Follow the Money: Kings at GableStage
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 16 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.

Worthy Testament: Indecent at GableStage
By Tony Guzman

Currently on view at GableStage is an inspired, heartfelt staging of Indecent by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. The play, which won two Tony Awards, deals with the inception in Poland in 1907 of the play God of Vengeance by the Yiddish author, Sholem Asch, and its subsequent, tempestuous performance history as it tore through Europe – only to be shut down and the entire company arrested once it opened, in English translation, on Broadway in 1923.  

God of Vengeance was quite the shock-fest in its time: the story of a Jewish brothel owner whose daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes, it features a lesbian love scene set outdoors in a rainstorm, and the enraged brothel owner throwing a Torah across the stage. Indecent is a story of artistic passion and integrity holding out against all odds. It presents an important, still relevant, chapter in theatrical history that almost nobody except historians of Yiddish theater would even know about if it weren’t for Vogel’s play.  

One thing you must know about this show is how enormously entertaining it is, apart from its intriguing subject matter. Billed as a play with music and choreographed by co-director Julie Kleiner, Indecent features an on-stage klezmer band who are seamlessly integrated into the action. It plays like a musical revue or floor show incorporating highly-charged dramatic vignettes. They sing! They dance! They outrage pious proprieties!

All of this GableStage production’s talented cast play multiple characters except for Avi Hoffman who plays Lemml, the Yiddish theater troupe’s stage manager. Lemml serves as a sort of master of ceremonies for the show, and Hoffman brings a poignant sincerity to the part. Particularly engaging are Hannah Benitez and Kelly Pekar, who shine in a variety of ingénue parts, including Rivkele and Manke, God of Vengeance’s star-crossed lovers. Alex Alvarez is compelling playing a succession of theatrical luminaries including Sholem Asch, Morris Carnovsky, and Eugene O’Neill. David Kwiat portrays the legendary actor Rudolph Schildkraut, among other characters, and Irene Adjan enlivens an array of parts. Peter Limbach convinces in each of his characterizations, and he’s especially good as a scandalized rabbi denouncing God of Vengeance.  

Particularly memorable is Indecent’s ending, which will certainly stay with you. In a marvelous and moving coup de théâtre, Vogel closes her play with a glimpse of the “rain scene,” the lesbian dalliance amidst falling rain of which the audience has heard so much by this point in the play. It’s presented in the original Yiddish, no translation needed. Staged with elegant simplicity by director Joseph Adler, it’s a thing of searing beauty and ecstatic joie de vivre – a fitting tribute to the rich legacy and spirit of Yiddish theater.
Through February 24 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, Florida, 305-445-1119.

He Said / She Said:Actually at GableStage
By Tony Guzman

GableStage kicked off its 2018–2019 Season with a staging of Actually, the recently-premiered play by up-and-coming playwright Anna Ziegler, in a production artfully directed by Gail Garrisan. Ziegler’s play manages the nifty feat of taking a topic which, by now, most of us are soul-weary of – sexual assault – and turning it into an engrossing evening of theater that stays with you.

The story involves the lead up to and the aftermath of a drunken coupling one night between two Princeton freshmen: Tom, Black, from an under-privileged background, something of a babe magnet; and Amber, Jewish, privileged, and insecure, especially regarding sexuality. When Amber mentions to a dormmate that she was “practically raped,” this sets off a chain of events culminating in the convening of an administrative tribunal tasked with determining if what happened between Amber and Tom was consensual or actually a case of rape.

The story unfolds via alternating, deeply revealing monologues which, Rashomon-like, offer different takes on what happened and, now and then, converge into brief vignettes which are acted out.      

If I were to hazard Actually’s theme, I’d say that it’s about how we punish and fail each other each other because of forces that are much greater than ourselves and largely beyond our control. But not totally so – and that’s the veiled part at the core of Ziegler’s play.

Joshua Jean-Baptiste is genuinely impressive as Tom. Playing out of his own reality, he makes Tom’s stories vividly real and affecting. He holds the stage with an easy-going naturalness and effectively conveys Tom’s intelligence, charm, simmering grievances and underlying angsts.

