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Romper room: (l-r) Angela Rauscher and Abby Lee in Or,.

Photo: Rob Shannon

Conjunction Junction

By James Yeara

Or,

By Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Jeffrey Mousseau

StageWorks/Hudson, through July 4

Quickly paced, and engagingly performed, the regional premiere of Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, at StageWorks/Hudson is a fascinating fluff of a play. Or, Adams’ theme tickles the intellect, the performances boggle the funny bone, and the lines mesmerize the ears with their rhymed couplets, ornate conceits, and titillating prurience. Or, StageWorks/Hudson’s first show of the summer season is “a hit, a hit, a very palpable hit,” to borrow from what’shisname.

Set in the late 1660s during the restoration of the British monarchy under that randy dandy, Charles II (Jason Schuchman as the first of his broad and lively characters), Or, centers on the travails, tribulations, and titillations of real-life, Restoration-era, bisexual female playwright and spy for the monarchy, Aphra Behn (Angela Rauscher at her animated and bosom-heaving best). Seen first in a dingy dungeon for debtors (the excellent set by scenic designer Sarah Edkins is like an Edward Gorey ink drawing), Behn uses her wiles, feminine and otherwise, to free herself from the advances of her horny gaoler (Abby Lee in the first of her broadly horny roles) so that she can succumb to the advances of the disguised Charles II.

Behn’s subsequent tales of seduction, submission, spying, and lying unfurl with enough changing and shedding of costumes to make a runway model sigh or a nun blush. The main scene in this 90-minute play (without intermission) takes place in “the upstairs parlor” of a fashionable boarding house with a unseen boudoir offstage right and a large-enough-to-hide-a-man wardrobe stage left, both utilized to full farcical door-slamming effect. Think of Or, as “The Liar, the Bitch, and the Whoredrobe” and you get the effect.

Behn’s bi-obsessions soon unfold: sex and playwriting. Into her room the women and men come and go (often literally and quickly), talking in verse and prose high and low: “I thought I was the stairs to fucking Mount Olympus” pants famed Restoration actress and paramour Nell Gwynne (Abby Lee in the second of her broadly horny characters, though this time with a gamine allure and randy wit). The historical Gwynne was a favorite actress of Behn, John Dryden and other leading Restoration playwrights—as well as a celebrated whore. When surrounded by an angry mob who thought her Charles II’s Catholic mistress, Nell reportedly replied with a smile, “You are mistaken good people, I am the king’s Protestant whore.” In Or, both Behn and Nell muse on the use of sex: “I’m a whore,” Nell declares, to which Behn replies, “To be a woman is to be a whore,” adding after a second’s consideration, “Come to think of it, men are whores, too. . . . Men are cock-sucking whores to get ahead.”

That Behn frequently retreats to the writing desk right outside her frequently employed boudoir makes the mutual inspiration clear: Sex and writing are as tightly entwined as Charles and Behn, Behn and Nell, Nell and Charles, and Nell, Charles, and Behn are. This underscores both the fun of Or, and its weakness.

While you can listen to The Beatles’ “Two of Us” or The Turtles’ “Happy Together” or any of the other 1960s songs as underscore, Or, labors to make the connection between the “golden age” of sexual liberation in the 1660s and the “golden age” of sexual liberation in the 1960s. The text is clunky with effort to heave those decades together. Or, simply needs to enjoy the rompings of king, actress, and playwright. “I never know how to stop loving” Behn confesses, “I only know how to not let it stop me.” The first of three mainstage productions by female playwrights this summer at StageWorks/Hudson, Or, is an auspicious beginning, or, as Nell says, “sounds fucking fabulous, babe.”

 

Stand-up, Sitcom

It’s Jewdy’s Show: My Life as a Sitcom

By Judy Gold and Kate Moira Ryan, directed by Amanda Charlton

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through July 4th

There is no denying the stage presence and comedic talent of Judy Gold, whose one-woman play charts her lifelong infatuation with television sitcoms and her various failed attempts to land one of her own despite a resumé chock-full of television credits. During the course of an intermissionless hour and 20 or so minutes, we follow Gold from her infancy to her eventual career as a stand-up comedian. Understandably, much of the format of the show is that of stand-up comedy.

Frequent themes are Gold’s Jewish roots, her 6-foot-3 stature, the sitcoms that shaped her life, her search for love, her lesbianism and her ever-present mother. Projections of stills and video clips from the catalogue of shows she references add interest, as do the snippets of theme songs she sings while accompanying herself on the piano. Similarly, clips and photos from her family albums familiarize us with her family and close relations. Courtesy of this device and some frequently funny impersonations by Gold, her mother becomes a second character in the show.

Trips down memory lane through the sitcoms we have loved and suffered account for much of the humor in the show. Gold satirizes their tackier aspects without ever losing her affection for such gems and junk as The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, M*A*S*H, Good Times, The Waltons, The Addams Family, Room 222, Welcome Back, Kotter, Laverne and Shirley, and All in the Family. Some of her observations are hilarious and some misfire—such as the clichéd complaint about the substitution of Dick Sargent for Dick York on Bewitched.

The same is true of Gold’s show in general. Part is sharply funny, part is interesting biography and part just falls innocuously flat. Repeated attempts to pitch her concept (for a sitcom about the family life of a 6-foot-3-inch Jewish lesbian) to offstage network executives becomes repetitious and tiring. The moralizing at the end seems a bit forced and out of tune with what precedes it, although the politics are worthy and the sermonizing is soon leavened by a return to comic form as she realizes her fantasy show.

But it doesn’t belong on the Nikos stage.

