gets you to care, and caring is certainly what The Children is all about on some level. Laura Turnbull has a gentle, winsome likeability that’s well-suited for the part of Hazel, who could easily become unsympathetic as a platitude-spouting salad-eater you’d like to strangle. David Kwiat (Robin), ever adept at crafting cerebral, meticulously constructed characterizations, is most effective here in moments of genuinely expressed pathos and flashes of bawdy humor.
The Children is a compelling meditation on mortality, morality, and the fragility of human life on our ecologically besieged planet. It compels us to process emotionally the consequences of mankind’s toying with the viability of life on earth by involving us in the lives of richly drawn, deeply envisioned characters – characters this production brings vividly to life thanks to an outstanding cast and the astute direction of Michael Leeds.
Through April 14, 2019, at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Avenue, Coral Gables. 305-445-1119.
Color of Money: White Guy on the Bus at GableStage
By Tony Guzman
The latest GableStage production, White Guy on the Bus by Bruce Graham, is an intellectually subtle and dramatically potent look at the seething anger, aggrievement, and racial resentment roiling under and sometimes breaking through the surface of American life.
The tale seems to start off innocently enough as we’re introduced to Ray, a wealthy bur sick-of-it-all financial advisor who’s made a career of helping the moneyed class “get away with” their fiscal shenanigans. His wife, Roz, is a hard-bitten, cynical, but still caring teacher at an inner-city school. Ray and Roz have taken a younger couple under their wing: Christopher, a student teacher hoping to get his proposal for a dissertation on how minority images are manipulated by the media approved, and his wife Molly, an idealistic but naïve teacher at an exclusive upper-crust academy. The other relationship portrayed on stage is between Ray and Shatique, a hard-working student nurse struggling to survive in the inner city with a young son and a brother in the penitentiary for murder. The relationship develops when, at first unaccountably, Ray starts commuting to work by riding the city bus, rather than driving his Mercedes.
For a while, the play seems little more than a polemical talkfest, with the white characters sipping wine and trading social commentary and pet peeves. Even the supposed developing friendship between Ron and Shatique seems, at first, like a rhetorical plant affording an opportunity for a rich white character to converse with a poor black one. But, towards the end of the first act, when Ray’s real motivation for taking the bus is revealed, the play suddenly lurches into a gripping tale of murder, revenge, and graphically depicted, onstage violence – all against a backdrop of a world where money rules.
Tom Wahl brings intelligence and depth to the central role of Ray and turns in a riveting performance. Mia Matthews is solid and convincing as Ray’s wife, Roz. Rita Joe is awfully impressive as Shatique. She strikes just the right balance between inner city grit and sensitive intelligence. As Christopher, young Ryan Didato is subtle and understated in the early going, which gives him someplace to go when things heat up. Whitney Grace is affable and engaging as the somewhat irritating do-gooder Molly. Director Michael Leeds helms the action with a deft, fluid touch.
White Guy on the Bus doesn’t offer any answers, but it offers a searing look into the dynamics of the racial and economic divide at the heart of the American dilemma.
Shots Fired: Gloria at GableStage
By Tony Guzman
The third entry in GableStage’s 20th Season at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables is Gloria, a relentlessly caustic satire on the inner workings of the contemporary American media – both print and broadcast varieties – and the soul-killing effects and it has on the increasingly beleaguered, under-appreciated status junkies that cling to its slippery ladder of success. The play, by Obie Award- winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and in it he depicts the play’s milieu and its denizens with sure, deft strokes. It’s an insider’s view. After graduating from Princeton, Jacobs-Jenkins worked as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker for several years, and Gloria’s Act One is set in the offices of a toney New York magazine.
It’s the morning after a ghastly housewarming party hosted by Gloria, a long-time copy editor who’s the office “freak.” She’s what psychologists specializing in group dynamics would call an “isolate” – someone excluded from the group’s cliques and friendship networks. No one from the office went to Gloria’s party save for editorial assistant Dave, a borderline alcoholic who seems to have gone primarily for the free drinks. In the Act One’s explosive conclusion, powerfully staged by director Joseph Adler, Gloria guns down two staff members – sparing her “friend” Dave – before shooting herself.
Acts Two and Three – which take us to a Starbucks in Manhattan eight month later, and on to the offices of an L.A. TV production company two year after that – expand outward like the slow-motion blast of a terrorist’s bomb, as the shooting’s survivors, rather than truly processing and deriving insight from that portentous event, strategize on how to cash in on the story via various memoirs-in-progress and TV mini-series proposals, all the while agonizing over how they’ll “come off” for their parts in the real life tale.
For Gloria, director Joseph Adler has assembled a talented, energized cast, most of them playing multiple roles which they maneuver convincingly. Katherine McDonald has a knack for playing cold-hearted villainesses, witness her sociopathic venture capitalist in GableStage’s Dry Powder a while back, but she humanizes the part of Gloria with a shading of aggrieved vulnerability that informs the play’s underlying theme. Clay Cartland infuses the part of troubled booze-hound Dean with an interesting complexity. Lai-Si Lassalle lights up the stage as the sassy and cynical assistant editor, Kendra. Sheri Wieseman disappears into three different characters with an artfulness that never draws attention to itself. Young Philip Andrew Santiago brings an infectious likeability to three different parts. Cliff Burgess so fully inhabits the part of harried fact-checker Lorin that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. All in all, GableStage’s Gloria is an example of superb ensemble acting and a compelling staging of a timely, thought-provoking play.
Through May 6 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. 305-445-1119.