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AGELESS MISERY

’The Cherry Orchard’ & ’Side Man’ have insight into the human condition

for The Brooklyn Paper

These are difficult times. And many people are looking to ease their minds with light entertainment. Still others believe the stage comforts on a much deeper level - by revealing the human condition and uniting us in our shared humanity. This week GO Brooklyn reviews two dramas written by vastly different authors who live or lived in different times and different places. What they have in common is an uncommon insight into the human psyche and the human condition.

In these days of post-modern mayhem, when plays may lack plot, linear action and even distinguishable characters, it’s hard to realize that Anton Chekhov, with his plodding pace and dense dialogue, is considered one of the founders of modern theater.

Yet, Chekhov’s works, closely identified with the innovative Moscow Art Theatre - founded in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko - forged the way for a more naturalistic and at the same time lyrical drama that depicts ordinary people living ordinary lives.

"The Cherry Orchard," first presented in 1904, was Chekhov’s last play before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 44 in that same year. The play reflects the major political and economic upheavals that would eventually lead to the Russian revolution. But it is also a brilliant portrayal of how those sweeping changes affected the everyday life of peasants and gentry, old and young, students and servants.

The Boerum Hill Arts Center presents "The Cherry Orchard" with a text adapted by director Steven Hart and staging that’s in a "rehearsal mode," allowing the audience to see actors as they make their entrances and exits on the side of the stage or pick up props from the prop table. Hart writes that this has been done so audiences "can share more in the discovery."

"In our production, we have set aside the distance created by time and culture. In a sense, that is really what we do in rehearsal. You see us at work with the nuts and bolts showing," he writes in the theater program.

This reviewer, however, didn’t see how this particular staging had much of an impact at all.

For the most part, this is quite a traditional production. Its strongest elements are capable acting and a faithful rendition of Chekhov’s insightful and ironic dialogue. Its weakest link is the lack of action that characterizes so much of Chekhov’s work. "The Cherry Orchard" is a great play, provided you can stay awake until the end.

The play is about the landowning family, the Ranevskys, who lose their estate and beloved cherry orchard through poor management, neglect and impracticality. Lopakhin (Christian Wijnberg), a clever businessman, advises Madame Ranevsky (Coulter Kent) to chop down the orchard and build houses on the land. But neither Madame Ranevsky, her daughters Anya (Stephanie Wang) and Varya (Victoria Boomsma) or their uncle Gayef (Steven Hart) can bring themselves to commit this horrendous act.

The Ranevskys aren’t even successful in love. Madame Ranevsky is the widow of an alcoholic and the scorned mistress of more than one lover. Despite Madame and Varya’s efforts, they are unable to get Lopakhin to propose marriage to Varya.

The family is surrounded by a collection of servants, hangers-on and inept suitors no more capable of dealing with the vicissitudes of life than the Ranevskys. The elderly servant, Firs (David Greenwood), who longs for the days of serfdom, most eloquently represents the doomed old world, just as Lopakhin illustrates the rising new class.

The cast of "The Cherry Orchard" is more than adequate, but less than outstanding. Walter Brandes is quite funny as the clumsy whining clerk Ephikhodof. And Kent delivers lines like, "Thank you, Firs. I’m so glad you’re still alive," with perfect aplomb. But the production lacks a certain vitality that is indispensable in a Chekhov play if a director hopes to compensate for the lack of an intriguing plot and compelling action.

The play also would have been vastly improved by costuming that reflected 19th century Russia rather than 21st century America. And even given our passion for multiculturalism, the presence of a multi-ethnic cast in a classic Russian play was somewhat disconcerting.

Like cherries, this "Cherry Orchard" is succulent but has its pits. Happily, the production gives audiences a well-deserved break from the mindless musicals and stale comedies that play too big a role in community theater. If not totally successful, The Boerum Hill Arts Center’s "The Cherry Orchard" is certainly a worthy effort.

 

’Side Man’

On the eve of leaving home to set out for a new life and a new career in California, Clifford Glimmer goes to visit his jazz musician father, Gene Glimmer, who is playing at the Melody Lounge. While listening to his father’s trumpet, Clifford meets Patsy, the often wooed, sometimes married, waitress and jazz "groupie."

