Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dead on

(Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is playing at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner.)
In spite of its mock-icy film noirish moniker, Dobama Theatre's production of Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is, in its own macabre and nutty way, the theatrical equivalent of a revivifying Bahama romp. While the latest crop of plays are busy embalming movies, yodeling Nihilism and treating obscurity as profundity, this 2008 play basks in the balmy breezes of a nascent, whimsical intellect. Here is reassuring hope that all terrific playwrights aren't named Tony Kushner or have passed away to either Hollywood, a nursing home or the great beyond.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" is founded on a stunning premise. We are in a cafe, where the continuous ringing of a cell phone enrages the woman at the next table. Within minutes, she discovers that the fellow has kicked the bucket. She appropriates his phone and, in the manner of an overaged girl scout, politely decides to answer the calls and pick up the pieces of the dead's man life. Running with this unlikely beginning, Ruhl creates a scary and ultimately hopeful fairy tale, with the phone acting as surrogate magic beans to take our heroine into a swirling fantasia. At breathtaking pace, we meet the dead man's fixated mother, emotionally stunted brother, cohorts in the illegal human-organ trade, his mistress and wife, and, in a darkly scintillating climax, the dead man himself in his afterlife apartment. Since "Angels in America" captured every critical Hosannah, every play that hopes to be hip invades a Lewis Carrollinian wonderland in one way or another. Ruhl is among the few playwrights using this style who does not descend into cacaphony, but rather, reaching back to an older and happier tradition, weaves blissful possibilities of redemption and self-knowledge into her narrative.

The most delightful aspect of the evening is confirming that all of our great actors have not headed to greener pastures. As the almost catatonically introverted Jean, the ever-radiant Tracee Patterson is given ample opportunity to perform her speciality of blossoming before our eyes. Oh, those petals. The eponymous corpse is played by Joel Hammer, who once again demonstrates his firm place as the region's Fred Astaire of rage and humbug. The manical gleam in his eyes alone could power downtown Cleveland Heights. For those addicted to Turner Movie Classics, Paula Duesing is the proletariat Ethel Barrymore. Just the sound of her smoky voice gives one a euphoric buzz. Unlike most ensemble casts, there's not a weak link here, which can be attributed to Scott Miller's alert direction.

At last, a play and production that have the electrifying immediacy not to be found on any kind of screen.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" runs through Nov. 21 at Dobama Theatre. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

Muses in my midst VII

(Thornton Wilder is shown as Mr. Antrobus in a 1948 production of his play, "The Skin of Our Teeth." Photo by Carl Van Vechten.)

Last night, I had a dream: What would this pantheon be missing if we couldn't recruit the gifts of Thornton Wilder, novelist, playwright, historian, scholar and actor? A stage manager to explain things and put everything in perspective. Pet dinosaurs. Dolly Levi eventually descending a staircase in our perpetual Harmonia Gardens making matches, singing Jerry Herman songs and giving Shirley Booth, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand et al a chance to browbeast crusty half-a-millionaires. Plus an uncanny ability to use a razor-sharp intellect to examine the wonder of a butternut tree in Grover's Corners and show us that "money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow." And we also need that gentle cynic to remind us of the following: "Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Muses in my midst VI

(Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont in "Duck Soup.")
Great comedy is based on anarchy, and there were no finer anarchists than the brothers Marx. However, to generate subversive sparks, you need a great target, and this is where we come to the divine Margaret Dumont, who's sure to bring some Tinseltown blueblood to my pantheon. Gleaming with pearls and self-importance, she was Hollywood's most enduring grande dame. The boys had it easy. All they had to do was be improbable and wildly funny. It is Margaret who had the tough job - feigning adulation and outrage at the same time as Groucho laid attack to her dignity. In its peculiar way, her nonsensical courtship with the grease-painted, sharp-tongued Lothario was as true and lasting a relationship as Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, and Death and Taxes. The thought of this handsome matron bearing her lorgnette as the doyenne of all things refined is an image of endearing self-mockery that has gotten this writer through many a cold night.

A kite that won't fly

(The cast of "The Kite Runner" at the Cleveland Play House. Photo by Alan Simons.)
Those whose kitsch reveries extend back to the days when Julie Andrews first skipped across the Alps may also shed a nostalgic tear at the thought of classic illustrated comic books. These highbrow dimestore treasures attempted the bizarre legerdemain of stuffing the complexities of world literature into the equivalent of an illustrated pamphlet.

If you still have a yen for this absurd brand of condensation, you may get a kick out of the Cleveland Play House's mechanical yet effective stage rendering of the best-selling novel and film, "The Kite Runner." Admittedly, Khaled Hosseini's book chronicling the journey of an Afghanistan immigrant atoning for his childhood betrayal of a devoted servant and companion is light years away from literature. However, it offered the aphrodisiacal charm of compelling pulp. The novel suffers from a schizophrenia that has plagued all of its incarnations. Its first half plays out like an Islamic variation on "To Kill a Mockingbird" dealing with youthful trauma and the difficulties of living up to the expectations of a larger-than-life, noble father. The second half oddly seques into the improbable swashbuckling you would expect out of an Indiana Jones adventure.

