Syncopation

“Director Thomas Caruso (associate director of the Broadway musical Groundhog Day) has delicately crafted a small world within the Little Room of the 6th floor walk-up. His hand-in-glove coordination with choreographer Ryan Kasprzak (a Chita Rivera Award nominee for Bandstand) and associate choreographer Kelly Liz Bolick is seamless, allowing the physical movement and proximity of the dance partners to color and inform Anna and Henry’s chemistry and relationship as the play progresses.”

SYNCOPATION Doesn’t Miss a Step at Penguin Repertory Theater

Peter DanishBroadway World

In 1997, Andrew Horn, Penguin Rep’s Executive Director, commissioned Allan Knee to write a new work for Penguin. The play was called the “Man Who Was Peter Pan,” and it went on to become a film with Johnny Depp and subsequently the Broadway play “Finding Neverland.” Thus began the long and fruitful relationship between The Penguin Repertory Theatre and Mr. Knee.

BWW Review: SYNCOPATION Doesn't Miss a Step at Penguin Repertory Theater

A few short years later, Knee returned to Penguin with a vastly different kind of show, a play with dance and music. It was a hit at Penguin in 2003 and went on to win the American Theater Critics Award for Best Play. Set in New York in 1911-12, the play introduces us to a wonderfully mismatched pair of would-be ballroom dancers who are caught up in the ragtime craze that was sweeping the country.

A slightly anachronistic choice, the very first piece of music in the show is Lehar’s “Merry Widow Waltz” – a quintessentially Viennese song. While appropriate for the time (it was one of the most popular tunes in the world in the early part of the century) it features a lilting melody that’s just about the farthest thing imaginable from “syncopated.” Immediately following the waltz, however, the ragtime jazz bursts forth providing the heart, pulse and titular theme of the show.

Henry is a 38 year-old, Jewish butcher, who harbors passionate dreams of becoming a ballroom dancer, but cannot seem to secure a partner. He places numerous advertisements in the newspaper inviting women to “dance for royalty!” After weeks with no responses, Anna, a wistful, 24 year-old Italian seamstress from a local sequin factory, ascends the 108 steps to Henry’s 6th floor walk up “studio” (at nearly 22 steps per floor, those must be some high ceilings!)

BWW Review: SYNCOPATION Doesn't Miss a Step at Penguin Repertory Theater

From their first meeting, it’s clear that they are a poor match both as dance partners and as potential lovers, but not terribly unpredictably, that will soon change. At first, Anna is cannily cautious about Henry’s intentions and maintains a respectful distance. But his ebullient energy and sad-sack charm soon begin to win her over.

Josh Powell‘s Henry is an adorably awkward noodge, unartful in social graces but elegant and resourceful on the dancefloor. Mr. Powell brilliantly conveys Henry’s pent up passion and sense of longing that percolates just beneath the surface, as he equates success in the ballroom dance world with success and status in life. Mr. Powell’s physical performance is extraordinarily expressive and his facial expressions are simply priceless.

As their lessons progress, so does their relationship, deepening as their knowledge and understanding of one another grows, and an unforced and gentle intimacy emerges. However, Anna makes it abundantly clear that she is taken; engaged to a wealthy man whom she is very lucky to have landed. Still, Henry’s feelings for her become more and more evident as he asks her to come and practice more and more – first once a week, then twice, then finally three times a week and Saturday nights.

Ms. Annunziata’s Anna is at first brash and seemingly full of confidence (after all she does visit a strange man’s 6th floor apartment at night, unaccompanied, in 1911). But soon we see that she may be hiding behind a false bravado and the rosy future and prospect of marriage to a wealthy shop owner is more of a compromise than a dream come true. Ms. Annunziata was transcendent, her joyful smile lit up the entire theater – making her eventual disappointment all the more devastating. While Henry’s wants and needs are readily apparent from the first scene, it’s really Anna’s journey that provides the ups and downs of the play. Ms. Annunziata’s intensity and palpable vulnerability in Anna’s transformative moment was heartbreakingly beautiful.

Music and dance play an integral part in the evolution of the bond between Henry and Anna, as Mr. Knee deftly blends music, dance and dialogue into one expressive language. And through that language, we share Henry and Anna’s failed dreams, dashed hopes, but also their passion and joy. Their struggle is infectious and we can’t help rooting for them.

Director Thomas Caruso (associate director of the Broadway musical Groundhog Day) has delicately crafted a small world within the Little Room of the 6th floor walk-up. His hand-in-glove coordination with choreographer Ryan Kasprzak (a Chita Rivera Award nominee for Bandstand) and associate choreographer Kelly Liz Bolick is seamless, allowing the physical movement and proximity of the dance partners to color and inform Anna and Henry’s chemistry and relationship as the play progresses.

Special kudos must be extended to the extraordinary work of the technical staff of “Syncopation,” who have created a magically theatrical experience – superb work across the board. Michael Carnahan‘s sets and Lux Haac‘s costumes are picture perfect. The lighting design of Martin Vreeland and sound design of William Neal were nothing short of spectacular, beckoning the audience into Henry and Anna’s little world with a remarkably complex, yet delicate blanket of sound and color that drew you in and held you close.

It’s clear that Syncopation hasn’t lost a step since its initial production. It’s simply great theater.

Brave New World

“The musical adaptation of Huxley’s, Brave New World was worth the wait. The creative team concocting this new vehicle has a major crowd pleasing hit on its hands. Here is very good theatre, based on the judicious adaptation and distillation of Huxley’s work into a highly entertaining property. The music and lyrics are all inspired, with overall deft direction by Thomas Caruso.”

‘Brave New World’ now a musical at NC Stage Co.

Jim CavenerCitizen Times

The idea of creating musical theater based on Aldoux Huxley’s famed novel of 85 years ago, “Brave New World,” is preposterous — much less putting into musical form something of a spoof of this scary prophecy of an age yet to come. Huxley’s visionary imagination went all out in creating what appears high on all lists of finest English-language fiction of the 20th century. But no one this writer has spoken with expected it to work as a musical. Not a good idea, they say.

Perhaps that’s why it has taken 30 years to get it onstage. (The Huxley estate retains U.S. rights until 2034.)

It was worth the wait. The creative team concocting this new vehicle, in its world premiere here at North Carolina Stage Co., has a major crowd-pleasing hit on its hands. If this four-week run is not extended, and if the show does not “get legs,” grow and develop into a major commercial and critical success, the opening night packed house will be greatly surprised. Here is very good theater, based on the judicious adaptation and distillation of Huxley’s work into a highly entertaining property that melds the message, music, movement and meaning into a cohesive whole. 

Huxley’s “Brave New World” rates with the best works of George Orwell, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in terms of high drama and dark developments in imagining the human journey into the 21st century and beyond. This tale is not a pleasant prophecy, and the ending of both the novel and the musical is downright depressing. A comedy, not.

But then, much of the best of American musical theater has been heavy-themed with dismal denouement. Think: “West Side Story,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Show Boat,” for starters. Good company for a risky new musical.

Those who know the tale with its complex social engineering, dictatorial ethics and frightening prognosis for the year 2540 will marvel at how effective is playwright Ben Andron’s adaptation. The comedic take-offs from Huxley’s concepts are an unexpected and welcome twist. The music by John McDaniel and Jonnie Rockwell, and lyrics by Bill Russell, are all inspired. Very clever wordsmithing in some of the libretto. The ensemble of eight dancer-singers are capably choreographed by Ryan Kasprzak, with overall deft direction by Thomas Caruso.

The five leads were cast in New York with first-rate professionals. Each is outstanding, but Robin Skye as Linda and Jason Edward Cook as Bernard are simply superb. Skye’s secure grasp of the material is marvelous. Cook is so convincing as the dweeb that when he comes fully around in the second act we know the lad was not typecast in the first. Intense and athletic performance of note. Justin Matthew Sargent gives a menacing Mond, Robby Haltiwanger is a winsome and endearing John, and Marissa O’Donnell a compelling, big-voiced Linina.

The rest of the cast is composed of eight ensemble members, a mix of mostly locals and an import from Broadway. Tyler McKenzie is the dance captain and disciplines this crew with the creative choreography. Other dancer-singers are Marthaluz Velez, Blake Logan, Kaylor Otwell, Billy Steeves, Alice Eacho, Sean Michael Jaenicke and Maria Buchanan. This tribe is masterfully costumed by George Martinat, with dazzling platinum wigs and imaginative, futuristic, science-fiction drag.

In addition to costuming, the rest of the visuals are a treat. The scenic design and lighting are exemplary. An elegant back wall with a smooth-working sliding door coupled with movable cubes are the major elements of visuals. The wall incorporates two back projection screens and effective lighting in the columns. Andrew Mannion is credited with this masterpiece, and probably closely collaborated with C.J. Barnwell, who conceived the intense and masterful lighting that almost becomes a leading character in the script. Stunning lighting effects are frequent.

The show’s tunes are somewhat formulaic, but the formula works, so why change it. Brad Simmons is music director and has previous Asheville connections, though he came with the production from New York City. Local musicians Mike Morel, Paul Leech, Matt Kinne and Aaron Price augment Simmons’ keyboard, all playing from an adjacent room, through the marvels of modern technology. It’s a brave new world.

Brave New World

“North Carolina Stage Company boldly explores Brave New World. A delightful spectacle. This dazzling venture is rooted in a salient, faithful adaptation. This adaptation is well-balanced in lyrical exposition and compelling dialogue. The direction by Thomas Caruso is sublime, stylish and slick.”

Soylent White: NC Stage Boldy Explores “Brave New World” in Premiere Musical

Sandy StaggsCarolina Curtain Call

Enter the bizarre realm of a “Brave New World” where babies are only born in test tubes, orgies are mandatory and there is a rave every night in North Carolina Stage Company’s world premiere musical set to the classic dystopian novel by Aldous Huxley.

“Brave New World” is the third in an impressive string of brand new shows that have chosen NC Stage Company as a testing ground, after previously mounting “Stalking the Bogeyman,” before its Off-Broadway and West End runs, and this season’s “Someone Else,” currently slated for an Off-Broadway run this spring.

Red Awning is Executive Producer of this delightful spectacle penned by some heavy-hitters to the North: music by Jonnie Rockwell (Off-Broadway’s “The Anthem”) and Grammy and Emmy Award-winner John McDaniel (Broadway music director/supervisor for “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Catch Me If You Can”) and lyrics by Tony-nominee Bill Russell (“Side Show”).

This dazzling venture is rooted in a salient, faithful adaptation by Ben Andron (“White’s Lies” Off-Broadway) of the 1932 source material — aside from one major character/plot change that I will withhold because it’s a spoiler — that combines the futurist qualms of H. G. Wells with the hedonistic sexual attitudes of D. H. Lawrence and a hearty dose of “Barbarella,” “Flash Gordon” or “Austin Powers” camp.

Like the novels it inspired — George Orwell’s “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” — the story is set in the future (2540 A.D.) but the ideology and prescience are classic 20th Century conventions: genetics, psychological conditioning, capitalism, communism, mass production, etc.

The government controls the population through genetically-modified embryos at “hatcheries.” All citizens look alike are assigned their lot in life (and job title) at birth in one of five social castes with Greek letter names, from Alpha (the highest) to Epsilon (the lowest). Free love is encouraged, but free thought, literature and dissent are banned.

The region is ruled by Resident World Controller Mustapha Mond (an ebullient Justin Matthew Sargent who sells this part craftily). This handsome engaging actor could sell you desert land on Mars. Part-gameshow host, part John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever,” and part-CEO with a streak of mad scientist, Sargent enters the proceedings like an Alpha pop superstar with glitzy acumen in the show’s cornerstone anthem “Year of Our Ford’ as his Mond both embraces and mocks American industrialism and Henry Ford’s factory innovations and lays the groundwork for the time setting and corporate power structure in the World State.”

