Three Wise Guys

Three Wise Guys

Forming a theater company is a bold move; ending a successful one is even bolder. A hat tip, then, to Scott Alan Evans, a founding member of TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) who, over the past quarter century, has produced and/or directed more than 150 productions for the company. Having declared the troupe’s artistic mission accomplished, Evans takes a final bow with an uneven production of a new work, Three Wise Guys, which he not only directs, but also co-wrote, with screenwriter and occasional lyricist Jeffrey Couchman.

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TACT plans May 8 gala

The Actor’s Company Theatre (TACT) will present its spring gala on May 8 at the University Club of New York (1 W. 54th St.). The fundraiser will honor four women: Alice Ripley, Theresa Rebeck, Elizabeth McCann and Nelle Nugent. The event will begin with a cocktail reception at 6:30 p.m., followed by dinner, a live auction, and entertainment by singer Liz Callaway. TACT is a company of theater artists that reveals, reclaims, and reimagines great plays of literary merit, To purchase tickets for the 2017 Spring Gala, call (212) 645-8228 or email info@tactnyc.org.

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A Classic Comedy Conquest

Playwright Oliver Goldsmith found fame with his play She Stoops to Conquer in 1773, despite his rather unfashionable social reputation among London’s upper crust. Indeed, Goldsmith made it his life’s work to go against the grain, and She Stoops to Conquer exemplifies his disdain for Sentimental Comedy—a genre that was en vogue in the first part of the 18th century. Those saccharine works featured one-dimensional characters whose apotheosis was meant to instill what Sentimental playwright Richard Steele haughtily deemed “a joy too exquisite for laughter.” Cynthia Darlow as Mrs. Hardcastle and Richard Thierot as the trickster Tony Lumpkin. Top, from left: Jeremy Beck plays Marlow, Tony Roach is Hastings, and Thierot.

Goldsmith, on the other hand, was a champion of hearty laughter, which this play—when produced well—can stir up in droves. Compared to Sentimental characters, Goldsmith’s characters are imperfect, and therein likable. The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) is staging a slightly imperfect (and therein quite likable) production of Goldsmith’s important play, directed and adapted by Scott Alan Evans. The moments when this production shines most are when it is faithful to Goldsmith’s unique genre of “laughing comedy,” aimed to elicit belly laughs with physical ridiculousness and silly twists of plot.

She Stoops to Conquer presents a bouquet of delightful characters—two eligible ingénues, a couple of bachelors from the city, and a pair of meddling parents—all of whom are subject to the playful deceits of the puckish Tony Lumpkin (Richard Thieriot). The action takes place at Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle’s estate in the English countryside. Their daughter Kate (Mairin Lee) and their ward, Constance Neville (Justine Salata), are excited to receive two handsome young suitors (Charles Marlow and George Hastings, played by Jeremy Beck and Tony Roach) at the estate that evening.

Tony, who also happens to be Kate’s illegitimate brother, foils the plan when he intercepts the suitors at the village pub. Wanting to free himself of his mutually undesired betrothal to Constance, Tony concocts some of his signature meddling. Bringing the suitors to the estate, Tony leads them to believe that they are staying a night at an inn—and that the elder Hardcastles are actually innkeepers. This creates room for Kate, disguised as a barmaid, to woo the painfully shy Marlow, and for her cousin Constance to pursue her true love Hastings.

Hastings (Roach) attempts to woo Kate Hardcastle (Mairin xombeody). Photos by some to come.

Overall, the cast seems to enjoy themselves in this genre. Thieriot as Tony absolutely sparkles with his mix of conniving wit and lowbrow buffoonery. As his bumbling parents, Cynthia Darlow and John Rothman are adorably befuddled by their son’s antics. Things really get good after intermission, in which Tony sends his enraged mother and Constance on a 40-mile carriage ride to nowhere, and Mr. Hardcastle finally snaps after being treated like the help in his own home. The two sets of young lovers deserve even more spice, however, especially in light of their comic counterparts; perhaps that could be created with more emphasis on physical humor rather than delivery of language.

One distinct aspect of this production is its intermittent puncturing of the fourth wall. Evans’s direction leans heavily on this device, employing a considerable amount of direct audience interaction and unmasking of the usual theatrical dressings. For example, there is no backdrop to hide the actors as they await their entrances. Instead, they are visibly seated in two rows of chairs on either side of the stage, which is a raised platform. Admittedly, Goldsmith's original script contains plenty of asides—monologues that characters deliver directly to the audience—but by stripping the stage bare, Evans’s adaptation carries the meta-theater several steps further. The bits of audience interaction between scenes undermine the actors’ comic choices and interrupt the flow and style of the play. All in all, however, this nontraditional choice does not sink the production, which provides both a fun night at the theater as well as an opportunity to experience one of England’s most important and beloved plays.