Maria Corina Ramirez is poignant, endearing even, as Amber. There’s a Woody Allen quality to the part of Amber as written – the nebbish regaling us with their foibles and insecurities, amusing us with clever one-liners – but Ramirez makes it something rather more than comedy skit material, and she’s quite moving, especially towards the end.

Actually’s storyline has no real resolution in the sense that we never learn what the verdict of the tribunal was, and so the question of whether Amber and Tom’s coupling was in fact a case of rape (officially speaking anyway) is left hanging, along with the inquest’s effect on Amber and Tom’s lives. Instead, the story circles back on itself to the initial flirtation that prompted the fateful coupling. So, we end up back at the beginning, but, with the insights the play provides, seeing with wiser eyes, which is not a bad thing to do.
Through December 23 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Avenue, Coral Gables, Florida. 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.  

​​Sins of the Father: "I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,"at GableStage
By Tony Guzman

Currently on view at Joseph Adler’s GableStage in Coral Gables is I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard by actress/playwright Halley Feiffer. It’s a gripping dramatization of how parents can screw up their kids that’s also a scathingly sardonic sendup of the ego-maddened world of playwrights and actors.

Writers love to write about themselves and their travails – a topic that fascinates them endlessly – and I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is certainly a worthy entry in that time-honored canon: a play about how a playwright came to write a play. But there are powerful, universal themes coursing through it, like how the inability to forgive blights lives, and how hardheartedness reaps karmic retribution.

The play introduces us to Ella Berryman, an insecure aspiring actress/playwright, and her father David, a successful playwright loosely (one prays very loosely) patterned after the playwright’s father, renowned satirical cartoonist and sometime playwright Jules Feiffer. As portrayed, David is a foulmouthed, wine-quaffing, pot-smoking, cocaine-sniffing curmudgeon who rails against his daughter’s lack of faith in her talent, his theatrical rivals and, especially, the critics, whom he despises with a passion most unseemly, it seems to me.

As a youth, David was driven from his home by his hard-hearted father’s rejection of his son’s artistic aspirations. David himself is sort of the obverse when it comes to his daughter. He champions her nascent career in theater, but is so heard-hearted in every other regard that he drives Ella out of his home. It’s sort of a principle of “infernal recurrence” at work.   

By the by, when the exhortation “Pray for him” is introduced in Act One, it’s clearly in a mocking, sarcastic sense, much as a Southerner might say, “Bless his heart,” meaning, “What a hopeless boob.” And so, the play’s title, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, is clearly sardonic, especially since the first act ends with David, and the second acts with Ella, in extremis, desperately praying to God for help.

Tom Aulino is compelling as David – which is good since David has 80% of the dialogue in Act One. Throughout that act, he artfully maneuvers the edge of being over the top without falling over it, and his performance in Act Two, when David comes to the Ella’s theater after her show’s opening, broken and contrite, desperately seeking to-reestablish a bond with his daughter, is about as heartrending as anything you’re likely to see in theater.

As Ella, Rebecca Behrens demonstrates a marvelous ability to get in touch with her feelings, and to communicate those feelings to an audience. Her silent reactions are often more eloquent and affecting than the dialogue being spoken – even witty, involving dialogue such as you find in this play.

All in all, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard serves up an engrossing tale with perceptively drawn, vibrant characters, as well as supplying a heaping helping of food for thought that lasts long after the play’s running time.

Through July 8 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. 305-445-1119.

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 tony 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 villianesses, 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.

"If I Forget"

A Compelling Family Drama at GableStage
By Tony Guzman

As the second entry of its 2017 – 2018 season, GableStage is presenting an engrossing staging of If I Forget by Steven Levenson. In this play, Levenson dramatizes the conflicting currents in Jewish American politics and thought at the start of the 21st century by deftly translating them into the passions, foibles, challenges and dilemmas of a family of American Jews, the Fischers.

The clan’s paterfamilias, Lou Fischer, is a widowed WWII vet who participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Lou’s recounting of what he saw at Dachau, as enacted by the always engaging character actor (and character) George Schiavone, provides one of the play’s most moving moments.

The son, Michael Fischer, is a brilliant, but controversial, Jewish Studies professor on the cusp of being awarded tenure. He has written a book called Forget the Holocaust, of all things, in which he argues that the memory of the Holocaust and American Jewry’s preoccupation with supporting the state of Israel at all costs has leveraged a transition from the traditionally progressive, leftist cast of Jewish politics to an unholy alliance with conservative politics and the far right. The book sets off a fire storm, of course, which threatens to destroy Michael’s life, basically.