Marissa O'Donnell, Justin Matthew Sargent and Robby Haltiwanger in "Brave New World."
Marissa O’Donnell, Justin Matthew Sargent and Robby Haltiwanger in “Brave New World.” Photo by Ray Mata

Mond keeps order through mass distribution of the free blue hallucinogenic party drug Soma (no it’s not Soylent Green but Andron does cleverly reference it if you’re paying attention), which turns the lower caste into mindless, content drones and the higher social ranks into unapologetic nymphomaniacs who live by the mantra “Everyone belongs to everyone else.”

Enter, rather “re-enter,” into this sterile, sanitized world (from the Andrew Mannion’s pristine set design to George Martinat’s lily-white costumes and Lady Gaga-as-Andy Warhol wigs), Linda (Robin Skye), a former Beta who was left behind pregnant years earlier while on vacation outside the city at the Savage Reservation, and her “natural-born” son-in-black John (Robby Haltiwanger).

Haltiwanger plays our hero with earnest empathy and articulate intensity. John frames every situation in Shakespearean conflict and the Bard’s quotes. Shakespeare is the only author John had access to while in exile, and the play’s title is taken from a speech by a similar character, Miranda, in “The Tempest.”

The authors were quite generous with John anointing him not only the possible Messiah that could lead a revolution (“To Be A Man”), but also as a love-struck, conflicted young man caught between two incompatible worlds and codes of morality (“Should I?”) when he falls in love with Lenina (Marissa O’Donnell, who originated the role of Teen Fiona in Broadway’s “Shrek The Musical”).

This confused duo impeccably contemplates marriage and fidelity in “Where I’m From” and sexy foreplay in “What Are You Doing?” And Miss O’Donnell is effervescent in her portrayal of blissful ignorance and the damaged sex kitten in the cute girl group ditty “Be A Woman.”

Haltiwanger’s solo “Nowhere” in the second act is certainly one of the finest performances in the play as is Ms. Skye, in her raspy Elaine Stritch alto voice, in the disco-infused reprise of “Mommy’s Boy.” Ms. Skye’s metamorphosis is priceless during her hilarious re-integration into society (and Soma) when her appearance and persona begin to alter dramatically.

And as the peculiar, short redhead Alpha, Bernard, Jason Edward Cook’s is winningly nuanced with mannered freneticism and craftily mentors and identifies with the celebrity savage John.

Cook’s talents dominate the bombastic hip-hop tune “What An Event” and the witty “Shakespeare is Dumb” vignette with Blake Logan and Tyler McKenzie from the ensemble that renounces and rejoices the Bard simultaneously. This tune and its delightful direction/choreography is a keeper and, with the right catchy riff, has potential for being THE comedic hit tune in the show.

This adaptation is well-balanced in lyrical exposition and compelling dialogue. And the authors, believe it or not, don’t make up any of the outlandish elements in the script: The free-love tour in “Orgy-Porgy” and the zippy psychedelic “I Wanna Take You to the Feelies” are taken directly from Huxley’s novel which has been banned in numerous locales over the years. The feelies scene (“talkie” pictures in the book) is an impressive segment with some interesting props and special lighting effects, but I think this was a missed opportunity. For a hallucinogenic drug trip it was a wee bit sedate. I would have gone even grander here with the lights and projections!

The musical gets several light years of mileage (at least three numbers) from “Year of Our Ford,” which is a robust, bouncy upbeat song, but the production could benefit from an equally-approachable, new pop piece to buttress the finale.

Except for the few club tracks by Kevin Frost (Boy George’s music partner on “Taboo”) the lovely score is primarily traditional musical theatre and played live under the baton of New York-based music director Brad Simmons (with Aaron Price as assistant music director).

The direction by Thomas Caruso (most recently “Southern Comfort at NYC’s Public Theatre, “Dynamo: Seeing Is Believing” in the West End, national tours of “Matilda” and “Ghost”) is sublime, stylish and slick. It’s safely salacious but adventurous, especially given the small confines of the space.

Ryan Kasprzak’s choreography is crisp and effective with enchanting robotic, automated moves and I really fancied the gals in “Mommy’s Boy” that revive the Robert Palmer video dancers.

And while the stars and artistic team may be imported, the production’s design team is strictly local. Mannion’s sterile, monotone scenic design is brilliant when its light panels are beaming in hot neons from CJ Barnwell’s stellar light show, especially in the techno music bits. And the dual ultra high-def video screens are fodder for vibrant optics and the best use of video/projection of any theatre in the area so far this season.

And Martinat’s playfully, inspired looks and costumes beckon a plethora of influences: those creepy kids in “Village of the Damned,” Devo’s “Whip It” video, Britney Spears’ “Toxic” video and the fem bots in “Austin Powers.”

Matt Nielson is on sound design, Catori Swann is Technical Director, Kenneth Horgan is assistant technical director and CM Garrison is Production assistant. Stage Manager is Andrea Jess Berkey assisted by Jessica Tandy Kammerud.

Maria Buchanan, Alice Eacho, Sean Michael Jaenicke, Kaylor Otwell, Billy Steeves and Marthaluz Velez comprise the rest of the awesome ensemble.

General Manager is Aaron Grant; Jon Farber is Company Management Coordinator and casting is through Daryl Eisenberg Casting.

Sandy Staggs, a Spartanburg native, is Drama Critic and Publisher of Carolina Curtain Call and has been a journalist and arts critic for 20 years with staff positions and/or articles in the San Francisco Examiner, Greenville News, Spartanburg Herald-Journal, San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco Observer, Oakland Tribune, San Mateo County Times and more, as well as an essay in the Hub City Press book “Stars Fell on Spartanburg.”

Southern Comfort

“Southern Comfort is a sweetheart of a musical…Now in the Anspacher Theater, Robert’s chosen family has found a suitable new home. Never has this space felt more intimate and inviting…the spirited, tuneful country score and the colorful characters draw us close to the emotional ups and downs of Robert’s family. This cast is entirely winning. Most remarkable, even flabbergasting, is Annette O’Toole…part of the appeal of Southern Comfort is the contrast between the subject and the musical style. Many people tend to associate country music, rightly or wrongly, with Confederate flags and closed minds. Ms. Davis’ shapely melodies, beautifully played by a five piece band, could come from country radio today. But as sung by characters who would likely not be welcomed at the Grand Ole Opry anytime soon, the songs take on an almost radical charge…for the most part this musical avoids the trap of sentimentality. And it’s fitting that the show errs on the side of largess, granting characters their full, complicated humanity without shying away from addressing the hardships they face. While these characters may not always be comfortable in the world they live in, we come to see that they are entirely comfortable in their own skins.”

In ‘Southern Comfort,’ a Family Not Bound by Blood (Critics Pick!)

Charles IsherwoodNew York Times

The family in “Southern Comfort,” a sweetheart of a musical that opened on Sunday at the Public Theater, behaves as most families do. Its members are loving and supportive, but also prone to conflict over things small and large. Father and son squabble over sexual politics. Son resents the stepmother on the horizon. Offense is taken when a much-loved picnic dish is ignored.

But there’s a difference. The clan in this musical is not related by blood. Its members are a grab bag of folks brought together by the unofficial patriarch, Robert Eads, who was born Barbara but has transitioned to a male identity. He has gathered around him a couple of other similar men and their partners, creating a tight-knit community in, of all unlikely places, a rural Georgia town.

If this sounds familiar you probably saw the documentary film the musical is based on, which won a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. Lest you assume that the theater is jumping late on the transgender bandwagon, I should note that the musical, with book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis, and direction by Thomas Caruso (who conceived it with Robert DuSold), has been in development for more than 10 years and has had two prior runs.

Now in the Anspacher Theater, Robert’s “chosen” family has found a suitable new home. Never has this space felt more intimate and inviting. James J. Fenton’s rough-hewed set design deftly disguises one of the thick columns, which can be problematic, as a tree trimmed in Joseph Cornell-style boxes full of bric-a-brac. Shadows of a picket fence ring the floor of the stage. But it’s the spirited, tuneful country score and the colorful characters that draw us close to the emotional ups and downs of Robert’s family.

This cast is entirely winning. Most remarkable — even flabbergasting — is Annette O’Toole. I noticed her name in the program before the show began, but only halfway through the first act, as I was wondering when she was going to show up, did I realize that Ms. O’Toole had been there all along, playing Robert himself, the reed-thin fellow in the black cowboy hat.

It’s not a matter of mere cosmetics, although Ms. O’Toole looks quite like the lanky Robert did in the film, with a sprig of a beard on her chin and a mustache lining her lip. More important, Ms. O’Toole has disappeared inside her character, drawing a moving, indelible portrait of a man who retains an unflappable spirit even as death draws near.

That’s not a spoiler. We learn early on that Robert has terminal ovarian cancer. The cruel irony of this is noted by Jackson (the forceful Jeffrey Kuhn), a younger transgender man whom Robert treats as his son. He curses a God that would sicken Robert in “the last and only part o’ you that’s still female,” as he says to “Pops.”

But Robert takes his diagnosis in stride, refusing to give up on life until it gives up on him. Meantime, he’s going to make the most of it, having fallen hard for Lola Cola (the veteran Jeff McCarthy, deftly switching from his baritone to a falsetto in his big number). This causes some friction with Jackson, who’s suspicious of the newcomer.

Robert has a bone or two to pick with Jackson as well. He’s been urging him to settle down and stop looking “for the next bed to jump into.” But when Jackson begins seriously dating a transgender woman, Carly (a delightfully brash Aneesh Sheth), and confides that he is considering phalloplasty, Robert flares up. He believes that gender is a matter of mind and spirit, not genitalia.

Watching the increasing friction is another couple drawn into Robert’s warming orbit: Sam, played with vibrant energy by Donnie Cianciotto, and his wife, Melanie, whom Robin Skye imbues with a breezy geniality. Among the funnier passages is Melanie’s recounting of her initial suspicions about Sam: “Whew, Lord, the first time Sam showed up at my place I had a gun hid under the cushion o’ my couch the entire time,” she tells us. “Funny thing is, he was the first man in my life who I didn’t need protectin’ from.”

Part of the appeal of “Southern Comfort” is the contrast between the subject and the musical style. Many people tend to associate country music, rightly or wrongly, with Confederate flags and closed minds. Ms. Davis’s shapely melodies, beautifully played by a five-piece band at the back of the stage (all but one band member plays a small role in the show), could come from country radio today. But as sung by characters who would likely not be welcomed at the Grand Ole Opry anytime soon, the songs take on an almost radical charge.

In expanding on the relationships depicted in the film, Mr. Collins and Ms. Davis have some trouble integrating the amplified story lines smoothly. (With 19 songs, and reprises, the score could benefit from a little winnowing, too.) Will Robert and Jackson resolve their differences in time? Will Lola agree to join Robert at “SoCo,” shorthand for Southern Comfort, the annual transgender convention in Atlanta? Will Sam’s parents finally accept him as he is? Will Robert’s?

Some answers are obvious, but for the most part this musical avoids the trap of sentimentality. And it’s fitting that the show errs on the side of largess, granting characters their full, complicated humanity without shying away from addressing the hardships they face. While these characters may not always be comfortable in the world they live in, we come to see that they are entirely comfortable in their own skins.

 

Annette O’Toole, left, and Jeff McCarthy in “Southern Comfort. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Southern Comfort

“This affecting folk-bluegrass musical by Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins makes a heartfelt bid to shift perceptions. The cast draws the relationships with tenderness…lovingly designed…the entire cast responds well to Thomas Caruso’s sensitive direction…But what distinguishes both the movie and this respectful adaptation is less the sorrow of the haunting true story than the spirit of forgiveness and tolerance that infuses it.”

Seeking Acceptance, and Family, in One’s Shifting Gender

David RooneyNew York Times

“Southern Comfort,” which is playing at the CAP21 Theater Company’s new space in Chelsea, will never have the exposure of Chaz Bono, who is putting a human face on the transgender-rights struggle for millions of viewers this season on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” But in its own small way, this affecting folk-bluegrass musical by Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins makes a heartfelt bid to shift perceptions.

The show is based on the 2001 documentary of the same name by Kate Davis. With compassion and restraint, the film chronicles the final year in the life of the female-to-male transsexual Robert Eads, a wiry Georgia backwoods type who died of ovarian cancer in one last cruel trick of nature. Mr. Eads had to travel miles for medical care after being refused treatment at numerous hospitals for fear of unsettling other patients.

