Interact Theatre Company
The Exit Interview will piss off a lot of people. Others will find it delightful. A few, like me, will feel both ways — which seems to be what playwright William Missouri Downs intends.
In Seth Rozin’s frenetic InterAct Theatre Company premiere, scholar Dick Fig’s firing from his university position launches a playful, meandering adventure that tries to have its philosophical cake and eat it, too. Fig — along with, presumably, Downs — is a Bertolt Brecht disciple, and The Exit Interview toys with the existentialist’s idea of “alienation,” in which a play is occasionally interrupted to remind the audience that none of this is real. The hope is that the temporary snap of reality will jolt the audience out of feeling the play and start getting them thinking about it instead. Thornton Wilder did this skillfully in his Pulitzer-winning plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, leading the audience to think and feel.
Downs doesn’t quite achieve either. His alienation tactics are often clever, ranging from scene titles, sudden songs and commercial breaks to cheerleaders and surprise new script pages; he also tosses in a few quips about the state of American regional theater, too (it needs money, ha ha). Roman Tatarowicz’s scenery rolls into different configurations, Mark Valenzuela’s sound shakes the seats, and Janelle Kauffman’s projections provide witty commentary.
The barrage of Big Ideas proves a bit much, though. While it’s cute for cheerleaders to chant the turn-off-your-phones reminder along with “Let’s hear it for existential uncertainty!”, rat-a-tat phrases like “the chaos of the human soul and the emptiness of the Copernican universe” sail over our heads. Downs treats the audience as a wall to throw ideas against: a few stick, but most bounce off.
A great cast brings humanity to a script that too often feels like the playwright showing off. Dan Hodge grounds the play as hapless Fig, comically hobbled by a toe-to-hip cast; Cheryl Williams is brilliantly daffy as his nemesis Eunice, the God-fearing bureaucrat administering a hilarious questionnaire for departing staff.
Actors Jennifer MacMillan, Meghan Malloy, David Bardeen and Eric Kramer assist with the many set changes and play an impressive array of comic characters. First MacMillan and Malloy are the hyperactive cheerleaders, then MacMillan becomes Fig’s oboe-loving girlfriend and Malloy her staunchly conservative mother. (A song to her about the uselessness of prayer is one of those laugh-or-seethe moments.) Kramer excels as a local Fox News reporter hoping that a gunman menacing the campus will get him some national air time, and Bardeen plays an Irish bishop in Fig’s imagination. They all take on more roles in skits and commercials, sometimes grasping the “new” script pages with panic that could be genuine: Downs has them bouncing off the walls.
I’d like to say that it all adds up to something, but Downs, for all his entertaining cleverness, is no Brecht or Wilder — or Tom Stoppard, whom he also seeks to emulate. The helter-skelter becomes tedious midway through the second act, but larger themes come out when devout Eunice, at gunpoint, questions her faith. The scene is nicely set up by a skit featuring scientists preaching like religious zealots and religious zealots reasoning like scientists.
However, the big question — “What is God’s purpose for you?” — is blown off by an ending that deflates the play like a birthday balloon. Like a roller coaster, The Exit Interview’s wild ride brings us back to where we started: a little queasy, a bit winded, but no wiser. Maybe that’s the point: It’s all too much, so enjoy the ride. Through Nov. 11, $20-$37, InterAct Theatre Company, 2030 Sansom St., 215-568-8077, interacttheatre.org. —Mark Cofta
Philadelphia Theatre Company
You know how sometimes you think, “Dom Perignon’s very nice — but, really, there’s nothing like a glass of ice-cold Manischewitz”? Well, here’s a show for those moments.
“I’ve been a bad Jew,” admits Abigail Pogrebin at the top of Stars of David. She’s certainly found a cannily self-promoting way to do penance: First came Stars of David the book, Pogrebin’s series of interviews with notable American Jews reflecting on what Judaism means to them. Pogrebin is best known as a producer, so many of her subjects — Dustin Hoffman, Beverly Sills, Norman Lear, et al. — come from show business. So it’s no surprise that in its next incarnation, Stars of David is reimagined as musical theater.