The verisimilitude of the screen helped the novel's improbabilities go down easier. But for the stage there's too much plot and the unfortunate presence of a narrator, all giving the feeling of an overcrowded airport, where if you look down at your watch for a second you may miss your plane, in spite of director Marc Masterson's honorable attempt at flight control. This is the Play House's second dalliance with translating a film to the stage. "The 39 Steps" remedied this situation by having its actors juggle the plot complications in the manner of jubilant circus performers playing out as an energetic spoof of the Hitchcock canon. Here, done straightforwardly in Matthew Spangler's busy theatrical adaptation, it seems to violate the natural Darwinian progression of stage to screen, creating something that's not fully equipped to survive on its own.

Under such challenging circumstances, the cast manages to impart an amazing amount of authenticity. As the heroic patriarch, Baba, Nasser Faris adds heartbreaking pathos as he goes from powerful Afghanistan millionaire to bedraggled immigrant trying to make a living selling trinkets in a California swap meet. But it would be nice to return to those halcyon days when drama was made of language instead of replications of cinematic edits and stood still long enough so you wouldn't need Dramamine.

"The Kite Runner" runs through Nov. 7 at the Cleveland Play House. For tickets, go to or call 216-795-7000, ext. 4.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Muses in my midst V

(James Whale and friend.)

For the multitudes wondering who would decorate my pantheon for Halloween, the answer may not be pure, but it is simple: English-imported James Whale. Few directors dispensed as many tricks and treats - for example, his magnificent camera spin around the great Paul Robeson as he claims immortality singing "Ol' Man River" in the 1936 film version of "Show Boat." For tricks, we have Whale's uncanny ability to turn what are supposedly horror movies into the ultimate, subversive '30s romps. His undisputed masterpieces are "Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein," "The Invisible Man" and "The Old Dark House." In all four cases, it's as if Oscar Wilde had teamed with Rod Serling and Bram Stoker to create a newfangled brand of tongue-in-cheek terror. Not until 1960, when Tony Perkins met Janet Leigh in "Psycho," would horror and humor make for such sublimely decadent bedfellows.

Once in love with Dorothy

(Dorothy Silver in "Wings." Photo by Kathy Sandham.)

In days of yore, when supernovas like Bette Davis ruled the box office, their home studios would periodically stick them in prestigious, uplifting epics chronicling the triumph of the human spirit. This, of course, would up the studios' cultural ante and guarantee them an Oscar to make up for lost revenue. Following the same principle, Beck Center has commandeered Dorothy Silver and put her in "Wings" - not to be confused with the silent film of the same name starring Clara Bow - between productions of "My Fair Lady" and the perennial "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Arthur Kopit's 1978 drama cunningly uses interior monologues to dramatize the cerebral imprisonment and devastation of a once-vital aviatrix. In that noble Warner Brothers tradition, it culminates in chin-held-high exhilaration as Emily, the play's heroine, unearths her most euphoric memory of walking on the wings of a soaring plane. Although well-wrought and earnest, Kopit's work has occasional whiffs of formaldehyde good intentions, and its relentlessness makes one yearn for the intrusion of a Keystone Kops pie fight.

However, there are extenuating circumstances that make this production imperative, and this is the aforementioned, all-too-rare appearance of Dorothy Silver. When a cultured friend of mine confessed he had never experienced a Silver performance, I berated him by pointing out that here is an omission as grievous as living in Jerusalem and never having worshiped at the Wailing Wall. He was kidnapped, and by the end of the play's 90 minutes, like all earthly beings, he was overwhelmed by Silver's incandescent projection of humanity. England has its Redgrave, the past has its Tandy and we in Cleveland have Silver. All three women show that beauty goes beyond ivory complexions and the promise of spring. The magic of Silver's acting lies in what Lillian Hellman's autobiographical "Pentimento" suggests: traces of the hopeful young girl peaking out from the present-day wrinkled visage.

Another lagniappe of the production is the welcome return of Derdriu Ring as the therapist. Ring, like Maureen O'Hara, seems to encapsulate all of Ireland in her red-haired feistiness. Watching these two major forces of nature together, we yearn for the roles that call out for their talents: Ring in a long line of fierce O'Casey and nimble-tongued Shaw heroines; and Silver in comedies and tragedies ranging from Dolly Levi to Samuel Beckett. But to return to Bette Davis: Don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars.

Beck Center presents "Wings" through Nov. 7. For tickets, call 216-521-2540.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Shavian trick or treats

As Barbra Streisand couldn't be bribed to sing, Clevelanders who need Clevelanders all head to the Shaw Festival. For it is just impossible to roam this haven of expertly crafted fudge and theater in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, without bumping into some dimly recalled book-club or locker-room compatriot. Conventional souls visualize strolling the aisles of the Shaw's three theaters in their seersucker shorts, fresh from their Fourth of July frolics. But those with an imagination should consider broadening their theatrical horizons by heading to this paradise in their fall trick-or-treat cashmeres. After all, you have the rest of October to experience Jimmy Stewart's rabbit-loving Elwood P. Dodd in "Harvey" or Oscar Wilde's naughty and loquacious aristocrats in "An Ideal Husband."