But what distinguishes both the movie and this respectful adaptation is less the sorrow of the haunting true story than the spirit of forgiveness and tolerance that infuses it.

Lovingly designed in beat-up timber by James J. Fenton, the rural Georgia home of Robert (Annette O’Toole) provides a welcoming environment for a family chosen, as one of the characters observes, “not by blood, just by circumstance.”

They include Robert’s girlfriend, Lola (Jeff McCarthy), a transgender woman still struggling with transition; two more men who were born as women, Maxwell (Jeffrey Kuhn) and Cas (Todd Cerveris); and their respective partners, the male-to-female Cori (Natalie Joy Johnson) and Stephanie (Robin Skye), the group’s sole biologically unaltered member.

Backed by five musicians, four of whom frequently put down their instruments to serve as storytellers and actors, the cast draws the relationships with tenderness, as the group plans to attend the Southern Comfort Conference, described by Cas as “the cotillion of the transgender community,” in Atlanta. There’s a tacit understanding that this annual weekend idyll of belonging will be Robert’s last.

 

Conflict stems from Maxwell’s wish to proceed with full gender reassignment surgery, clashing with the beliefs of his surrogate father, Robert. “We always agreed that man or woman was about what’s in your heart and your head, not between your legs,” Robert says.

The show ambles a bit at 2 hours, 20 minutes, and its gentle, rootsy score overloads on heart-tugging emotional ballads. But the entire cast responds well to Thomas Caruso’s sensitive direction, especially Ms. O’Toole and Mr. McCarthy, who make a memorable stage couple. Her diminutive frame and his towering linebacker presence are paired to amusing effect.

Mr. McCarthy will be nobody’s idea of a natural beauty. But he conveys Lola’s imprisoned womanliness with aching delicacy, awkwardly drawing in his body to try to negate his masculine form. The unrecognizable Ms. O’Toole is tremendously moving too. She vanishes into Robert, whose gaunt face expresses the serenity of a man who has found happiness while still remembering the pain of a girl growing up in the wrong body.

Southern Comfort

“Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis’ lush, pop-infused country score brings new layers of emotion to this profound tale of love. There’s much to admire here: the fabulous, five-person band, James J. Fenton’s evocative set and Thomas Caruso’s sensitive direction of his committed cast. Southern Comfort is different, beautiful and lovable, just like its heroes.”

A new musical celebrates transgender Southern folk

Raven SnookTime Out

If you’ve seen Kate Davis’s moving 2001 documentary about a tight-knit group of transgender friends living in the-Middle-of-Nowhere, Georgia, you probably wonder why anyone would want to musicalize it. After all, patriarch Robert (Annette O’Toole)—an F to M who seems like such a good ol’ boy, the KKK once asked him to join—and his pals are more likely to blast guns than burst into song. But Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis’s lush, pop-infused country score brings new layers of emotion to this profound tale of love.

Robert and his makeshift family—girlfriend Lola (Jeff McCarthy), surrogate son Maxwell (Jeffrey Kuhn) and his sometime lover Cori (Natalie Joy Johnson), as well as married couple Cas (Todd Cerveris) and “genetic girl” Stephanie (Robin Skye)—gather once a month for Sunday dinner. Although Robert is dying of ovarian cancer, he refuses to be glum. His last wish is to attend Southern Comfort, a transgender convention, with the just-starting-to-transition Lola on his arm.

In order to give the show a clear dramatic arc, the writers take a lot of liberties with real-life details, and the second act gets bogged down in a series of clichs. But such flaws don’t ruin the overall story’s power. There’s much to admire here: the fabulous, five-person band, James J. Fenton’s evocative set and Thomas Caruso’s sensitive direction of his committed cast. Southern Comfort is different, beautiful and lovable, just like its heroes.

Southern Comfort

“As touching as it is idiosyncratic, ‘Southern Comfort’ effectively redefines the term ‘family musical.’…it features perhaps the strongest family to be seen on a New York stage…If there was ever a show with its heart in the right place, it’s this one. The comforts it provides are far more than just the Southern variety.”

Moving musical proud of its agender

Frank ScheckNew York Post

As touching as it is idiosyncratic, “Southern Comfort” effectively redefines the term “family musical.” Based on a 2001 Sundance award-winning documentary about transgender people in rural Georgia, it features perhaps the strongest family to be seen on a New York stage.

Five of the six central characters in this musical by Dan Collins (book and lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music) are transsexuals. The patriarch of the clan is the 50-something Robert (Annette O’Toole), who’s dying, ironically enough, of cervical cancer. His partner is Lola (Jeff McCarthy), a hulking figure who struggles to wear blouses that downplay her massive shoulders. Robert also has two young men in his life that he treats as sons: Maxwell (Jeffrey Kuhn) and Cas (Todd Cer-veris), whose respective girlfriends are Cori (Natalie Joy Johnson) and Stephanie (Robin Skye); only Stephanie was born female.

“Southern Comfort” takes its title from an annual gathering in Atlanta that’s described as “the cotillion of the transgender community.”

 

The show movingly depicts the characters’ constant struggle for respect and tolerance from both family members and the community. Robert is rebuffed by doctors who are uncomfortable treating him, and his elderly parents refuse to acknowledge his new identity. A major subplot involves Maxwell’s agonizing over the recon-structive surgery that would complete his process of becoming a male.

But there’s humor as well, as when Maxwell and Cori put a romantic spin on taking their hormone shots together. “One makes you horny and the other makes you irritable,” she cheerfully points out.

The gentle country/bluegrass-flavored score, performed by a four-piece band whose members also play minor roles, is filled with a few too many emotive ballads of self-empowerment.

But some of the songs, such as “Bird,” Lola’s lament about “the cruel sound of my own voice,” are very touching.

O’Toole — who’s performed a cabaret act with her husband, Michael Mc-Kean — is virtually unrecognizable here under a moustache, goatee and aviator glasses; she’s terrific as the weathered Robert. McCarthy, whose Officer Lockstock character from “Urinetown” has been a hilarious commentator at many theater benefits, is moving as the ungainly Lola, and his scenes with the diminutive O’Toole have an amusing Mutt and Jeff quality. The supporting players are equally fine.

If there was ever a show with its heart in the right place, it’s this one. The comforts it provides are far more than just the Southern variety.

Don't Talk to the Actors

“Director Thomas Caruso has brought together a capable cast that achieved its mission; they put a smile on the faces of the audience members as they left the theatre.”

‘Don’t Talk to the Actors’ in Stony Point

Cynthia O. ToppsTimes Herald-Record

STONY POINT — It appears that there is a love affair going on between Penguin Rep and playwright Tom Dudzick. Penguin’s latest offering, “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” makes the fourth Dudzick comedy that producer Joseph Brancato has brought to his stage.

“Don’t Talk to the Actors” revolves around a group of artists working on a new play destined for Broadway. Playwright Jerry Przprezniak (David Arkema) is a wide-eyed innocent who is thrown into a world of difficult actors with agendas and foibles.

Even though the Director, Mike Policzek, (Wilbur Edwin Henry) advises Jerry not to talk to the actors, Jerry’s promising career, the legendary stars in his production and the amazing theater world of New York City overwhelm him into ignoring this advice.

Curt Logan (Richard Kline) and Beatrice Pomeroy (Beth Fowler) have their own reasons for appearing in Jerry’s play and both put pressure on him to rewrite their roles. Logan wants his part to be grittier and Pomeroy wants more comedy. Stage Manager Lucinda Shaw (Claire Karpen) does her best to keep the production on track. But it begins to collapse along with Jerry’s relationship with girlfriend Arlene Wyniarski (Alexandra Turshen).

Both Arkema and Turshen provide a convincing contrast to the professionals, such as Turshen’s swooning at meeting her idol Curt Logan coupled with Arkema’s bubbly enthusiasm. Their transition to disillusionment is both affecting and believable.

Henry turns in a solid performance as the veteran director who retains his Midwestern outlook toward New York City pretentiousness. Karpen displays many stage manager traits, such as slavish attention to detail and strict adherence to rules with a crisp British accent.

Kline and Fowler are larger than life in their roles. Fowler hits all the right notes, whether she is breaking into bawdy songs or adding sarcastic lines to the script. Kline’s charming but self-centered portrayal is spot on.

Costume designer Brendan Cooper provides the perfect clothing for each character to reveal his personality, especially Lucinda the Stage Manager. Paul Weimer has designed a complete rehearsal room set, with accurate details such as the velvet curtains that hide the mirrored walls.

Although there are some insider jokes, the comedy is broad-based, with absurd situations and laughable characters. Director Thomas Caruso has brought together a capable cast that achieved its mission; they put a smile on the faces of the audience members as they left the theater.

Don't Talk to the Actors

“Don’t Talk to the Actors is a love song to the theatre… Mr. Caruso has elicited some truly fine acting from his cast…Theatre’s power to transform is fully, hilariously realized.”

A Lively Comedy of Self-Reference

Sylvaine GoldNew York Times

As anyone who has ever ventured behind the curtain can attest, transformation lies at the heart of theater. And in Tom Dudzick’s backstage comedy “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” now at Penguin Rep Theater in Rockland County, the transformations just keep on coming.

Two innocents from upstate become Times Square habitués, savvy about the wicked ways of Broadway; a dowdy workaholic blossoms into a glamorous knockout; a bawdy, manic cutup reveals a tender side; and a sweet little family drama turns into an unhinged spectacle. Do I need to add that “Don’t Talk to the Actors” is, like the show music playing before it begins, a love song to the theater?

Mr. Dudzick, who lives in Rockland County, has become a favorite at Penguin with his easygoing autobiographical comedies. In this one, the playwright’s stand-in leaves the blue-collar precincts familiar from “Greetings!” “Over the Tavern” and “Our Lady of South Division Street” (now called “Miracle on South Division Street”) for a New York rehearsal studio, where his easygoing autobiographical play “Tuning Pianos” will be readied for its Broadway debut.

The studio, nicely rendered by the set designer, Paul Weimer, has been meticulously organized by Lucinda, “the most sought-after stage manager in New York.” As the other characters filter into the room, Mr. Dudzick outlines the back story: a chance encounter with a veteran Broadway producer has landed an amateur playwright, Jerry Przprezniak, his first professional production, and he has come to New York with his awe-struck fiancée, Arlene Wyniarski.

One of the reasons she’s so awe-struck is that the lead actor of “Tuning Pianos” is none other than Curt Logan, the television has-been with whom she was hopelessly smitten as a teenager. His TV co-star, Beatrice Pomeroy, has been rescued — a tad unwillingly — from her risqué nightclub act to play opposite him again in Jerry’s drama. And moonlighting — also a tad unwillingly — from his successful theater in Chicago is the play’s director, Mike Policzek, whose nice-guy demeanor masks an astute theatrical intelligence (even if he can’t quite wrap his brain around the fact that New York City prices are higher than Chicago’s).

Wilbur Edwin Henry’s amiable performance soft-pedals Mike’s intelligence, but the audience figures it out when early on he gives Jerry the advice that all playwrights need to hear if they are to keep faith with the characters they invent: “Don’t talk to the actors.” Mike doesn’t explain why, but Mr. Dudzick’s play does, as Curt and Beatrice, in the properly hammy performances of Richard Kline and Beth Fowler, attempt to take over Jerry’s script in the service of their egos and their careers. Curt wants to give his role more “grit,” and Bea thinks her character could use more jokes, not to speak of songs. In Mr. Dudzick’s canny, self-referential structure, Curt and Bea are not just juicing up Jerry’s play, they’re enlivening the one we’re watching as well.

The playwright has told interviewers that he based Curt on the television actor Darren McGavin, who starred in “Greetings!” Off Broadway in 1993. The director of that production was Dennis Zacek, the longtime head of the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. Bea is not only based on the comedian Belle Barth, she borrows some of her material. And David Arkema, the actor playing Jerry, actually bears something of a physical resemblance to Mr. Dudzick.