When Patsy asks Clifford about his mother, Terry, who is deranged and dying, his mother briefly appears, screaming that Clifford should not visit his father, who has destroyed her life. The rest of Warren Leight’s "Side Man," is a series of flashbacks, intermittently narrated by Clifford, explaining exactly how Gene precipitated his mother’s downfall.

"Side Man," now on stage at the Heights Players’ theater, directed by Ted Thompson, was first produced at the Powerhouse Theatre at Vassar College in July 1996, subsequently presented in New York City at the CSC Theatre in a production directed by Michael Meyer, and finally brought to Broadway in a Tony award-winning production by the Roundabout Theatre, with Edie Falco (who later left to film the first season of "The Sopranos") as Terry, Christian Slater as Clifford and Frank Wood as Gene, a role that earned him a Tony award.

On one hand, "Side Man" is a coming-of-age story; after spending his young life taking care of his alcoholic mother and feckless father, 30-year-old Clifford Glimmer (Stephen Heskett) finally realizes that he needs to leave both to become a person in his own right.

But "Side Man" is also the story of Clifford’s father, Gene (Jeff Carpenter), who like the playwright’s father, was one of the last great sidemen of the jazz period, an era that ended with Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

And even more important, it is the story of Terry (Christina Cass) the foul-mouthed flutist who gave up her admittedly not very promising career to live with, then marry, a musician who clearly loved his horn more than he loved his wife and child. Leight may have thought he was paying tribute to his father, but one suspects it was his mother he really loved.

If the plot of "Side Man" seems macabre and maudlin, the play is anything but. This is mostly thanks to lines like, "What do you say when an ex-junky compliments your veins?" or "She’s working her way through medical school one intern at a time," or "The National Endowment for the Arts is for classical musicians. Unemployment is for jazz musicians."

The funniest lines are delivered by Gene’s three musician friends, Al (Steve Platt), Ziggy (Bernard Bosio) and Jonesy (Jonathan Lovett), a groovin’ Three Stooges who combat the tragedy of life with humor, compassion and unbridled love for their music.

Patsy (Maureen Vidal in a tight dress and teased hair) also delivers a fair share of the humor.

No doubt, Leight has written a certain ambiguity into his play. Is "Side Man" about Clifford, who tells the story and initiates the action; Terry, who suffers the most; or Gene, who, according to the title, should be the central figure? The answer lies in the director’s choice and the actors’ abilities.

In Ted Thompson’s "Side Man," the very capable Heskett is sarcastic and sincere, but he does not and should not be too emotionally engaging. His narrative is the element that allows the audience to step back from the action and observe without judging.

Carpenter is as low-keyed but not as likeable or convincing as Jimmy Stewart. It’s almost impossible to care about what happens to a man who cares so little himself. It’s hard to say whether this is Carpenter or Thompson’s interpretation, but either way, the result is a weakening of the role.

Perhaps this production might have been more powerful if Carpenter had made Gene more aware of his failings and pained by their consequences - by what he has done to his wife and not done for his son. But fortunately, while Carpenter wanders in and out of scenes, Cass’ superb performance steals the show.

Despite the fact that her accent wavers between Italian and Irish so that we’re not sure whether she comes from Boston or New York, Cass’ performance is close to perfect. She rages. She whines. She cries. She is innocent and obscene, world-weary and wide-eyed. When she is pregnant, we feel the weight of the baby she is carrying. When she is old and drunk, we feel the weight of her pain.

One wonders, should the play have been called "The Side Man’s Wife"?

Bill Wood has designed a two-level set that allows the action to switch seamlessly from the jazz scene to the Glimmer’s New York apartment. Pete Lopez’s sound work gives the audience a real treat with some superb recorded jazz music.

Unlike the light-hearted fare more frequently offered by the Heights Players, "Side Man" is a probing drama not meant for the entire family. But at a time when this city, in fact the entire nation, is wrestling with thoughts of life and death, struggle and survival, "Side Man" gives us all a compelling reason to get out of the house and into the theater, where such matters are brought to life.


"The Cherry Orchard" plays through Nov. 18, Thursday through Friday at 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for seniors, students and children. TDF vouchers accepted. The Boerum Hill Arts Center is located at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 490 Pacific St. at Third Avenue. For reservations, call (718) 855-9865 or e-mail to bhartscenter@yahoo.com.

"Side Man" plays through Nov. 18, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm at The Heights Players’ theater, 26 Willow Place. Tickets are $10, $8 seniors and students. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.

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