Penguin Rep Theatre. Stony Point, N.Y. Through Oct. 6. PenguinRep.org
Talk about creating a palpable sense of place through the artistry of stagecraft. As soon as I took my seat and saw the set for Michael McKeever’s play, Mr. Parker, I immediately assumed the funky little apartment, capped with a generous skylight and furnished in the spirit of Bohemian bonhomie, was a Greenwich Village artist’s studio.
It belonged to Jeffrey McCabe, an avant garde artist of growing renown who died several months prior. At curtain rise, it’s occupied by his 54-year-old boyfriend of 30 years/husband of six years, Terry Parker, and by Terry’s bar pickup from the previous night, bartender and Uber driver Justin (who’s half Terry’s age and whose name Terry initially has trouble remembering.)
As Justin, actor Joe Chisholm makes a memorable entrance, in nothing but his bikini briefs. He and Derek Smith’s Terry catch fire on stage right away, creating a chemistry that quickly rivets your attention on every word Mr. McKeever has written.
Terry still is struggling with the loss of the love of his life, made more wrenching by his approval that Jeffrey be taken off life support, and by another connection he has to Jeffrey’s demise. Meeting Justin is the first glimmer of happiness he’s known in many months.
Mr. McKeever uses the setup to comment on a range of interesting, relatable topics. There’s the generation gap that is a source of friction between the men. There are familiar artifacts of modernity -- notably the ubiquitous, anti-social use of cellphones, something Jeffrey used in his art but never used on his person. Dating apps are dealt with, too, as Terry tells Justin, “Sex is just a swipe to the right.”
The pair are enjoying each other, with the occasional differences to be expected. Justin is a font of Manhattan lore that entertains Terry. Joe Chisholm is always ingratiating and fun to watch as he bounces around the apartment, enjoying life with his new sugar daddy.
SONNY BOY FRIEND
Into the picture comes Jeffrey’s sister Cassie, brought to vivid life with a pungent performance by Mia Matthews. She’s all fire-breathing business, which plays out as a theatrically ripe counterpoint to Terry’s proclivity toward procrastination. She also casts a wary eye toward the new boy in Terry’s life who could be his son.
Through Cassie, the playwright expresses a crisp cynicism about how art is valued, and, for that matter, what we consider to be art in the first place. She says that her brother “took everyday life and made people believe it is art.” And was paid handsomely for it.
This is a very well-balanced production in every respect, the hallmark of savvy director Joe Brancato, who also is founding artistic director of Penguin Rep. He has a keen eye for what works and for what audiences like, and he unfailingly sends them away not only satisfied but impressed.
Mr. McKeever’s script scores multiple points with its dramatic flourishes, its social commentary, and its smoothly crafted dialogue that somehow manages to be both leisurely in its authenticity and yet pointed, no mean feat.
The acting is first-rate, too. At its core is Derek Smith, who starred on Broadway in The Lion King for 10 years as Scar. He beautifully blends gravitas and vulnerability, owning the audience from the outset with an emotionally true, finely shaded monologue. His stage presence has a balletic fluidity that I found mesmerizing. Whether speaking or not, Mr. Smith’s meaningful gazes, reactions, pauses all reflect an ingrained discipline belonging to the finest actors.
Penguin Rep has done it again, bringing to the ‘burbs Manhattan-quality theater that enlightens us with topical, provocative, humane perspectives, even as it entertains us with utmost professionalism and panache.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers
Ridgefield Theater Barn, Ridgefield, Conn. Through Sept. 28. Ridgefieldtheaterbarn.org
Last of the Red Hot Lovers, at Ridgefield Theater Barn through Sept. 28 is typical of playwright Neil Simon’s patented style of rapid-fire repartee riddled with observations both wry and corny.
He made his bones as a gag writer in the early days of TV sketch comedy, and that tricky technique, buffed and polished by a master of the form, served him well for the rest of his storied career.
In Lovers, Barney Cashman is a middle-aged, married, New York City restaurant owner who needs to prove to himself that his libido still has what it takes. Barney’s self-prescribed therapy is to borrow his working mother’s apartment during the late afternoon -- before she returns home -- so he can play the playboy. It immediately is apparent as soon as Barney appears, a bundle of nerves and self-doubt, that this is a role for which he is laughably unsuited.
GETTING TO FIRST BASE
That’s the central joke of the piece: in separate encounters with three very different (and very funny) women, over the course of the play’s three acts, Barney smoothes out some minor rough edges in his unschooled “moves,” but repeatedly is foiled in his comical attempts to reach first base.
As Barney, debonair Duane Lanham works hard to play against type, and has some nice flourishes of physical comedy. He also proves adept at conveying a kind of puppy dog lovability and vulnerability that elicits the empathy of the audience, which experiences the triptych of eccentric women through his perplexed eyes.
The overall strength of the production, as it would be in any solid staging of this show, are the three female actors.
As tough-talking, wise-cracking Elaine Navazio, Paulette Layton kickstarts the first of the three acts with total command of the stage. She struts back and forth as Barney cowers in anticipation of what aggressive move or remark she’s about to hurl his way. Ms. Layton’s energy sets the pace for the rest of the show.
Elaine is a hard act to follow, but, in Act II, we meet another of Barney’s memorable “dates,” in the person of whirling dervish Bobbi Michelle. Kate Patton does a dizzying turn as a chatterbox flower child, of sorts, not to mention an aspiring actress. She turns on Barney by inviting a smokin’ Mary Jane to the two-person party. In other words, they both get high. It’s purely medicinal--of course.
Finally, for Act III, the third guest l’affaires Barney who comes through his mother’s door is Jeanette Fisher, a painfully shy, unhappy tall drink of water, beautifully rendered by Linda Seay.
Jeanette, you see, is not like domineering Elaine or flaky Bobbi, each a stranger Barney had picked up.
Mousy, reedy-voiced Jeanette is the wife of Barney’s best friend. She’s low-hanging fruit for his desperate hope that the third time’s the charm. Alas, it is anything but. Jeanette says she suffers from melancholia and her “total and complete despair” comes gushing out like a geyser, drowning Barney in her downcast view of the human race.
In the end, under cover of comedy, Neil Simon reveals his personal angst, as he turns to moralizing. Through Jeanette—and through the hapless and good-hearted if conflicted Barney -- he’s putting out an all points bulletin to summon “gentle, loving and decent” people, who, he makes clear, are in dangerously short supply.
In that way, after he’s done his job making us laugh, Mr. Simon shifts gears in the third act to issue a warning for civilization to mend its misanthropic ways.
It’s small comfort today that he was commenting on American life, as he saw it, in the mid-20th Century.
Do you think we’re behaving any better a half-century later?
Ha! Don’t make me laugh.