I have no information on whether the play’s fiancée and stage manager have real-life counterparts as well, but “Don’t Talk to the Actors” feels unmistakably like a comedy à clef. And when the “Tuning Pianos” director tells the “Tuning Pianos” playwright that he might need to cut, you wish the play’s actual director, Thomas Caruso, had persuaded Mr. Dudzick to trim some of the first act, or had at least managed to speed it up a bit.

But in some ways, the deliberate pace of Act I sets up the unraveling that provides the laughter, and also a few gasps, in Act II. And Mr. Caruso, who directed Mr. Kline and Ms. Fowler in Penguin’s “Greetings!” and Mr. Arkema in Penguin’s “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment,” has elicited some truly fine acting from his cast.

Mr. Kline is especially unctuous as the preening Curt, and Ms. Fowler deftly conveys the fragility beneath Bea’s bluster. Claire Karpen carries off Lucinda’s obsessive work ethic and jarring outfits (by the costume designer, Brendan Cooper) with panache. And Alexandra Turshen is a properly dewy ingénue as the dewy ingénue engaged to the playwright.

But it’s when Mr. Arkema arrives in the rehearsal room after an all-night rewrite session, wild-haired and wild-eyed and raving, that theater’s power to transform is fully, hilariously realized.

Don't Talk to the Actors

“A brilliantly written backstage comedy with an insight to the workings of showbiz. The entire cast presents an amazing entertaining show with lots of laughs.”

Playwright Tom Dudzick does it again — A funny, funny show!

George J. DacreRockland Times

Tom Dudzick uses his own experience of growing up in a Polish populated section of Buffalo and his exodus to New York City’s off-Broadway show scene to create a brilliantly written backstage comedy with an insight to the workings of showbiz. In reality, when Dudzick arrived in the city and started to get his plays performed off-Broadway, he was advised “Don’t talk to the actors,” as they will work on you to rewrite the script to make the actors look better!

Well, actor David Arkema takes on Dudzick’s role as author, Jerry Przprezniack and runs into lots of trouble when actor Richard Kline, playing Curt Logan, convinces him to rewrite Logan’s part to make it gutsier.

Logan also works on Przprezniak’s girlfriend Arlene Wyniarksi, played very well by Alexandra Turshen. In order to convince the author that he has to rewrite his part, Logan seduces Alrene kissing her and promising her they will be together. And Wyniarksi swoons just at the site of Logan.

Then comes along two-time Tony nominee Beth Fowler, playing Beatrice Pomeroy, an actress who also wants a rewrite. Meanwhile, Director Mike Policzek, played by Wilbur Edwin Henry, just wants to do the show as written since he thinks it is excellent.

Claire Karen plays the stage manager, Lucinda Shaw, and tries to move rehearsals along. She puts on a very comic performance wanting things to be just right. The entire cast presents an amazing entertaining show with lots of laughs.

I rate “Don’t Talk To The Actors” three out of four stars.

For Dudzick, who resides in Nyack, it is four for four at Penguin. He has found a home between Buffalo and New York City and Rockland loves him for it. He keeps you laughing all the way through. Catch it at Penguin Reportory on Crickettown Road in Stony Point now through August 26. Tickets at 845-786-2873 or www.penguinrep.org.

Don't Talk to the Actors

“Thomas Caruso’s production is delightful and his talented cast is marvelous…a first rate production.”

Theaterweek

Anthony ChaseArt Voice

Tom Dudzick’s new play, Don’t Talk to the Actors, was highly anticipated for many reasons. Since he wrote Over the Tavern, his comic yet touching celebration of life growing up in an apartment above the family business on Buffalo’s Polish east side, Dudzick has become the Polish Neil Simon. He made an icon of tyrannical yet loving Sister Clarissa, the mythical (and fictional) nun who instructed generations of Buffalonians in penmanship and Catholic morality. He confirmed Chef’s restaurant as a tourist Mecca—equal, in the hearts of the locals, with Niagara Falls. He understands our city’s affection for its ethnic working-class histories, and people of many backgrounds have seen themselves and their own families in his work.

In Don’t Talk to the Actors, Dudzick returns to semi-autobiographical territory. This time we meet Jerry, a young and innocent playwright from Buffalo who, in the company of his equally young and innocent fiancée, makes his first trip to New York City, where his own autobiographical play is being produced on Broadway. Jerry is to learn that the rest of the world is not as “nice” as Buffalo, at least not on the surface.

Will Jerry’s innocence and dreams be shattered, or will goodness prevail?

Get real. This is a Tom Dudzick play. Goodness will prevail.

This production is important for Studio Arena, where artistic director Kathleen Gaffney has begun her first solo season. She has selected the plays. She has assembled the artistic teams. Dudzick’s reinforcing joke fest is intended to jumpstart a season that includes an edgy new musical, a recent A.R. Gurney play, a recent British drama, the retelling of a classic American novel and a musical revue. Dudzick gets us off to a happy start with a play that is solid and engaging, if not perfect in this, its very first outing.

With Don’t Talk to the Actors, Gaffney is quite clearly striving to restore Studio Arena to its glory days without alienating its current audience. The play is a light confection, sweetened with abundant local references and devised to delight. At the same time, it is a world premiere, populated with name talent. In that respect, we are seeing shades of Neal Du Brock, the legendary Studio Arena artistic director, who, throughout the 1960s and ’70s imbued the theater with an undercurrent of excitement, whether he was featuring the world premiere of a challenging Edward Albee play, or featuring Betsy Palmer in his own Countess Dracula.

Don’t Talk to the Actors has been given a first rate production, directed by Thomas Caruso with Denny Dillon, Richard Kline and Lewis J. Stadlen in featured roles; set by Troy Hourie and costumes by Donna McCarthy.

Peter Stadlen (the real life son of Lewis) plays Jerry, the neophyte playwright from Buffalo. In “a snow related miracle that could only happen in Buffalo,” he has been discovered when a Broadway producer is stranded in our city during a blizzard and decides to take in a community theater production. As the play begins, Jerry, accompanied by his girlfriend, Arlene, enters the rehearsal hall, anticipating an environment of selfless professionalism. Oh boy, is he in for a surprise.

The director, a man of greater experience played by the older Stadlen, warns young Jerry, “Don’t talk to the actors.” The advice goes unheeded.

In no time at all, Curt Logan, a 1980s television star (who still dresses the part) has commandeered the production and the author’s girlfriend. It seems that old Curt is only taking a Broadway gig as a showcase for a possible television gig. Bea Pomeroy, the actress hired to play Jerry’s sainted mother, turns out to be Curt’s bawdy television wife; she’s way out of her comfort zone in a domestic drama, and wants to endear herself to the audience by clowning around with risqué ad-libbing.

The strength of the production lies in the remarkable comic talent of the senior Stadlen as Mike, the director; Richard Kline as Curt Logan; and the irrepressible Denny Dillon as Bea. Dudzick’s script supplies the comic nails, and these seasoned pros whack each one down with side-splitting perfection.

Stadlen, for instance, can earn a laugh with a simple announcement like “Nine-ninety-five for two eggs, toast and coffee.” His inflections are infectiously funny as he points out the absurdity in life’s most mundane situations. He can wrest laughs with sardonic observations about the lunacy of other characters, or with a Jackie Gleason spit take. (He executes one to perfection in Act II.)

Kline is best known for playing sleazy Larry Dallas on Three’s Company, the low-brow television comedy of the late 1970s and early ’80s that thrived on the comic genius of a cast that also boasted the late John Ritter, Audra Lindley and Norman Fell. In a performance that lacks any nuance, he brings down the house by enacting the same scene twice to demonstrate how Jerry’s play can be enhanced through “nuance.” He even gets a laugh for a groin gag—it may be low physical comedy, but Kline, a master of his craft, elevates it to high art.

Denny Dillon is assuredly one of the most underrated comic talents of her generation. Unforgettable for her assorted characters on Saturday Night Live, or for her Tony-nominated turn in Broadway’s My One and Only, her entrance in Don’t Talk to the Actors seems to say, “Now this is a party!” She creates hilarity from unbridled stand-up shtick, from incredulous repetitions of lines from the play within the play, or by simply conceding the regrettable truth. Hear her handle variations on the latter when she hands out toiletries as first rehearsal gifts or when she sadly agrees with Curt’s admission that he’s a first class Hollywood shmuck. She literally stops the show with her ribald description of how “slow and steady,” their generous producer Arthur is. Dillon’s is the most deliciously written role in the show and she doesn’t waste an instant of it.

The younger cast members do well just to keep up.

Peter Stadlen is endearing and surprisingly real as the beleaguered playwright, Jerry Przpezniak. The young actor has been entrusted with the heart and soul of the play, for Jerry’s sincerity comes closest to Over the Tavern territory, and the audience dearly does not want to believe that sincerity and goodness are character flaws. Stadlen manages to be a nice guy without being a total schlemiel. This takes some doing when he forgives the fiancée who tries to run off with the sleazy television star she idolizes. Dudzick hands Stadlen the perfect nice guy revenge, when, in the moment of forgiveness, he allows Jerry to ask the girl, “Am I going to have to worry? I mean, there’s a lot of old men in this city!” Thus he insults both fiancée and TV star without ever ceasing to be “nice.”

As Arlene, the fiancée, Dana Powers Acheson, too, proves that she’s got the comic chops to keep up with this crew. Her scenes with Kline are especially memorable, for if he is landing the jokes, she’s setting them up. She is also skilled at physical comedy. She faints like a 1940s ingénue, and the moment in which she releases the brakes to make out with the TV star she adores is hilarious.

Polly Lee gives a solid performance as the easily distressed British stage manager. She deftly barks her way through a succession of inconvenient phone calls, and earns a big guffaw with the old line, “Is it something I said?”

All that being said, one wonders about the play’s future potential. Over the Tavern played all over the country. To liken Dudzick to Neil Simon is a great compliment, but it also signals that this is an old-fashioned kind of play, the sort New York seldom embraces any more. Still, the opportunity to laugh and laugh is very enjoyable, indeed, and as this is the very first production of Don’t Talk to the Actors, Dudzick is only now getting to see how his script actually plays. It is likely that he will want to speed things along in Act I, which takes too long to ignite with its unnecessarily detailed exposition. He has also been adjusting the crowd-pleasing Buffalo references, with a mind to future productions. A joke that in the script read, “You’re from Buffalo? What you’re not from normal parents?” which inspired groans in the Buffalo preview audience, became a joke about spending a week in Buffalo one night.” Dudzick is still tinkering and refining, and he has the experience of a long career of comedy writing to help him along.

Even as it is right now, however, Don’t Talk to the Actors is a pleasure. Thomas Caruso’s production is delightful and his talented cast is marvelous.

Shipwrecked

“Under the exquisite direction of Thomas Caruso…”

Must-see ‘Shipwrecked!’

Peter D. KramerThe Journal News

It goes by an unwieldy title, but “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)” is storytelling, pure and simple.

See Donald Margulies’ spellbinder through the eyes of a seven-year-old and you’ll remember the bliss of suspended disbelief, when a man can don a ski cap and convince you he’s a dog, or circle the stage on a mechanic’s creeper and become a South Seas pearldiver.

Actually, you don’t need the seven-year-old, but it helps. And the kid’ll get a kick out of it.

Under the exquisite direction of Tom Caruso — whose Penguin Rep productions of “Over the Tavern” and “Greetings!” have tickled audiences the last couple of years — “Shipwrecked!” (at Penguin through Sept. 4) is more akin to last season’s charming “Around the World in 80 Days,” which Caruso also directed.

Both “Shipwrecked!” and “80 Days” are short of cast members and long on well-rewarded imagination.

Steven Hauck leads the cast of three as Louis de Rougemont, an honest-to- goodness character who wowed Victorian London — and Queen Victoria, herself — in the 1890’s with his stories of wombats, giant octopus, sea turtles and being shipwrecked for 30 years.

“I lived it,” de Rougemont intones at the outset, in a veddy British accent.

We learn he grew up a sickly boy who devoured adventure books and yearned to inhabit their worlds.

And we are off.