By play’s end just about everyone is walking the edge. Much of the conflict centers around the final disposition of an urban property that’s been in the family for generations. It’s now the site of a store rented out to a Guatemalan family, but the area’s impending gentrification makes it a potential goldmine – and a bone of contention within the Fischer clan. Eldest daughter Holly eyes it as the home of an interior design business she’s been daydreaming about.  Youngest daughter Sharon has become intimately involved with the Guatemalan family (rather too intimately, it turns out), and she adamantly opposes displacing them. Both Michael and Holly’s husband Howard see salvation in the windfall attendant to the sale of the store. The tension and conflict mounts. Even Lou, in a post-stroke second act stupor, rouses to protest the sale of the ancestral property: “No! No!”

(The symbolically inclined may see the Fischers’ “ancestral land” as a metaphorical stand-in for the Holy Land, inconveniently populated by Third World “interlopers.”)

Joseph Adler has assembled and skillfully directed a terrific cast. With his commanding stage presence and powerful voice, Gregg Weiner is cogent and compelling as the intellectual firebrand Michael. Margery Lowe is endearing and affecting as idealistic, vulnerable Sharon. Patti Gardner uses her wry comedic sense to deliver on Holly’s laugh-out-loud jibes and digs. Accomplished “outside-in” actor David Kwiat turns in a deftly constructed and executed Howard. Ame Livingston is winsome and relatable as Ellen, Michael’s shiksa wife. And as Holly’s sullen and uncommunicative son from a prior marriage, young Matthew Ferro has a nice moment towards the end.

All politics aside, this staging of If I forget can be savored as a contemporary example of a well-made play expertly executed. And if you want to dive into the underlying politics – which I don’t – hoo boy! Your brains should fall out.               

Through March 4 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. 305-445-1119.

​​Becoming Dr. Ruth at GableStage
ByTony Guzman and Liz Potter

GableStage, South Florida’s premier regional theater, has just kicked off its twentieth season with a vivid staging of Becoming Dr. Ruth by playwright Mark St. Germain. This one-woman illuminates the improbable and, ultimately, inspiring life story of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the diminutive dynamo who became a media darling as America’s leading advisor on all things sexual. 

The story of Dr. Ruth Westheimer is inspirational and surprising. Born in Frankfurt, Germany to a loving family of Orthodox Jews, she became an orphan fortunate to escape the Holocaust via Kinderstransport, only to work as a child servant in Switzerland. As a young woman, she traveled to Palestine, toiled in a kibbutz and volunteered as a trained sniper. During three marriages, a few romances, and starting a family, she relocated to Paris and New York City, while struggling to become educated and earn a doctorate.  Almost by chance, Dr. Ruth becomes an “instant celebrity,” hosting radio and television shows, and writing best sellers on all matters sexual.  We learn what sets Dr. Ruth apart is her sincere to desire to teach and help, with gentle humor and honesty in speaking to an American audience hungry for common-sense, non-judgmental advice regarding our sexual hang-ups and quandaries.

All this is convincingly portrayed by the charismatic and talented Ann O’Sullivan, who, with her dead-on accent and mannerisms seems to “channel” Dr. Ruth. O’Sullivan simply and unaffectedly conveys Dr. Ruth’s profound humanity, courage, and the indomitable positive attitude of a “tiny woman”

who prizes “Family first,” in the face of losing her parents to the Holocaust, and recent loss of her beloved third husband. GableStage is certainly fortunate to have Ms. O’Sullivan, an established theatre, TV, and movie star, gift us with her perceptive and moving portrayal, and in Joe Adler’s fluid staging, the play’s 95-minute running time flies by as we get increasing immersed in and moved by  the fascinating, indomitable Dr. Ruth.
*** Special treat: Dr. Ruth is in town and is expected to attend the Thursday, November 30th performance at 8 pm.

Call GableStage Box office at 305-445-1119 for tickets.  Becoming Dr. Ruth at the GableStage theatre in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables, runs through Dec 23rd, with Thursday, Friday, Saturday performances at 8 pm, and Sunday performances at 2 pm and 7 pm.