Also on display is the eponymous Irish bard's "The Doctor's Dilemma." As to the dilemma, don't be nervous: this is not the Shaw that Yeats referred to as a sewing machine "that clicked and shone, but the incredible thing was that the machine smiled, smiled perpetually" - i.e. this is not the purveyor of endless, battling points of view thinly disguised as characters to drive audiences into cerebral hemorrhages. Rather, "The Doctor's Dilemma" is the great Shaw of "Pygmalion," the Shaw who delivers magnificent paradoxes, vivid characters and the romance of rhetoric spun into poetry.

Just in passing, let me tell you what you missed: a wonderful rendering of Kurt Weill's "One Touch of Venus," put together with flawless archeology to bring back to life a time when songs were precious jewels shockingly placed in plastic, burlesque-like settings. It was perhaps not commercial enough for Broadway but ecstasy for those who care about lost nuances of the past.

A personal tip: If you're looking for the embodiment of a distant, pre-World War II England, where the muffins and scones approach divinity, the landlord and lady of Duncan-Quinn House Bed & Breakfast seem to have been sent by MGM central casting to represent those endearing stiff-upper-lip couples found in a multitude of British novels, ranging from Dickens to P.G. Wodehouse. I can't advocate highly enough for increasing the charm quotient of your trip by seeking refuge here. The owners, Peter and Jane Griffiths, confirm all our "Masterpiece Theatre" longings. To reach them, call 905-468-1171.

Next year: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." See you there.

For information about the Shaw Festival, go to

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Muses in my midst IV

(Irene Dunne in "Love Affair.")

Now that my pantheon has found its ideal director, composer and writer, it's time to start the casting process. We begin with an interesting breed known as The Great Lady. This kind of movie star - admired for their fashion sense, refinement and, above all, creamy noblesse oblige - went out of style after World War II. The most enduring and endearing of this extinct breed is Irene Dunne. Except for ax murderesses and villainesses, there was nothing that this soprano, comedian and tragedian couldn't render into silk. She was the perfect Magnolia in the great 1936 "Show Boat." She matched co-star Cary Grant twinkle for twinkle and innuendo for innuendo in "The Awful Truth." And in the late '40s, she approached the sunset of her career as a winsome teacher in "Anna and the King of Siam," as the ultimate Norwegian earth mother in "I Remember Mama" and even convinced the agnostic William Powell to be baptized in the evergreen "Life with Father." It seems a pleasing irony that several of her great roles were remade by the equally ladylike and talented Deborah Kerr. Dunne is one of the rare few who can make us swoon, giggle and weep in one movie, as she did in 1939's "Love Affair."

Not Wilde enough

(Richard Klautsch, left, plays Robert Chiltern and Laura Perrotta is Mrs. Cheveley in the Great Lakes Theater Festival production of Oscar Wilde's comedy, "An Ideal Husband." Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Frankly, the Great Lakes Theater Festival production of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" isn't all that ideal. At its best, it achieves a pleasing regional-theater competence. Director Sari Ketter has concocted an economical, highly stylized production that utilizes pastel-lit platforms, rather than the expected antique road-show paraphernalia. On these platforms, the company italicizes and spoofs Victorian starchiness in the manner of automated dress dummies programmed to be relentlessly clever while constantly ringing gongs. It all brings to mind a late 19th-century diorama in a fashion-museum display case. Fortunately, the evening has just enough grace notes to let us intuit Wilde's unfading roundelay of filigreed bons mots and cut-glass romantic intrigues.

There is, however, a melancholic underpinning to the experience that causes us to contemplate a major loss. After completing "The Importance of Being Ernest," one of the English language's most perfect comedies, the madcap Irishman's pen was forever silenced by an undecidedly ungay (in the old sense) gay (in the newer sense) sex scandal. It's akin to Tennessee Williams being forever stilled after the premiere of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Yet there are plenty of compensations. The remaining Great Lakes company seems to be coalescing. First and foremost is Laura Perrotta, sublimely cast as the exquisitely bad Mrs. Cheveley. Ravishing in burgundy finery, she vamps with the gusto of a Lillie Langtry siren. As Lady Markby, the ever-dependable Maryann Nagel has past the stage in her career of femme fatale and now is relishing the more seasoned status of dizzy matron. In last week's "Othello," David Anthony Smith showed his flair for villainy as a Cagney-gone-evil Iago. Here, as Victor Goring, he shows an equal suavity for high comedy playing on Wilde's insouciant verbal wit like a virtuoso xylophonist.

But something is amiss. To soar, Wilde needs effortless ebullience. In this production, you feel the sweat of conceptual exertion.

 Great Lakes Theater Festival performs "An Ideal Husband" through Oct. 30 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.