Hauck narrates Margulies’ lean script with dispatch, excitedly spinning his yarn and pulling the audience in. Before long, he’s cartwheeling and doing handstands, in a performance that manages to be energetic and nuanced.

It falls to Edena Hines and David Arkema to fill the stage with de Rougemont’s story, as a host of characters.

Hines is Louis’ mother, the drunken Capt. Jensen, the lovely Yamba, an Australian prospector, publisher Fitzgerald, a society lady, a London mother, an octopus expert, a mapmaker, a questioning reporter and Dr. Leopold.

Arkema is a barkeep, Bruno the faithful dog, Gunda an aboriginal old man, Bobo an aboriginal young man, an Australian prospector, a society lady, Albert a London boy, Queen Victoria, a turtle expert, a wombat expert, a librarian, a pickpocket, a newsboy, a reporter and a lawyer.

They shift efficiently and seamlessly from character to character, sometimes with a mask, other times with a snippet of costume.

In the case of Bruno the dog, the exceptional Arkema needs only to put on a wool cap, stick out his tongue and widen his eyes to create an an unforgettable pup.

Hines, a fine actress, brings depth to Yamba, her eyes brimming with tears as she sees her homeland.

They use every prop at their disposal on Sarah Lambert’s well-appointed set — turning a ladder into the creaking wreckage of a ship, or a bathtub, for example — and Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes add dimension to the ride.

Patrick Metzger’s soundscape provides captivating underscoring throughout, giving the play a cinematic feel and a whole other dimension and heft.

Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for “Dinner with Friends,” spins a wonderful adventure over the course of 75 minutes and then things turn south for de Rougement, whose accounts are brought into question.

In the final quarter-hour of the intermissionless show, we come to wonder about the events we’ve wondered at. Did they really happen?

Having been the toast of London, regaling queen and all with tales of his exploits, de Rougemont becomes the flavor of the month, in a twist that contemporary audiences can certainly appreciate.

Hauck expertly mines this change of fate with a haunted quality, a man whose grip is loosening, but who remains steadfast.

“Shipwrecked!” is sure to delight those younger than 10 — and those whose imaginations allow them to remember what that age was like.

It is a tale well told.

(P.S. After the show, stop beside the exit to see a photo of the actual Louis de Rougemont riding a sea turtle, a feat the experts declared impossible, and decide whether you believe his story or not.)

“Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)” Through Sept. 4. 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays; 4 p.m., Saturdays; 2 p.m., Sundays. Penguin Rep, 7 Crickettown Road, Stony Point.$34, $20 for students. Discounts are also available for groups of 10 or more. 845-786-2873. Go to the Penguin Rep website. www.pengunrep.org. Note: A post-show Q&A follows the Aug. 19 performance. A tasting from a local restaurant precedes the Aug. 20 matinee.

Shipwrecked

“Elegant…Clever…Admirable…director Thomas Caruso, has concocted a kind of comical counterpoint to Louis’s ornate narration.”

NYTimes Review: What He Did (or Not) on His Australian Vacation

Sylvaine GoldNew York Times

With his long, lean physique and thin, angular face, Steven Hauck seems destined to play Don Quixote someday. In the meantime, he’s making do with Louis de Rougemont, the somewhat quixotic memoirist who thrilled Victorian England with his ripping yarns and ended up in a sideshow as “The Greatest Liar on Earth.”

That’s more or less where we find him in Donald Margulies’s “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself),” the final offering of the Penguin Rep season and the occasion for Mr. Hauck’s elegant impersonation. On a nearly bare stage strewn with a few lights, a couple of ladders and some hanging fabric, Louis welcomes us and begins his account of the ill-fated pearling expedition in the Coral Sea that, he claims, left him stranded among cannibals in the “land of the Aborigines” for 30 years.

Those 30 years pass in only 90 minutes at the Penguin, but not without some longueurs. Mr. Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his play “Dinner With Friends,” has written that Louis’s story — or stories — inspired him to write “a purely theatrical play about the power of imagination.” Believe him. In this very loose adaptation of the 1899 book “The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont, as Told by Himself,” you will not find any of Mr. Margulies’s nuanced, multilayered individuals or compelling dramatic arcs. And the Australian adventures that passed for amazing in 1899 seem somewhat tamer today. The main tool the playwright offers the actor playing Louis is plain, old-fashioned storytelling.

Fortunately, Mr. Hauck is up to the task. A charming and lively narrator, he uses his expressive features and liquid voice to bring us into Louis’s saga. His two cute-as-a-button assistants, Edena Hines and David Arkema, pop up as needed to dispense props, move the ladders around and portray incidental characters as our hero moves from his London childhood to his seafaring days and then to his odyssey through wildest, darkest Australia.

The pair’s most crucial contributions are Mr. Arkema’s Bruno, the clever and devoted mutt Louis inherits after his ship sinks, and Ms. Hines’s Yamba, another castaway who later becomes his wife. But they also have fun as the pearl divers and gold prospectors Louis encounters on his travels and the London gossips and debunkers who turn on him after he publishes his story.

From top: Mr. Arkema, Mr. Hauck and Ms. Hines.

These young actors also help with the shadow puppets and other simple devices that the director, Thomas Caruso, has concocted as a kind of comical counterpoint to Louis’s ornate narration. To his credit, he hasn’t repeated the tricks he used to enliven last season’s somewhat similar project, “Around the World in 80 Days”; but he hasn’t achieved quite that level of stage magic, either.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any. The lighting designer Cory Pattak and the sound designer Patrick Metzger create a shimmery underwater Eden when Louis joins the pearlers on a dive. Patricia E. Doherty provides the quirky, quick-change items of clothing that instantly transform Ms. Hines and Mr. Arkema into a tribesman or Louis’s mother or his dog. And Sarah Lambert’s rough beams and rigging provide a suitably nautical framework for the proceedings.

Alas, Mr. Margulies’s “entertainment” does not quite live up to its billing, despite the truly admirable efforts of Mr. Hauck and the rest. But then again, neither did Louis de Rougemont live up to his.

Shipwrecked

“For 90 uninterrupted minutes, ‘Shipwrecked!’ will have you hanging on every word!”

‘Shipwrecked! An Entertainment’ in Stony Point

James F. CotterRecord Online

STONY POINT — “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself)” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies is inspired by a story told by Louis de Rougemont, a Victorian Robinson Crusoe who wrote about surviving his being stranded on an island in the Coral Sea and on the Australian outback for 30 years and who returned to England to tell of his ordeals and strange encounters. His written account published in World Wide Magazine in 1899 caused a sensation and made him an instant celebrity.

STONY POINT — “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself)” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies is inspired by a story told by Louis de Rougemont, a Victorian Robinson Crusoe who wrote about surviving his being stranded on an island in the Coral Sea and on the Australian outback for 30 years and who returned to England to tell of his ordeals and strange encounters. His written account published in World Wide Magazine in 1899 caused a sensation and made him an instant celebrity.

Directed by Thomas Caruso, the Penguin Rep production stars Steven Houck as the colorful raconteur who mesmerized his readers with tales of sailing to Australia in search of pearls, witnessing a giant octopus attack a boat, tackling a whirlpool and storms at sea and finally landing on an island where he later encountered shipwrecked aborigines. Houck dramatizes every word with fantastic gestures, demonstrating physical exercises with leaps, cartwheels and handstands, and mimicking what it was like to ride a giant turtle. He invites us to join him in his “temple of the imagination” and describes a spellbinding journey in a tour de force portrayal.

Two actors play out all the scenes Louis weaves onstage with the help of Sarah Lambert’s exotic set design, myriad props by Nicole Greenberg and clever costume changes by Patricia E. Doherty. Edena Hines is Louis’ mother, who reads him travel and adventure stories as a child; then she is Capt. Jensen, who takes him onboard the ship Wonder World and later becomes his Aborigine wife, Yamba, whom he marries in the Outback. She also appears as a society lady, octopus expert, mapmaker, reporter and librarian after Louis returns to London.

David Arkema has even more roles, as a barkeep, aborigine elder and boy, Australian prospector, turtle expert and pickpocket, among others. He is wonderfully believable as Bruno, the dog that rescues and befriends Louis, and as Queen Victoria, who honors Louis for his heroism. He manages to be two or three people in an instant, but he is most lovable in his canine role.

For 90 uninterrupted minutes, Hauck as Louis will have you hanging on his every word. That is what you want from a stage actor’s performance and a production. What was good enough for Queen Victoria should satisfy today’s playgoers with these amazing adventures.

Greetings

“Director Thomas Caruso has brought together a fine cast for a polished production.”

‘Greetings!’ in Stony Point

Cynthia O. ToppsRecord Online

STONY POINT — Penguin Rep seems to be a perfect fit for playwright Tom Dudzick. This is the third play that producer Joseph Brancato has presented as Penguin Rep’s opening show. Last year’s offering, “Over the Tavern,” was largely autobiographical. “Greetings!” draws from similar family themes, but here adds a miraculous twist.

Comic elements such as bad electrical wiring (plugging in the Christmas tree causes the house lights to go out) set the stage for an unforgettable Christmas. Andy Gorski is bringing his fiancée home to meet the family. Parents Phil and Emily bicker over the visit and about the health of their other son, Mickey, who barely speaks and is mentally retarded.

During an uncomfortable Christmas Eve dinner, a religious discussion ensues involving fiancée Randi, an atheistic Jew, and Phil, a staunch Catholic, over the existence of God. Andy and Emily try to mediate, but it is Mickey who brings the argument to a standstill.

Richard Kline, as Phil, and Beth Fowler, as Emily, are perfection in their roles. They banter and bicker like an old married couple and deliver the laughs with sniper precision. Kline is ideal as the cranky, frustrated, opinionated patriarch. There are moments when the audience gets to see the heart behind the hard shell, which makes it an appealing portrayal.

Fowler breezes in and out of the action without missing a beat. There are times when Emily seems confused, which is at odds with the type of canny character Fowler portrays. Andy explains by telling Randi that his mother is slightly hard of hearing. Or does she hear what she wants to hear?

Greetings

“Thomas Caruso, who directed the winningly slapstick ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ last season, takes a gentler approach with ‘Greetings!”

I’m an Angel, and I’m Here to Help

Sylvaine GoldNew York Times

We couldn’t actually see theater without them, but lighting designers are rarely on our minds as we watch plays. It’s a little different with Tom Dudzick’s 1990 comedy “Greetings!” He’s made the lights a crucial part of his story. And Martin E. Vreeland, the designer of the lighting effects in the production at Penguin Rep Theater in Stony Point, in Rockland County, has gotten them all just right.

The flickering lamps in the neat but faded living room (designed by James J. Fenton) tell of an old house with a balky electrical system; the strings of colored holiday bulbs suggest inhabitants holding fast to tradition; and the Christmas tree — well, keep an eye on that Christmas tree. It will surprise you, as it does the Gorskis, who have gathered to celebrate the holiday.

Surprises are nothing new for this working-class Catholic family in Pittsburgh, and it isn’t just that their lights have a habit of going out at inopportune moments. A stroke of bad luck forced Phil, the cranky softy who heads the household, to cut short a promising baseball career in favor of a more mundane life as a storekeeper. With his wife, Emily, he has had to raise a developmentally impaired son who, at the age of 30, has somehow begun showing signs of, well, higher cognition.

And now, on Christmas Eve, their other son, Andy, has arrived from New York with his new fiancée, whose name, disconcertingly, is Randi Stein. She isn’t Catholic, she isn’t Christian, she isn’t even Jewish. She professes to be — horrors! — an atheist.

Penguin audiences have watched Mr. Dudzick deal with some of these religious themes, probably more effectively, in his plays “Over the Tavern” and “Our Lady of South Division Street” (since renamed “Miracle on South Division Street”). In those, faith is an elastic concept, and the author’s tone is one of genial skepticism. In “Greetings!” which was written before the others, the playwright enlists the services of an oracular angel, who seems to leave little room for doubt about the existence of the spirit realm.

