The Arsonists

Imagine if you had one last reprieve, after a parent’s sudden death, to bid your loved one farewell.

That’s what the audience eavesdrops on in the highly stylized play, “The Arsonists,” by award-winning playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, now at Denizen Theatre in New Paltz through Feb. 24 (Tickets and info at Denizentheatre.com; 845-303-4136).

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Ms. Goldfinger is known for the Southern Gothic flavor of her work, and she doesn’t disappoint in this lean, muscular 70 minutes of theater. Set in a one-room cabin in the swamps of northern Florida, it is a strange brew of classical Greek myth about father-daughter fusion (Electra), lyrical language spoken in regional vernacular, homespun vocals plucked out on guitars, and poetic philosophizing about the hand we’re dealt in life and how we play it.

At first, there is but a single soul on stage, a young woman in her 20s named “M” (Jenny Jarnagin), who for several minutes at the outset says next to nothing. Yet, we see enough to understand the context of her behavior. To the background clatter of sirens and motorboats, she has dragged a bloodied bag, presumably containing a body, into the run-down cabin, cursing and grunting the whole way, and, axe in hand, proceeds to punch a hole in the floor where she deposits the bag.

Suddenly, through the hole in the floor appears a grizzled man in his 50s. He is spirited, singing as he ascends. He also is a spirit, the ghost of the father she had just laid to rest (“H,” played by Sean Cullen). We learn in short order they are arsonists for hire. The just-completed job went awry, claiming his life in the process. Huddled in their humble hideout to escape the law’s clutches, the non-living, life-affirming dad bucks up his distraught daughter, who is full of fear facing life without father.

The pair proceeds to relive memories, redress regrets, and come to grips with the eternal flame of destiny that determines how much control we have over our own lives. As the father says, there is “always something out of your control.”

As H, Mr. Cullen is a seasoned pro (HBO’s “Paterno”; Broadway’s “South Pacific”) who gives the play a solid, sordid center of gravity, while Ms. Jarnagin conveys the kind of vulnerability and longing that either belies or results from being born under a bad sign.

Their relationship is achingly primal, digging and clawing desperately to salvage the souls deep within. She wants to reclaim a life that is gone forever. He wants her to move on with her own life.

This is only the third production mounted in Denizen Theatre’s inaugural season, yet—under the braintrust of founder and producing artistic director Harry Lipstein and co-artistic directors Brittany Proia and Ben Williamson, who craftily directed this production—Denizen already has established itself as a theater of ideas and of uncompromising production values.

The Florida swamp cabin designed for “The Arsonists” is a triple triumph of ambience, authenticity and functionality. It transports the audience to a palpable place and, in its starkness, evokes a fugitive sensibility. Both the set and the dramatically unnerving lighting design are the impressive handiwork of Ryan Finzelber.

Among the relatable messages that Jacqueline Goldfinger imparts is that love is essential to human completeness. Among her thought-provoking insights, the one I most appreciated is “weakness sometimes masquerades as strength.”

That is a clear-eyed universal truth—one which we are seeing played out these days, way beyond a theater stage, on the world stage. If only more people could find it in themselves to recognize that mind-bending, yet very real, illusion.

Ain’t Misbehavin’

It’s because we live in a time where headlines equal headaches that the simple pleasure of a throwback musical like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is such a welcome escape from our love affair with simple-minded politics. The “Fats Waller Musical Show,” as it is sub-titled, has the joint jumpin’ at Westchester Broadway Theatre (WBT) through Feb. 24. (Tickets and info at BroadwayTheatre.com; 914-592-2222).

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a joyful, faithful homage to the Harlem Renaissance. That’s the era of the 1920s and ’30s that saw the emergence of swing dovetail with jazz and ragtime to forge an exciting new genre of music.

Thomas “Fats” Waller, celebrated originator of stride piano playing—the forerunner of jazz pianism that alternates left-hand bass notes with right-hand melody lines—took the bouncing ball and ran with it, as did like-minded composers of his time, jointly giving birth to the early American song book. This is the music that high society flocked to hear at the swankiest Manhattan venues of the day, like the Cotton Club.

In the midst of 21st century data overload, what could be more elegant and unstressful than drinking in five song-and-dance troupers commanding the stage, backed by a brassy, swinging septet, acting out one timeless classic after another. (At the WBT dinner theater, you literally can drink it in, along with a hearty, affordable meal to boot.)

It’s not as if you’ll recognize every one of these tunes. I didn’t. Some titles will instantly strike a chord, such as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and the title tune. Their familiarity nearly a century after they were created is due in large part to the phenomenal success and staying power of the show’s original staging 40 years ago, when it was named Best Musical at the Tony Awards.

One of the hallmarks of this production is that it is directed by the legendary Richard Maltby Jr. who picked up a Directing Tony for the Broadway original, which he conceived with Murray Horwitz. The opening night audience, in fact, got a treat when he appeared on stage to be honored for his lifetime of musical theater artistry.

Not being familiar with most of the songs in this show, which I was not myself, makes the thrill of discovering them all the more satisfying. Great popular music like that which flowed from the genius of Fats Waller doesn’t stay stuck in the time and place it was conceived. It transcends time and place. Besides, there’s nothing like finding great new music that’s been around almost a century.

That much is proven more than 20-fold – the number of production numbers in the revue—at WBT. The melodies and lyrics range from comic to romantic to sassy to silky. I especially enjoyed the broad antics of “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “Fat and Greasy.” Other standouts are “How Ya Baby,” “The Viper’s Drag” (aka “The Reefer Song”), and “Find out What They Like.”

In the multi-talented hands, feet, voices and comedic mugging of principal performers Martine Allard, Ron Lucas, Tony Perry, Amy Jo Phillips, and Anita Welch, it’s as if you’re watching a cast not of five but 15-20. Contributing mightily to the excitement on stage is a swing combo led by William Foster McDaniel on keyboards, with Jay Mack on drums, David Dunaway on bass, Brian Uhl on trumpet, Steve Bliefuss on trombone, Robert Carten on reeds.

Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914-275-6887.