“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.