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Perfectly Franklin: (l-r) Gabe Belyeu and John Baker in 1776. .

Protest Singers
By James Yeara

1776
Book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, directed by Christopher Catt

Mac-Haydn Theatre, through July 14

From the opening song, “Sit Down John,” a battle between John Adams and the other delegates to the Second Continental Congress, through the ending tableau of the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the tolling of the Liberty Bell, Mac-Haydn’s 1776 is riveting, stirring, and brave theater. The play proves to be an ideal musical for these post-Sept. 11 times. Given the current cultural climate, it is easy to be infected by Samuel Johnson’s statement, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Mac-Haydn’s 1776 offers the antidote, a musical that traces the four weeks up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia with honesty, feeling, and rousing pride in the true American spirit: protest.

The musical isn’t patriotic pabulum or a slapdash panegyric on the godhead of the Founding Fathers: 1776 shows John Adams (the powerfully voiced John Saunders), Ben Franklin (John Baker), Thomas Jefferson (Adam MacDonald), et al, as mere mortals who drink, get horny, argue, make compromises, and strive. Equally alive are their women: Abigail Adams (Marcia Kunkel) and Martha Jefferson (Tiffany Thornton), who motivate their men and have desires of their own. Duets such as “Yours, Yours, Yours” between Adams and Abigail and “He Plays the Violin” by Martha, Adams and Franklin—a wonderful waltz that is as cleanly erotic as a waltz can be—underscore the humanity of the framers, both men and their women, of the United States of America.

The bare 13 songs of 1776 fit seamlessly with the central conflict: Will the 13 colonies unanimously sign what became known as the Declaration of Independence? The political maneuvering of the delegates fascinates as motion upon motion is made, debated, voted on, and the colonies move from “Yea” to “Nay” on the huge wooden tally board upstage center. The biggest laughs in the show are gotten from New York’s tendency to “abstain . . . courteously,” as the New York delegate, Robert Livingston (played with perfect timing and focus by David Bondrow), says. The play comes to a hilarious halt when Livingston explains, “Have you ever been present at a meeting of the New York Legislature? Nothing ever gets done.” It’s good to know that New York legislative politics have been a punch line for more than 200 years.

The moneyed are well represented in 1776 with two numbers, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” and “Molasses to Rum.” Opulently attired Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson (Michael Shiles), who has the smug smirk of the insider powerbroker, sings that men of substance always “move to the right, right, right” in perfectly choreographed steps.

South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge’s (William DiPaola) searing solo on the connection between slavery in the South and comfort in the North equally shows the evenhandedness of the book. “Molasses to Rum” becomes almost a cabaret number as Rutledge struts around the stage, balancing on a chair, his arms upraised in the ecstasy of his position and the knowledge that Adams and Jefferson must strike out the antislavery clause in the Declaration of Independence to secure the South’s vote.

Mac-Haydn’s 1776 features impressive production values to complement the crisp staging of director Christopher Catt and the powerful singing of the cast. While Ben Franklin’s wig is an abomination—Frankenstein’s monster has fewer seams—the waistcoats, vests, powdered wigs, walking sticks and white tights create a colorful panoply that supports the setting. 1776 had the marvelous effect of making me feel proud to be an American and glad that there were a few voices 226 years ago that spoke out against tyranny and the status quo.

Thwarted Ambition

Moving Picture
By Dan O’Brien, directed by Darko Tresnjak

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., July 3

Moving Picture begins promisingly, as Rui Rita’s lights slowly rise on David P. Gordon’s monochromatic set depicting Thomas Edison’s laboratory in West Orange, N.J. The time is 1888. The light bulb has been invented; Edison is on the verge of recording sound, and he will soon, at the urging of Will Dickson (his collaborator), develop the Edison kinetoscope. Not initially keen on the latter, the Edison who emerges in Dan O’Brien’s remote play is an opportunist who isn’t really excited about art and discovery unless there is a practical application and a financial benefit.

Of course, although he tries to hide his ego, there also must be a means of putting the ubiquitous Edison label on an invention, even if he owes his idea to someone else. According to this cool businessman, one cannot claim ownership of ideas, but one can own a patent.