The 60-plus interviews are condensed into a series of songs and scenes, ably performed by an ensemble of three women and two men. Most take on multiple roles, with the exception of Nancy Balbirer, who brings some “talking like old friends” charm to her single character, the very Pogrebin-like narrator. Stars is a hybrid — not a conventional book show, but with more topical unity than a revue. It’s cunningly crafted, expertly performed and, as you might imagine, laden with happiness and tears.
The happiness works best. Those who know writer Charles Busch primarily as a masterful drag performer and camp playwright will be pleased by his ear for Upper West Side patois here. Stars’ songs come from an assortment of high-end composers and lyricists — Duncan Sheik, Sheldon Harnick, William Finn, Marvin Hamlisch — but they hang together surprisingly well. Three of the comic numbers, in particular, are pure gold: “Smart People,” a portrait of Aaron Sorkin; “Just Be Who You Are,” a rafter-raising homage to Fran Drescher that Donna Viviano knocks out of the park; and “Horrible Seders,” a droll mini-biography of Tony Kushner.
Alas, the tears in Stars are pretty treacley, mostly represented by a couple of tedious, bittersweet ballads. The short-and-punchy style of the show isn’t suited to deep exploration, so it’s left to the Pogrebin character to ruminate on bigger life issues. That’s not always a good thing. Frankly, as seen here, she’s not very interesting.
It was clear from a few awkward moments on opening night that Stars is still in development, but for the most part this world-premiere production at PTC is all you could ask for. Among the cast, my favorites were Joanna Glushak and Brad Oscar — comic actors/singers who don’t miss a trick — but everybody’s good. Stage design — scenery by Beowul Borritt, projections by Jason Thompson and lights by Howell Binkley — is superb. Director Gordon Greenberg keeps things running like a well-oiled machine.
Ultimately, Stars breaks no new ground, and demographically speaking, is a very narrow exploration of a huge issue. But it’s enjoyable and beautifully staged, and will be self-recommending to some audiences. (The opening-night crowd went crazy for it — and at the risk of profiling, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that I wasn’t surrounded by theater-going Mennonites.) Through Nov. 18, $51-$79, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org. —David Anthony Fox
Gas & Electric Arts
No one who’s loved Gas & Electric Arts’ unique physical theater style in Between Trains or Anna Bella
Eema would expect a straightforward historical-figure biographical play from them. We would anticipate a surrealist memory play like Behind the Eye, Carson Kreitzer’s exploration of photographer/model Lee Miller (1907-1977), an incisive choice by director Lisa Jo Epstein.
Kittson O’Neill embodies this dynamic free spirit, a party girl and dissatisfied subject (“I’m so sick of pictures of my breasts,” she complains) until photography (and a fiery affair with Man Ray) opens her eyes. The play covers numerous events and drops many names, but through O’Neill’s unfettered performance, we ride the highs of her loves and fame, the lows of her World War II combat photography and alcoholism, and the too-contemporary problems of a woman living boldly in a man’s world.
Kreitzer’s script keeps Miller connected to the audience, confronting us with a challenge: “So, you think you’ve got me all worked out?” The ingredients of connect-the-dots psychology emerge from her troubled childhood, but playwright, director and actress are all committed to resisting easy answers.
Epstein’s production is visually fascinating, starting with Simon Harding’s near-bare stage punctuated by containers of Miller’s boxed-up work (discovered by her son long after her death). Shelley Rodriguez’s lighting is boldly colorful, and Melissa Dunphy’s original music complements the play’s dreamlike tone.
A committed ensemble creates detailed characters, sometimes sharing confessions and insights directly with the audience: Allen Radway (Man Ray, second husband Roland Penrose), Charlotte Northeast (the aging writer Colette), James Stover (Miller’s son Antony) and Robb Hutter (first husband Aziz, Picasso) become a swirl of personalities orbiting an extraordinary, yet almost forgotten, woman. Through Nov. 18, $16-$25, Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater, 2111 Sansom St., 215-407-0556, gasandelectricarts.org. —Mark Cofta