Although he seems to be an ordinary guy in a boring sweater — Patricia E. Doherty designed the apt costumes — he can materialize and dematerialize almost at will. He can redirect telephone calls without touching the phone. And he has an effortless command of BBC-speak. Played at Penguin with twinkling superiority and unearthly composure by Jonathan Fielding, the angel explains that he’s arrived to “shed some light” on the deep questions under discussion. But first he’d like a cup of coffee.

Thomas Caruso, who directed the winningly slapstick “Around the World in 80 Days” last season, takes a gentler approach with the situation comedy of “Greetings!” Happily, there’s a cast of seasoned pros to flesh out the thinly written characters. Beth Fowler, best known for her appearances in Broadway musicals, invests Emily with an air of weary, wary hopefulness. Richard Kline, familiar to television viewers from his years on “Three’s Company,” brings to the role of Phil a simmering grief for what might have been. And Rusty Ross and Rachel Stern make an appealing, believable young couple. But it is Mr. Fielding’s quicksilver performance that gives “Greetings” its glitter. Even Mr. Vreeland’s magical Christmas tree can’t outshine him.

Around The World in 80 Days

“Thomas Caruso does a fine job of bringing this intricate and fast-paced story to life.”

‘Around the World in 80 Days’ in Stony Point

Cynthia O. ToppsTimes Herald Record

STONY POINT — “Around the World in 80 Days” is a Jules Verne classic that has been served as the basis for an animated series, five different films, two television travel series, a television miniseries, three stage musicals and two plays. Verne wrote his own stage play, and the other is by Mark Brown.

Penguin Rep is presenting Brown’s lighthearted, comedic version as its latest offering. The production sports beautiful, colorful and eye-catching costumes by Patricia Doherty and ingenious, multipractical set design by Joseph Egan, and director Thomas Caruso does a fine job of bringing this intricate and fast-paced story to life.

His cast of five (four men and one woman) portray more than 30 characters of every nationality that they encounter on their journey. Sam Guncler as Phileas Fogg is perfection as the stiff-upper-lipped Englishman who wagers all his wealth on making it around the world in 80 days by rail and steamboat. His devotion to the task, his sense of fair play and justice are executed skillfully.

Hillel Meltzer as Fogg’s servant Passepartout truly embodies the acrobat, which was touted in his submitted credentials for employment. His ability to twist himself around and about is amazing to watch. His facial expressions are equally facile.

Around The World in 80 Days

“Around the World in 80 Days’ is a funny, fast-paced wonder of a play, expertly cast and acted, and directed with just the right touch by Thomas Caruso…Who needs 80 days? Caruso and his exceptional team take us around the world in 2 hours.”

Penguin’s “Around the World in 80 Days”

Peter D. KramerTimes Herald Record

Like Phileas Fogg, the Londoner who circles the globe with just one servant and a carpetbag, the cast of Penguin Rep’s winning production of “Around the World in 80 Days” travels light.

Joseph J. Egan’s set is deceptively simple: two upstage arches echo the proscenium arch, creating the feel of looking into the wrong end of a globe-trotter’s telescope.

Otherwise, the stage is bare, except for a large, framed map of the world on the upstage wall and a sturdy table and chairs that the cast, and our imagination, turn into everything from a fast-moving sled to trains, steamships and even an elephant named Kiouni.

Rather than making the images seem smaller, this backward glimpse into the telescope reveals a huge story well told.

“Around the World in 80 Days” is a funny, fast-paced wonder of a play, expertly cast and acted, and directed with just the right touch by Thomas Caruso, who staged Penguin’s season-opener, Tom Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern.”

The epic story here is Jules Verne’s, of course, written in 1873. But Mark Brown has adapted it for four men and one woman, in multiple roles and has added dashes of comedy that will remind some of “Monty Python” skits.

Michael Keyloun plays no fewer than 16 parts, each distinct. Notable are Proctor, a Buffalo-Bill-Yosemite-Sam sort of character (with an uncooperative mustache), Speedy, the equally uncooperative Brooklyn sea captain, and Mudge, the buck-toothed sled driver.

Keyloun’s quick changes and impeccable delivery — in whichever role he’s playing at the moment — offer a fine example creating character with the voice, body and a minimum of lines.

When the curtain call arrives, one expects each of Keyloun’s characters to take a bow. The fact that one actor has done all of this work shows the power of his craft.

Hillel Meltzer brings all of his energy to the role of Passepartout, Fogg’s loyal French servant and traveling companion whose name translates as “to go everywhere.”

With an outrageous accent and acrobatic skills to match, Meltzer is a crowd favorite as he crawls, leaps and bounds across the tiny Penguin stage. Young theatergoers of 7 or older — for whom this show is particularly suited — are sure to get a charge out of his physicality; their parents are just as likely to marvel at his verbal gymnastics.

Andy Prosky also tackles his share of roles, as the whistle-speaking court clerk Oysterpuff, an elephant driver, and as Rev. Wilson’s servant, in a long, flowing dress. It is as Scotland Yard’s unstoppable Detective Fix that Prosky, the son of the late great actor Robert Prosky, is most memorable, a perfect foil for Meltzer’s athletic Frenchman.

Meltzer and Prosky are a team of opposites driven by different desires: the heart-on-his-sleeve Passepartout to serve his master; the sly Fix to get his man. Their stylized movements are part of the fun, a tip of the hat to vaudeville.

Bushra Laskar, a native Londoner and the cast’s lone female member, does some cross-dressing of her own, as a sometime narrator and newspaperman. But it is as Aouda — a woman saved from a certain death — that she shines brightest.

In Laskar’s hands, Aouda — whose name is pronounced like “ayuda,” the Spanish word for help — emerges as an equal to Fogg.

Sam Guncler, seen in several Penguin productions — “The Goldman Project” and “Talley’s Folly,” among them — is precise and unwavering as Phileas Fogg, “a man of heart when he has the time.”

He is a cool customer at the center of the story, a character who keeps his head amid a swirl of comers and goers. Guncler provides the show’s rudder, and is spot-on.

Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes are asked to do the lion’s share of scene-setting here — and they don’t disappoint. From Fogg’s well-appointed frock coat and ascot to a Speedy’s hilarious parrot-topped peacoat and Aouda’s gowns — and various headscarves, hats and costumes of all stripes — Doherty’s work whisks us along from London to Calcutta, from Yokohama to San Francisco.

Chris Rummel’s soundscape includes lovely underscoring near the end of the first act, as Fogg and company board a vessel about to hit some rough weather.

Who needs 80 days? Caruso and his exceptional team take us around the world in 2 hours and five minutes, including an intermission.

Barring an extension, Penguin’s “Around the World in 80 Days” will be gone in 20 days, closing Sept. 5.

Mr. Fogg would quickly calculate that with 15 shows remaining at the 108-seat Bobbi Lewis Theater, only 1,620 additional tickets can be sold. And some of those are already taken.

Don’t miss the boat, the train or the elephant named Kiouni.

Around The World in 80 Days

“Fleetly directed by Thomas Caruso … In this day and age, when we can fly around the world in a matter of hours, all it takes is imagination.”

A Tech-Happy Global Race, at the Speed of Jules Verne

Sylviane GoldNew York Times

Phileas Fogg, the icy Englishman with a mania for whist and punctuality, was born in 1873, in Jules Verne’s deliciously wry novel “Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingts Jours” (translated that same year into “Around the World in 80 Days”). By 1874, Fogg’s bet-generated circumnavigation of the globe had already found a home on the Paris stage, in a spectacular production that featured a steamship, a live elephant and a locomotive pulling a three-car train.

The “Around the World in 80 Days” that opened last weekend at Penguin Rep gives us all of these people movers and more, but in the modern way: a multitude of characters portrayed by five actors, dozens of conveyances conjured by shifting arrangements of chairs and fabrics, ever-changing scenery communicated by barely any scenery at all. And, somehow, this low-tech approach suffices to evoke Verne’s paean to the technological wonders that had changed his world.

Mark Brown’s clever, lively stage adaptation is faithful to the writer’s voice (at least as it’s come down to us in English) and to the story — even though he makes short shrift of Fogg’s only passion, the bridgelike card game whist, and in the episode Verne bills as “only to be met with on American railroads,” he unaccountably turns Sioux attackers into geographically unlikely Apaches.

These are minor sins, not to be compared with the impractical, exceedingly un-Fogg-like balloon ride invented for David Niven in the 1956 movie and repeated in both the 1989 miniseries starring Pierce Brosnan and the 2004 remake with Jackie Chan. Happily, Penguin’s Phileas Fogg, Sam Guncler, is impeccably Foggian in his striped vest and precisely tied ascot (Patricia E. Doherty did the fine costumes), and he never boards a vehicle as erratic as a balloon. “The unforeseen does not exist,” he declares curtly, explaining why he is certain that modern transportation would allow him to circle the globe in 80 days.

Of course, his trip consists of almost nothing but the unforeseen, which is what turns it into an adventure rather than an exercise in scheduling. And Penguin’s renovated barn is intimate enough to allow the audience to register Mr. Guncler’s every quiver of surprise, his every raised eyebrow (let it here be noted that Mr. Guncler is ambi-eyebrowed — he can lift the one above his right eye as emphatically as he can the one that frames his left).

Mr. Guncler’s eyebrow gymnastics are matched on a grander scale by the physical exertions of the diminutive Hillel Meltzer as Passepartout, Fogg’s capable French servant. A gifted comedian, Mr. Meltzer deploys an astonishing array of elaborate shrugs, pratfalls and other cartoon contortions, as Passepartout becomes the indispensable facilitator of the show’s comedy as well as of Fogg’s enterprise.

Fogg encounters a variety of functionaries and fellow travelers — all with grotesquely thick accents and distinctive headgear — in the able persons of Andy Prosky and, especially, Michael Keyloun. Mr. Prosky spends most of his time impersonating the crafty and relentless Detective Fix, convinced that Fogg is not an eccentric Englishman on a bet but rather a thief on the run. Mr. Keyloun is particularly memorable as a Monty Python-esque judge and a gun-toting American yahoo with an aversion to foreigners. (I didn’t mind the clownish cowboy or the stereotyped Europeans; I even laughed at the exaggerated French accent that turned “peace pipe” into another, less savory item. But I found myself wincing at some of the jokier Asians and wondering if there wasn’t some way to get laughs without resorting to crude, outdated caricatures.)

Bushra Laskar dons trousers to play a few reporters and such, but her primary role is to enchant Fogg, and us, as Aouda, the beautiful young Indian widow he rescues from her husband’s funeral pyre because it is his duty, and, as it happens, he can spare the time.

The Penguin production, fleetly directed by Thomas Caruso, is performed in front of the large Mercator map and old-fashioned railway clock that dominate Joseph J. Egan’s spare stage set. Zachary Spitzer’s lighting creates 80 days and 80 nights, as well as a typhoon. In 1873, that would have required lots and lots of water. In this day and age, when we can fly around the world in a matter of hours, all it takes is imagination.

Over The Tavern

“Thomas Caruso has directed “Over the Tavern” with affection and comic vitality.”

Shuffling Off to the Buffalo of the 1950s

Anita GatesNew York Times

When little Rudy Pazinski prays, he asks Jesus to make his teacher Sister Clarissa not so mean, to make sure Dad doesn’t forget to pick up the spaghetti and, while he’s at it, to put Dad in a good mood that night.

It’s a practical approach to prayer, but then Rudy is a very practical seventh grader in Tom Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern,” the sweet, funny, gently irreverent opening production of the Penguin Repertory Theater’s 2010 season.

Growing up in Buffalo in 1959, Rudy is the say-anything-that-comes-to-mind star of the show. And he’s played by a rising star, 12-year-old Christopher Cox, who performed on Broadway as Mother’s Little Boy in last fall’s revival of “Ragtime.” (USA Today liked his “sweetness and spunk.” The Washington Post called him irresistible.) But the whole Pazinski family, as a unit, is just as important to the overall picture.

Mr. Dudzick has written them cute. They are, after all, inspired by his own family, who did indeed live in an apartment over the family tavern in Buffalo when he was a boy. But the casting director, Cindi Rush, has spiced up the recipe by assembling a particularly likable cast of fine actors who seem a little mismatched, as all families must feel sometimes. (What child hasn’t wondered: who are these strange people who claim to be my parents? And what parent hasn’t thought the same thing, at least once, about his or her children?)