O’Brien juggles a number of ideas about discovery versus invention, commerce versus art, the connection between a man’s identity and his work, the nature of beauty, and morality’s relationship to progress. He is also very concerned with loyalty among collaborators, and to illustrate this he invokes the metaphor of Tantalus, who displeased the gods by offering them a meal of his son. In this light, Edison and Dickson become figures of Tantalus and his son. As their punishment of Tantalus, the gods suspended him in a state of limbo where he can regard with anticipation the fruits of his labor, but can never enjoy them. Thus, the price of vaunting, and vaulting, ambition. Unfortunately, like Tantalus, we are tantalized but never satisfied.

Despite the richness of ideas here, the play lacks a compelling arc and characters with whom we invest any interest, let alone empathy. Darko Tresnjak is always a resourceful director, and he has made a sincere effort to make this picture talk as well as move, bolstering the action with a vaudeville style that suggests the entertainment world being replaced by Edison’s progress. While the device periodically reduces the onstage antics to the level of Keystone farce, it also can elevate it to a sort of thoughtful distancing. Unfortunately, the material has an off-putting dryness, the attempted humor falls flat, and the distancing doesn’t really engage our minds.

Nonetheless, Jesse Pennington strives well with the cryptic role of Dickson, while Armand Schultz is a grounding, stable presence as Edison. Jordan Charney, however, is a strange, strained distraction as Muybridge. As this critical character, Charney illustrates in broad, calculated strokes that seem more a factor of Charney’s need for attention than Muybridge’s artistic bent. Excepting Jason Wells’ reporter, the others are easily forgotten as they fade to black, along with whatever compelled O’Brien to write the play.

—Ralph Hammann

OK for Hollywood

Once in a Lifetime
By George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, directed by Michael Greif

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through July 14

Once in a Lifetime was the first collaboration between American comic geniuses George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. While this 1930s satire of Hollywood lacks the characterization and loopy plot twists of other Kaufman-Hart classics like The Man Who Came to Dinner and the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It With You, it features a huge cast, swift scenes, and lots of the cutting dialogue that make Kaufman-Hart collaborations still fun to play and watch today. This three-act comedy on the phoniness of Hollywood post-Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer brings sound to a silent-cinema world, and can still engage as a dig at the pretentiousness of the moneyed class.

Once in a Lifetime is set in 1927 in New York City and Hollywood just as The Jazz Singer finishes off silent pictures and vaudeville. A classic vaudeville trio—rotund straight man George Lewis (Tom Riis Farrell), tart-tongued May Daniels (Lauren Graham), and leading man Jerry Hyland (Tate Donovan)—sell their act and head for Hollywood to open a school of elocution for an industry desperate for those who can speak in the new movies. On the train trip west, the three con leading Variety reviewer Helen Hobart (Kristine Nielsen, whose giggle should be bottled and sold by Williamstown Theatre Festival’s corporate sponsor, Coca-Cola), whom George quotes slavishly. Act I ends with the trio putting on airs to the celebrities putting on airs at the Hotel Stilton in Los Angeles, where Herman Glogauer (Joe Grifasi), “the man who turned down sound,” hires the three—and we’re off to the first intermission.

The well-crafted play catches speed in Act II, with the character of Lawrence Vail (Peter Frechette, a George S. Kaufman look-alike with impeccable timing and the haggard look of a neurotic), a playwright called to Hollywood to write screenplays that are never filmed. The role was originated by Kaufman, and Vail steals the second act simply by sitting in Glogauer’s reception room, a huge gold-walled affair that screams excess, beset by a receptionist in black formal wear who can’t remember who Vail is or that he’s had a three-week appointment. The pace quickens as people come and go in the reception room, where the befuddled George is soon improbably producing his first film, Gingham and Orchids, all while Vail stews, and May zings one-liners about Hollywood.

After the second intermission, Kaufman and Hart bring Once in a Lifetime to its happy conclusion. The play is a primer of comedic devices, and it displays what WTF does best: big shows with lavish sets (smartly staged by Michael Greif, who uses film projections of The Jazz Singer or clips of trains or biplanes or scenes from New York City in the ’20s cast on the upstage wall to create a place for each scene).

A great production of Once in a Lifetime would snap the satire of Hollywood buffoonery and hit the zing of Kaufman’s dialogue. This production lacks the teeth to truly bite the hand that feeds it, and settles for simply nudging its hand a bit. But it’s still a great play given a handsome-looking production, featuring a fine directorial touch.

—J.Y.


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