TACT’s She Stoops to Conquer plays at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues) until Nov. 5. Tickets are available online here or by calling the TACT Member Hotline at (212) 560-2184 or (212) 947-8844.

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A Tawdry Tenement Tale

For several years David Staller’s Project Shaw has been presenting monthly readings of the plays of George Bernard Shaw, whetting the appetites of fans of the Irish socialist. Widowers’ Houses, written in 1892 and now presented by TACT and Staller’s Gingold Theatrical Group in a full production, is the first of Shaw’s 65 plays, and it is astonishingly topical.

The plot is simple enough. On a Rhineland holiday, young Harry Trench (Jeremy Beck) and his companion Cokane (Jonathan Hadley) encounter bluff, social-climbing businessman Sartorius (Terry Layman), traveling to introduce his daughter, Blanche (Talene Monahon), to continental culture. The playwright’s satiric instincts are almost immediately on display, as Cokane, attempting to show his worldliness, mispronounces words like “distingué” and orders stones in fractured German.

But the humorous jabs at the class-conscious British belie the darker thrust of Shaw’s play. Here the playwright takes on tenement housing, society’s indifference to the poor, and the ruthlessness of businessmen—topics that still sizzle. Trench and Blanche strike romantic sparks, but Sartorius, while favoring their marriage, requires that his daughter, raised middle-class, will be accepted into the aristocracy: Trench is a doctor with limited income, but his family includes nobility. Sartorius has oodles of money, and essentially means to buy his daughter’s entry into the upper class.

Shaw introduces strong class friction to the business, exposing Sartorius as ruthlessly oppressing the poor. Reviewing the books on his real estate holdings, he discharges his toadying overseer, Lickcheese (a crestfallen John Plumpis), because he has bought wood to fix a dangerous staircase in a tenement.

The plot takes a darker turn when Trench, having rejected financial support from his prospective father-in-law, finds himself entangled in the very oppression of the poor for which he disdains Sartorius. In 1892, critics attacked Shaw’s portrayal of the businessman, and Shaw responded in a letter to The Star: “They denounce Sartorius … as a monstrous libel on the middle and upper classes because he grinds his money remorselessly out of the poor. But they do not (and cannot) answer his argument as to the impossibility of his acting otherwise under our social system.” Shaw’s assessment is still so clear-headed that it will make audiences think hard, if not squirm.

Under Staller’s direction, the actors do splendidly. The youthful Beck is by turns romantically besotted, appalled at the social implications of his alliance with Blanche, and helplessly trapped by Darwinian capitalism—and he delivers some pratfalls as well.

Shaw is not above borrowing the high style of his countryman Oscar Wilde, either; a scene of serving tea is played by Beck and Monahon with a casual archness, as if they were in The Importance of Being Earnest.

“Sugar, Dr. Trench?” asks Blanche, serving.
“Yes, please.”
“One or two?” she asks.
“I rely upon your better judgment,” says Trench.
“Quite right.”

For her part, Monahon starts as the cool object of Trench’s affection and slowly reveals herself as a “nasty little shrew,” as Max Beerbohm called her in a 1909 review. There’s a moment early on when, following Sartorius’s discussion about Trench’s marriage to his daughter, Blanche enters and seems to give a con man’s nod to her father; they have both fixed on Trench, it’s clear, and, if Blanche is unaware of the tenement incomes, she is in league with her father to marry well.

There are hints, too, that Cokane is a closeted homosexual. Apart from the flamboyance with which Hadley invests the character, there’s a telling moment when Trench, seeking Cokane’s help in writing a letter, curls his lip and pouts flirtatiously with his friend—a savvy heterosexual using his appeal to wheedle his gay chum for a favor.

Here and there Staller gives a textual boost to Shaw—an early joke depends on knowing a period brand of water that Staller clarifies. Later he substitutes a generic reference for “the North Thames Iced Mutton” company; the latter surely plays more comically in Britain than here. It’s symptomatic of the care Staller has invested, although the climactic moment seems the director’s own. Trench, having acquiesced to a business deal proposed by a newly thriving and conniving Lickcheese, is suddenly lighted garishly by Peter West as he hears snatches of dialogue from earlier in the play. He’s like a fly caught in a spider’s web. It’s a more overtly cynical note than in Shaw’s original, but the playwright might still have approved.

TACT and Gingold's Theatrical production of Widowers’ Houses plays through April 2 at the Beckett Theater in Theater Row, 410 W. 42nd St. off Ninth Avenue. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $63.25 and may be purchased by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6262 or visiting www.telecharge.com.

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