Kathryn Markey is lovable as Ellen, the mother, who matter-of-factly keeps her husband and four children in line. Only a wry sense of humor (and the mid-20th-century American view of women’s roles) keep her going. It does seem like a stretch, though, that when her husband forgets to pick up that spaghetti dinner from the local restaurant, the only things she has in the cupboard are canned beets and breakfast cereal.

Chet, her husband, is played with convincing paternal exhaustion, grumpiness and cluelessness by Kevin Cutts. Mr. Cutts makes an undershirt, boxer shorts and knee-high socks seem like perfectly normal at-home wear. Until a nun shows up at his door.

Jonny and Stephan Adamow, real-life brothers from Stony Point, are making their professional theater debuts as the Pazinskis’ other two sons, Georgie and Eddie.

Georgie looks healthy and robust, but it soon becomes clear that he has Down syndrome. It is equally clear that his siblings love him deeply and would never think about being embarrassed by him. I like the way Jonny Adamow plays the scene in which his mother edges Georgie back from his spot on the floor where he is watching TV inches from the screen.

Eddie is the eldest child, a teenager with the usual preoccupations with sex and independence. Stephan Adamow makes the character both attractive as a young man and sympathetic as the little boy who still lives inside him. Stephan is taller than Ms. Markey, adding a nice physical dynamic to her (highly effective) attempts to control this giant child as long as he lives under her roof.

Ashley Scales plays Annie, the only daughter, an insecure adolescent who faces life awkwardly. Her acts of rebellion — like teasing her hair to ridiculous proportions (“It looks like the pope’s hat,” her mother tells her) — generally don’t go well. But Annie generates a radiance that turns into beauty when she learns that the boy next to her in glee club likes her.

There wouldn’t be much of a plot, though, without Sister Clarissa (Judy Frank), the bane of Rudy’s Catholic school existence. To be fair, Rudy is pretty much the bane of hers too. He prefers imitating Ed Sullivan to memorizing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. “Did Ed Sullivan die for your sins?” Sister Clarissa asks him.

When Rudy announces that he refuses to be confirmed, the good sister visits the Pazinskis’ home. There, things just get worse. Rudy announces that he’s read that “there are over 1,300 religions in the world” and, now that he’s aware of that, he says, “I’d like to shop around.” You can imagine the sister’s reaction.

Ms. Frank is called on to show us two very different sides of her character: the comically strict teaching nun; then, in the latter part of Act II, the real human being she is when she’s off duty. She does both well, but Mr. Dudzick’s script makes Sister Clarissa awfully easy to impress. When Rudy makes her a rosary out of Trix cereal, you’d think he’d recreated the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Thomas Caruso has directed “Over the Tavern” with affection and comic vitality. Yes, it’s pretty much just a staged sitcom with a dash of pretend blasphemy, but it has real heart.

FOR LAUGHS Rudy Pazinski (Christopher Cox) with his nemesis, Sister Clarissa (Judy Frank), in “Over the Tavern,” the opening production of the Penguin Repertory Theater’s 2010 season. Credit Zachary Spitzer
Over The Tavern

“Excellent…genuine…funny…directed briskly by Thomas Caruso. Over The Tavern is an overall delight.”

Penguin’s “Over the Tavern”

Peter D. KramerThe Journal News

Note to the Jerome family of Brighton Beach: The Pazinskis of Buffalo are giving you a run for your comic money at Penguin Rep in Stony Point.

Tom Dudzick’s comedy “Over the Tavern,” now opening Penguin’s 33rd season, is a Catholic cousin to Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

It’s about a big family in a small space. (Buffalo, not Brooklyn.)

It features a young kid with plenty of questions. (Rudy Pazinski, not Eugene Morris Jerome.)

While the Jeromes deal with the Depression, the Pazinskis deal with their father’s depression, and with a stern, ruler-wielding nun, Sister Clarissa.

Dudzick and Simon share an ear for clever dialogue and well-drawn characters and there’s a sweetly unapologetic sentiment at work here, one that some critics might sniff at, but it is genuine. And funny.

Penguin audiences likely will remember Dudzick’s hilarious “Our Lady of South Division Street,” which has since gone on to a production at Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury.

That play — about a family’s shrine in Buffalo — has been renamed “Miracle on South Division Street” and is eyeing a New York City run.

“Over the Tavern,” based on Dudzick’s early years growing up one flight up from his father’s Buffalo bar, is directed briskly by Thomas Caruso.

Rudy Pazinski, 12, wants relief from the drudgery of the Baltimore catechism. He’d like a religion that’s more fun. He has had enough of memorizing answers: He has answers of his own.

Sister Clarissa: “Why did God make us?”

Rudy: “OK, I’ve been thinking about that. And I think God meant it as a science experiment.”

Not the answer the sister wanted. More detention.

Rudy, played deftly by Broadway veteran Christopher Cox (“Ragtime”), would much rather work on his Ed Sullivan impersonation than on his catechism.

The excellent cast includes Judy Frank as Sister Clarissa, Kathryn Markey as Ellen, Kevin Cutts as Chet, and three fine local actors — Ashley Scales, Jonny Adamow and Stephan Adamow.

Cox impersonates Ed Sullivan, but Kathryn Markey’s performance as mother Ellen Pazinski might remind some of another regular Sullivan act: those guys who could keep many plates spinning at one time.

Ellen careens from one family crisis to another: A moody husband needs comforting; Annie needs advice about boys; Eddie needs to stop reading Playboy; Rudy needs to connect with his father; and Georgie, a boy with developmental problems, needs to sit farther back from the TV and stop sucking his thumb.

In each, Ellen is the voice of reason, but not without her doubts: “Well,” she says at one point. “I don’t think I could have handled that any worse.”

Markey finds just the right tone in each interaction. It is something to behold, the calm at the center of the storm.

Jonny Adamow does much with little as Georgie, a character modeled on the playwright’s older brother, who was born with Down syndrome. Georgie doesn’t say much — and one of the words isn’t suitable for a family newspaper — but Adamow is a study in focus and concentration. Also fine are Adamow’s real-life older brother, Stephan, as Eddie, and Ashley Scales as the forever-sorry Annie.

Cutts plays the changeable Chet well, as a man who is a product of his upbringing but who lets his work get the better of him. Even his rare softer moments carry an edge to them, and rightly so.

Judy Frank plays Sister Clarissa with an iron hand and a wondrous mix of puzzlement at Rudy.

Like “Brighton Beach,” which Simon followed with “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound,” “Over the Tavern” sparked a trilogy of its own, followed by “King O’ the Hill,” and “The Last Mass at St. Casimir’s.”

Here’s hoping next spring finds the next installment of the trilogy.

Make the trip to Stony Point, exit 15 off the Palisades Parkway. You’re bound to see something or someone you recognize in “Over the Tavern.”

And it’s closer than Brooklyn. And a lot closer than Buffalo.

Over The Tavern

“A heartwarming and enjoyable play…happy and satisfying.”

‘Over the Tavern’ staged by Penguin Rep

Cynthia O. ToppsRecord

STONY POINT — “Over the Tavern” is an autobiographical look at playwright Tom Dudzick’s life in Buffalo in the 1950s. His father owned a tavern, Big Joe Dudzick’s, and the family of six lived in a small apartment over that tavern. Dudzick has turned his childhood memories, both happy and sad, into a heartwarming and enjoyable play that is being staged by Penguin Rep.

Upon entering the theater, one is transported back to 1959 by the design by Ken Larson of the apartment of the Pazinskis, the fictionalized name chosen by the playwrights to represent his family. The play is told through the eyes of 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski, who is struggling to learn his catechism in preparation for Catholic confirmation. Rudy would rather tell jokes, do Ed Sullivan impressions and question the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Christopher Cox, who portrays Rudy, is the luminary of the production. Whether he is acting, reacting or talking to Jesus, Cox is perfection in the role. He runs circles around the adult performers, who are no lightweights themselves. His energetic and engaging manner makes it difficult for even Sister Clarissa to stay angry at him for long, even after he refuses to be confirmed or threatens to convert.

The adults in the piece all have an influence on Rudy. Sister Clarissa (Judy Frank) is Rudy’s teacher, disciplinarian and spiritual mentor. Frank gives the Sister just the right mix of compassionate concern, strong moral conviction and sly wit. She is particularly fine in the scene where Rudy and his father, Chet, a former student of Sister Clarissa’s, come to visit her in the hospital.

As Chet, the Pazinski patriarch, Kevin Cutts has the difficult task of portraying a complicated character who is drowning in financial, marital and family problems. Cutts skillfully conveys all Chet’s frustrations but he also manages to show a man struggling to be a loving father and husband.

Ellen (Kathryn Markey) is the Pazinski matriarch, and family confessor. She is the voice of reason, to which the children turn for advice and counsel rather than to their angry and moody father. Dealing with Georgie (Jonny Adamow), a special needs child; Eddie (Stephen Adamow), a sex-obsessed teenager; Annie (Ashley Scales), an adolescent with self-esteem issues; Rudy, the family clown and skeptic; and Chet, her floundering spouse, would make any woman drink or run away from home. Markey adeptly portrays Ellen’s weariness and frustration, but she capitalizes on Ellen’s moments of sharp cleverness. The rare instances when Markey smiles give a glimpse of the woman behind the apron.

The actors playing Rudy’s brothers and sister handle their respective roles capably. They are so at ease with one another that they actually look and seem like true siblings.

Without giving it away, the ending is happy and satisfying. But to find out Rudy’s spiritual fate, a ticket to Penguin Rep will have to be purchased.

Zombie

“Ingenious performance…impressive, too, is helmer, Thomas Caruso’s direction, which evokes the other people in Quentin’s life without ever letting him seem to break character while telling us his stories.”

Variety: Zombie

Sam ThielmanVariety

Bill Connington perfectly counterfeits the experience of sitting in a room with a serial killer, which is even less comfortable than it sounds . . . [his] ingenious performance gives the skin-crawling piece such an authentic texture. Connington is not interested in performing a whodunit (he did it, after all) but in re-creating a truly evil character down to the last detail. Thus, for the entire play, the actor seems to be channeling the weirdness of an utterly amoral psychopath. When Quentin turns to speak to the audience, we really feel like we’re in the presence of someone morally empty. It’s hard to overstate the effectiveness of Connington’ unblinking gaze, weird cadence and surprising, and off-kilter swearing. Impressive, too, is helmer Thomas Caruso’s direction . 

Zombie

“Shocking…A chilling one-man study of perversity…Mr. Connington commits totally to this haunting characterization and leaves us wondering exactly what kind of people are walking the streets alongside us.”

The Pervert in the Basement

Anita GatesNew York Times

Quentin P. seems a familiar type at first. In his 30s, Quentin (Bill Connington) lives alone in the basement of what used to be his grandmother’s house. His voice and demeanor are somewhat childlike.

When he announces, “I am an admitted sex offender,” it is a shocking confession. But that is only the beginning of the story in “Zombie,” a chilling one-man study of perversity adapted by Mr. Connington from a Joyce Carol Oates novella.

The banality of evil isn’t a new subject in literature or drama, but fiction rarely reveals this much this clearly. Quentin gives his boy victims nicknames — like Raisin Eyes and Squirrel — and insists he loves them. But his monstrousness quickly shows itself.

Mr. Connington commits totally to this haunting characterization and leaves us wondering exactly what kind of people are walking the streets alongside us.

Zombie

“Under the sure-handed direction of Thomas Caruso, Connington brings Quentin to life with the chillingly benumbed demeanor of someone who’s overly medicated or, perhaps, coping with a learning disability.”

Zombie – Village Voice Theater Review

Andy PropstVillage Voice

“Under the sure-handed direction of Thomas Caruso, Connington brings Quentin to life with the chillingly benumbed demeanor of someone who’s overly medicated or, perhaps, coping with a learning disability.”