I have been a champion of the one- person show since I first saw the thrilling yeoman work of James Whitmore in his masterpieces about Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt and Will Rogers. The smart performances of Robert Vaughan (FDR), Julie Harris (Emily Dickinson), Henry Fonda (Clarence Darrow), Tony Lo Bianco (Mayor LaGuardia), Robert Morse (Truman Capote) and Vincent Price (Oscar Wilde) deepened my appreciation. More recent performances by Len Cariou (Ernest Hemingway) and Christopher Plummer (John Barrymore) sustained my belief that the genre was alive and well. Those shows were all about phenomenal people whose stories had large arcs and embraced big themes. Not only were they crafted well, but they were all intrinsically interesting.

There have also been one-person shows that seemed more like extended stand-up comedies, but in the hands of such performers as Lily Tomlin, Eric Bogosian, and John Leguizamo, they transcended that format to achieve something of greater, if not cosmic (in the case of Tomlin) significance.

Lately, the genre has seen many people flocking to this format to tell their own stories. When they have been told by a Spalding Gray or David Hare, they have been hugely entertaining and the ordinary has been elevated to the extraordinary through the writer-performer’s scope and exceptional use of language. But often the material barely rises above that of confessional and the banal, and the subject has not led a life of remarkable consequence. Jewdy is better than many of these because of its performer’s brash charm, but it certainly doesn’t have the grand arc, intrinsic interest, dexterous language or worldly significance of any of the above. At heart, it is little more than well-performed stand-up. About sitcoms.

As such, it’s a little show that would fit nicely into the WTF’s schedule as a cabaret act. It doesn’t need the Nikos facility with its backdrop of flat-screen televisions (anachronistic given the period referenced). Actually, it really belongs on television, the medium to which Gold originally aimed and which informs most of her humor. If the WTF programmers can’t aspire to find dramatic material of any more consequence than this, they ought to consider turning the Nikos into a screening room.

—Ralph Hammann

 

Mere Christianity

Freud’s Last Session

By Mark St. Germain, directed by Tyler Marchant

Barrington Stage Company Theatre, Stage 2, through July 3

“The Monster” is in the protagonist’s mouth. Only his daughter, Anna, a renowned psychoanalyst, is allowed to touch it and clean it. In the play’s penultimate scene, The Monster nearly kills the protagonist, but his visitor, the eminent Christian writer C.S. Lewis, wrestles The Monster from the dying man’s mouth as he gasps and writhes in pain. Revulsion and compulsion play across Lewis’ face until The Monster is pulled with a sucking sound, like a bone being pulled from a mud pit, to be wrapped first in a white towel that quickly stains red. He places the gruesome bundle in a clear pitcher of water that swirls with blood as it stands on the desk.

Freud would have a field day with the image and the symbolism. And as the protagonist, Freud has the perfect perspective for analyzing his own impending demise.

As with previous Mark St. Germain debut productions over the years at Barrington Stage Company, such as Ears on a Beatle (John Lennon vs. the F.B.I.) and The God Committee (doctors vs. transplants), St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session posits polemics that seek to make the audience think and feel. Grounding each of his plays in some historical fact, St. Germain introduces a chance occurrence, and the clash of ideas is off and running. In his latest play, the thoughts and feelings are less fraught with contrivance than in the former. The two-character, 85-minute Freud’s Last Session balances on the hypothetical but plausible 85-minute meeting between atheist Freud and devout Catholic Lewis. The metaphysical visit stays with you both intellectually and emotionally long after the stage lights darken.

Set on Sunday morning, Sept. 3, 1939 (the day England and France declared war on Nazi Germany), in Freud’s study in Hampstead (the appropriately academic scenic design is by Brian Prather enhanced by Clifton Taylor’s lighting), Freud’s Last Session adheres to the classical unities, and this focus heightens the largely intellectual pas de deux between two ardent believers in antithetical ideas. The resulting dance gives hope even as the sunlight fades through the French windows overlooking the garden.

As C.S. Lewis, Mark H. Dold adds to his sterling collection of character creations at Barrington Stage Company. Dold brings an enthusiasm and earnestness to his C.S. Lewis that serves Freud’s Last Session well. Dold has the physical bearing and enunciation of an Oxford Don yet he expresses Lewis’ conversion experience to Christianity and defense of faith with a believable ardor that neither panders nor patronizes; the dueling analyses of the two intellectual and spiritual giants provoke a surprising amount of laughter in an audience with so weighty a subject—God vs. god—owed to the acting of Dold and Martin Rayner. The latter’s Sigmund Freud simply seems to be the hope of man. Despite The Monster, his name “for the prosthesis that seals off the roof of my mouth from my nasal cavity” and the ravages of oral cancer that within three weeks of this invented meeting will cause his death, Freud doesn’t rage against the dying of the light; he chortles, reasons, probes, remembers, as he crafts his responses to Lewis.

Playwright St. Germain plays “fair and balanced” with the emotionally and spiritually weighty subject. Lewis confesses, “I’ll be the first to admit that the greatest problem with Christianity is Christians.” Freud later posits, “When Hitler claims that crushing the Jews is the ‘will of the Lord,’ he raises an army who worships them both”—and both the impending war and Freud’s death strike a resonant chord. “What were we thinking?” Lewis despairs near play’s end. “It was madness to think we could solve the greatest mystery of all time in one morning.”

“Only one thing is greater madness,” Freud responds in the dying light, “not to think of it at all.”

Freud’s Last Session, playing through July 3 before transferring to the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater on West 64th Street in Manhattan for the rest of the summer, guarantees that you will think.

—James Yeara

 


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