CATF returns with shadow and glare
“And that, in a nutshell, is the story of our marriage. You want one thing, and you want its OPPOSITE.”
Michael Weller’s “Fifty Words” is performed in the round at Sara Cree’s Studio Theater. We meet Adam (Anthony Crane) and Jan (Joey Parsons) in their comfortable New York kitchen. Their troubled young son is away on his first “overnight,” so Jan and Adam find themselves passionately alone.
As directed by CATF founder Ed Herendeen, the play starts as an amusing celebration of urban ups and downs with much witty repartee. Subtly the comedy spins out of control. As we witness an evening deepen, our laughter like a strobe light flickers with sobs of sympathy. Adam is an architect who travels; Jan is a dancer turned working mother. Together their play seems a long night’s journey into day.
Husband and wife attack food, embrace wine, seduce their courtship’s ghost, take late phone calls, and mine secrets beneath which (like their son in the school cloakroom) they’ve burrowed. Mr. Crane plays Adam as a brilliant, clowning artist who builds things but also dismantles them. His words bite poignantly as when he says, “That’s a marriage: two people disappointing each other.”
Jan (see quote at the start) seems a gift of glamorous contradiction. She can laugh and moan one minute then freeze into fright or aloofness the next. Above all she values work. Ms. Parsons plays Jan with a lithe clarity that highlights her complexity. As the evening deepens, night scenes move the couple toward undreamed of waking-toward what Marlowe termed “another country” where lust and love require new words to tame or revive their power.
“Fifty Words” tests our mercy, memory, recognition. Both actors give to their changes such charm that we want to love them in new ways. That’s what the title means, that we need more words for what holds a pair together. The Eskimos have their many words for snow; Adam and Jan melt down a dictionary of affection into shards on a parquet floor. They envision becoming old folks “just chewing” on what has grown beyond any one word.
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A political play today may be outrun by the strangeness of our reality, tomorrow’s news. (We seldom leave the Situation Room where daily betrayals are presented as shrewd statements of creed.) Yet playwright Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North,” set during a presidential primary in Iowa, keeps us engaged at the wintry level of plot, featuring betrayals and double-crosses worthy of a John le Carre novel. Under Herendeen’s direction the drama gives us that sort of darkness.
The play’s protagonist Steve (Eric Sheffer Stevens) is a young political handler, a Wunderkind, who’s risen fast but risks falling. He and other characters, however, tend to get lost under a drumbeat of tough campaign talk, dialogue that wants to be Mamet-like, a music of backrooms. It’s seamy, hostile, scatological lingo. It reveals sharp minds but empty lives. This reviewer yearned for some true wit, which almost came with appearances by avuncular, ironic Duffy (Anderson Mathews) who counsels Steve that he should avoid becoming a stone-hearted hack.
More heart would help. Steve’s boss Paul (Anthony Crane) starts to stand for something in the second act when he says: “I value trust over skill. And I don’t trust you anymore.” Heidi Niedermeyer as the lovely intern Molly injects some joy into bleak revels of unraveling. Steve’s assistant Ben (TJ Linnard) projects an honest eagerness, a fresher vision. Look for Rodney Creech as a struggling tavern-keeper who wakes Steve to the fact that leaders can shape the fate of common people, those capable of compassion.
“Farragut North” is beautifully designed by Robert Klingelhoefer, with revolving sets that reflect how the daily news spins via shocking shifts and thrills. The lighting by John Ambrose aptly portrays nocturnal Des Moines or Washington-where dirty deals are struck and where winning players can strike out.
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For true illumination “The History of Light” by versatile musician, actor, and playwright Eisa Davis recommends itself. In the intimacy of Shepherd’s Studio Theater, this play’s a gem whose every facet works. Even the flaws enchant, spark the flavor of everyday longing.
Soph (Amelia Workman) is the main character, through whom music and memory flow in surreal flashbacks that grow real as present gifts. White and black culture mingle with music and pain. Costarred is a Steinway piano from which come Brahms, Chopin, Ravel and more.
African American singer Soph confronts a white childhood chum Mathew (Jason Denuszek), who seeks to revive their shared musical past. But Denuszek’s Mathew, dressed like a pallbearer except for a red tie, seems out of his league (he represents wealth, brains, safe career). He seems a pale napkin beside Sophie’s mousse. Ms. Workman’s verve invests most scenes with sweet magic. Moreover, Liesl Tommy directs the show variously as straight-ahead drama, as abstract art, as dance, or games for children.
Family mysteries haunt Soph as well. Her lost father Turner (powerful David Emerson Toney) and his white girlfriend Suzan (winsome Lee Roy Rogers) relive their own romances on this playground of dreams. The great piano holds the room together.
The playwright weaves a poetry that likens leaves against the sky to stitches. All the characters, woven together with space and time in “The History of Light,” strive to live out their dreams of justice or of art or of play. All of them offer their love in measured or immeasurable portions.