Zombie

“Director Thomas Caruso conducts the piece with exquisite tension which builds with a determined pace…the staging is simple and potent; Caruso and Connington create startling, revealing theatrical images.”

Zombie – NYTheatre.com

Jason JacobsNYTheatre.com

“Director Thomas Caruso conducts the piece with exquisite tension which builds with a determined pace…the staging is simple and potent; Caruso and Connington create startling, revealing theatrical images.”

Zombie

“Mr. Caruso burrows deep – deeper than many audiences may wish to travel – into a profoundly unbeautiful mind.”

Burrowing Into an Unbeautiful Mind

Eric GrodeNew York Sun

The stage is one of the very few places where Joyce Carol Oates’s reputation as a master stylist has suffered a few bruises. Not from lack of effort: The dizzyingly prolific Ms. Oates has written enough adaptations of her own fiction (“Black Water”) as well as original works to fill a few anthologies. Still, for a woman whose name routinely surfaces during Nobel Prize speculation, Ms. Oates the playwright has typically met with responses ranging from tepid encouragement to benign neglect.

Enter Bill Connington, a reedy, nondescript-looking man in his early middle years who has chiseled her 1995 novella “Zombie” into a disciplined, no-frills, almost unbearably intense solo piece. (It’s one of two Oates adaptations to play at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, along with “The Corn Maiden.”) Mr. Connington’s mission: Give plausible emotional life to a man whose existence consists almost entirely of torturing and killing teenage boys.

Quentin P_____, a 31-year-old convicted sex offender in a seamy neighborhood of Detroit, is obsessed with turning boys into docile sex slaves. He lures young drifters into his apartment, drugs them, binds them, and attempts to lobotomize them in his bathtub with an ice pick. “To create a ZOMBIE you need to change their brains,” he explains. “Make them more quiet. Make them yours.” The inevitable failure of this plan culminates in his sodomizing the children; the only variation lies in whether or not they have already died at the time.

Ms. Oates’s novella, filled with Quentin’s childlike drawings and bizarre punctuation, is a scouring corrective to “torture porn” films such as “Saw” and “Hostel.” Unlike the lingering sadists of these entertainments (or, more to the point, unlike the creators of these films), Quentin P_____ doesn’t dwell on the protracted, truly awful sufferings of his victims. Only the last victim is ever offered an identity beyond the fairy-tale nicknames he gives them — Bunnygloves, Raisineyes, Squirrel — and this is only because the victim was a neighbor. All they represent to him are a series of fine-muscled young men who fail to meet his needs, to become his zombies. They are excruciatingly alive, at least for a few more hours, but they are dead to him.

Similarly, the meticulously controlled Mr. Connington and his tough-minded director, Thomas Caruso, have jettisoned Ms. Oates’s broader extrapolations of how Quentin’s pathologies are indicative of modern-day society and its morally anesthetizing tendencies. While a few vestiges remain of the sexual humiliations that presumably forged his awful path, Messrs. Connington and Caruso are scarcely more interested in how Quentin got there than he himself is. A tinge of moralism does, however, hover over a new context given to Quentin’s monologue: What began as diary entries have become a sort of confessional that provides at least a glimmer of hope but raises more questions than it answers.

Armed with nothing more than Joel E. Silver’s cadaverous lighting and Josh Zangen’s small handful of props (a table, two chairs, a chess set employed to chilling effect, and a life-size mannequin that is slightly overused), Mr. Connington generates a galvanizing friction between control and abandon. His oversize glasses, clipped delivery, and mirthless grin could easily slide into cliché, but he and Mr. Caruso burrow deep — deeper than many audiences may wish to travel — into a profoundly unbeautiful mind. “My whole body is a numb tongue,” Quentin says of his fruitless sessions with his court-appointed minders; Mr. Connington conveys both Quentin’s numbness and his hunger for any level of intimacy, however warped. As he concludes a horribly graphic rape fantasy with the line “We would eat pizza slices from each other’s fingers,” he is either the most monstrous tragedy or the most tragic monster in recent memory.

Zombie

“A haunting characterization…The piece is further enhanced by Thomas Caruso’s intense staging…”

Witty Killer to Killer Wit

Frank ScheckNew York Post

THE Fringe Festival is bursting with one-per son shows, but you won’t find any two more different in tone than “Zombie” and “That Dorothy Parker.” Each offers distinct pleasures, though “Zombie” – based on a Joyce Carol Oates novella – offers the more chilling variety.

Adapted and performed by Bill Connington, “Zombie” takes the form of a harrowing 60 minutes spent in the company of Quentin P., a gay sex offender whose goal is to create a zombie to fulfill his needs.

His plan: Find a young man, drug him into submission and perform a makeshift lobotomy with an ice pick.

As he discloses, in gruesome detail, things don’t go as planned, and most of his conquests end up dead.

“The disposal of these fabulous-looking guys . . . it’s a downer,” he whines.

Relating the tale in a flat, Midwestern accent, Connington delivers a haunting characterization that’s all the more unnerving for its surface blandness. The piece is further enhanced by Thomas Caruso’s intense staging and by a performance space that feels as claustrophobic as an attic.

By contrast, Carol Lempert’s one-woman show, “That Dorothy Parker,” offers touching, mostly lighthearted relief. The actress delivers a beautifully modulated turn as the woman who, as one of the wits of the Algonquin Round Table, helped define her literary times.

Using the recent death of Parker’s colleague Alexander Woollcott as the starting point, Lempert delivers a freewheeling account of the writer’s life, loves and career, mixing in generous amounts of her witty prose and poetry along the way.

Between shots of scotch, Parker decries her celebrity (“We were merely manufacturing wisecracks”) and laments the lack of attention paid to her more serious work, including her coverage of the Spanish Civil War.

The piece captures the spirit of a writer who was far more than the witticisms (“Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”) that made her famous.

Zombie

“It is an extremely honest and open performance, with detailed direction by Thomas Caruso.”

A chilling experience; not for the squeamish

Oscar E. MooreTalk Entertainment

What is a madman? What makes him murder and torture and rape young boys? Should we feel compassionate towards him? Is he just making fools of all the doctors brought in to treat him? Is his disease a result of his bad relationship with his daddy? Or is he simply looking for love and obedience in a world that has shunned him as being queer?

ZOMBIE, a one man monologue, based on the novella by Joyce Carol Oates attempts to enlighten us. In this hour long performance by Bill Connington who looks like your average ninety pound weakling, who could be your friendly next door neighbor, who learns how to do a lobotomy by going to the library and who becomes proficient with an ice pick totally and eerily inhabits the mind and body of Quentin P. No last names please.

His co-star in this production is a life sized dummy. Quentin is playing a game of chess with this stand in Zombie as the performance begins until Quentin can replace it with the real thing. We discover a bit about who he is and how he ticks until he explodes. We are privy to who he will target and how he will seduce them. This show is not for the squeamish.

The writing has a beautiful lyricism and style all its own. There is some very dark humor. No doubt due mainly to Ms Oates. Mr. Connington has adapted her prose. It’s an extremely interesting adaptation with an almost zombie-like performance of a tortured man who yearns for, lusts for his very own zombie to cuddle up with “as bidden”.

Quentin P. is a thirty one year old admitted sex offender, who lives in his Grandmother’s basement but is in the process of turning over a new leaf. Of starting over. Trying to look directly into the eye of someone. Anyone. To make some kind of contact. Until his inner demons compel him to do the awful deeds he does to the homeless, the handicapped and his unknowing victims – Raisin Eyes, Big Guy, No Name and Squirrel.

It is an extremely honest and open performance, with detailed direction by Thomas Caruso with musical underscoring by Deirdre Broderick which is most apt. You will never be able to look at an ice pick in quite the same way after seeing this show.

Ten Percent of Molly Snyder

“Skillful and entertaining…smart and snappy…Thomas Caruso, the director, establishes just the right pace…”

When a Bureaucratic Error Spins Out of Control

Sylvaine GoldNew York Times

For anyone who has ever slammed down the telephone in utter frustration after trying to get an answer from a tech support line, or wasted hours in a hospital basement retrieving an old medical record, or negotiated for months over a 24-cent bank balance that keeps accruing fees because somehow it wasn’t transferred with the rest of an account, or — well, actually, let me start again.

For anyone with a birth certificate, a credit card or a Social Security number, which is to say, in fact, for just about all of us, there will be a flash of instant recognition at the plight of Molly Snyder.

The heroine of Richard Strand’s pointed comedy “Ten Percent of Molly Snyder” has a simple problem: the replacement driver’s license issued after her purse was stolen came with a typo. The play opens with Molly’s arrival at the Department of Motor Vehicles in the not terribly farfetched expectation that her simple problem will be solved in a simple way. But Mr. Strand, who has no doubt called tech support and dealt with bureaucracies and read Kafka, has other plans for her.

Played by the engaging Liz Zazzi in Penguin Repertory’s smart and snappy production, Molly has landed in the clean-lined, black and beige office of a certain Mr. Aaron, whose zeal for the letter of the law is apparent in every clipped word and precise gesture from the brilliant comic actor Richard Kline. With a monologue that gets the play off to a flying start, Mr. Aaron tries to warn Molly that she’d probably be better off leaving well enough alone:

“You want to tell me about how you were wronged by the system. You didn’t get the service you deserved or you got the wrong thing or you didn’t get enough of something or you got too much of something else — whatever.”

His advice? “Just take whatever it is we gave you and make the best of it.”

Naturally, Molly won’t. She insists that Mr. Aaron fill out the form that will correct the address printed on her license — even though he points out to her that there isn’t actually a form for correcting mistakes that have been made on other forms. The scene crackles with the lively back-and-forth of the best sketch comedy and ends, as it must, with a blackout. Thomas Caruso, the director, establishes just the right terse pace for this exchange. And he manages to keep both Ms. Zazzi, whose zany side was so amply displayed at Penguin in last season’s “Tour de Farce,” and Mr. Kline, best known for his comic flights as Larry in “Three’s Company,” on the straight and narrow path of naturalism. We know the conversation would never happen in quite that way, but the characters seem eminently plausible.

The plausible begins to give way, however, when the lights next find Molly. She is entering the very same office — Ken Larson did the expert set design, Ed McCarthy the first-rate lighting — and the very same person in the very same gray suit (designed by Cindy Capraro) is seated behind the desk. The only things that have changed are Molly’s outfit, the view from the window and the sign on the door. The smarty-pants in the audience will nod sagely and think they’ve gotten the joke: Every office is just like every other office, and the bureaucrats within are equally unconcerned with the difficulties of the little people they are paid to serve.

But Mr. Strand is subtler than that. He ups the ante a little more with each scene, until Molly’s difficulties escalate to levels unimaginable at a local outpost of the D.M.V. To characterize them further would be, well, criminal — and I’ve probably said too much already about a plot that relies heavily on surprise. Even an explanation of the title would spoil some of the fun. Suffice it to say that it’s “The Trial” filtered through “Saturday Night Live”— the kind of darkly topical comedy that once fueled off Broadway but that’s been harder to find lately.

Skillful and entertaining though it is, “Ten Percent of Molly Snyder” could probably benefit from a little more editing. At a mere 85 minutes, it feels ever so slightly long. This probably results from the fact that after three or four blackouts, we begin to sense what will happen next. But Mr. Strand keeps ringing changes on his theme, and eventually Molly’s adventures veer into fantastic territory. That comfortable idea you had at the beginning — that you know exactly what Molly’s going through because you’ve been there — begins to dissipate. Mr. Strand’s blithe satire becomes downright scary. And like all good theater, “Ten Percent of Molly Snyder” will make you think.

The next time someone poses the seemingly harmless question, “Can I help you?” you’re likely to just say no.

Masterclass

“In director Caruso’s thoughtful and reflective staging, actor Cornwell delivers the goods…director Caruso deserves big credit…This is a great example of what a huge difference a production can make in the life of a play.”

Theater Review: Masterclass

John Angell GrantSan Fransisco Daily News

In director Caruso’s thoughtful and reflective staging, actor Cornwell delivers the goods…director Caruso deserves big credit…This is a great example of what a huge difference a production can make in the life of a play.