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The American Century Theater - ARCHIVE
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July 30 - August 22, 2009
Wednesday - Saturday at 8 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 2:30 pm
Reviewed July 31 by Brad Hathaway

A Potomac Stages Pick for a bizarre but fascinating excursion into philosophical issues from evolution to the bond between mates
Running time 2:00 - one intermission
Tickets $25 - $32
Click here to buy the script

Lets get the spoiler alert out of the way at the start ... don't read further unless you want to know what this play is about and why it is different than any other you may have seen. When you get to the theater, there certainly aren't any "spoilers" on view in the lobby, so as to save the "surprise" to the time late in the first act when the playwright springs it on a supposedly unsuspecting audience. However, the surprise is there for all to see on the home page of the American Century Theater - "Humans Meet Lizards!" it exclaims (the exclamation point is theirs, not mine - not that I think inter-species contact isn't worthy of the punctuation). But the important part isn't that the company may have "spilled the beans." In truth, since the play is one of of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize winners, one that has been produced on Broadway twice - the 1975 original for which Frank Langella won the Tony Award playing a lizard and the 2006 revival which earned Catherine Zuber a Tony nomination for designing the lizard costumes - one could be excused for referring to this as "Albee's Lizard Play" in order to distinguish it from, for example, The Goat. Never mind spoilers. Just sit back and enjoy the stream of Albee's language and the excursion into Albee's examination of major and minor issues, some timeless and some eon-less.

Storyline: A married couple spending a day at an isolated beach as they approach retirement find their discussion of their post-retirement desires interrupted by a visit from another couple who have just emerged from the sea in search of their own change in life style. It is an eonic change they seek, for they are lizard-like sea creatures making an evolutionary leap to life on land.

Albee uses the life-style change of a single couple and the leap of a species as a means of exploring a host of issues from unanswered question of the relative value of a restful retirement or an adventurous one to the unanswerable question of just what is "good" or "better" in evolutionary terms. The play came after a fallow period for Albee in terms of financial success and recognition. Indeed, Seascape could be considered his second bursting into prominence. Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf and A Delicate Balance belonged to his 1960s spurt of successful output. Seascape marked his 1970s peak. (The Goat or Who is Sylvia came in the following century.)

Steven Scott Mazzola has helped his cast of four create two distinctly connected couples. Annie Houston and Craig Miller play their human roles as a pair who seem to have been together for a long time, a couple who know each other so well that the lines of one hardly ever seem surprising to the other. They know how to communicate with each other and, what is often more important in an Albee play, they know how to irritate each other. Irritate? Drive each other batty is more like it. Brian Crane and Mundy Spears have bonded similarly as the strangers from the sea. Theirs' is a slightly more difficult task, however, because Albee has written into the text the concept that reptiles don't have emotions like the humans do. Yet he has them evidence fear, confusion, frustration and affection - emotions! Well, nobody's perfect and even the esteemed Mr. Albee can be granted a bit of cross-eon latitude since no one can know for certain if he's captured the essence of reptilianism circa millions of years before the current epoch.

The set is essentially a sand-colored square with a few timber pilings and a bit of drift wood. At one corner of this boxing-ring shaped battle area is a sky cyclorama. At the opposite corner is a decking structure through which the audience enters the world of the play. Melanie Clark rises nicely to the challenge of designing green costumes for lizard-like humanoids, giving Crane and Spears the swinging tails their species flings about with a sense of pride (a case of tail envy in a species without some of the sexual parts humans obsess over?). She also gives them a combination head-dress and prosthesis which, with the aid of Lynn Sharp-Spears' color coded makeup, turns the green ones positively reptilian.

Written by Edward Albee. Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Design: HannaH J. Crowell (set) Melanie Clark (costumes) Lynn Sharp-Spears (makeup) Suzanne Maloney (properties) Andrew F. Griffin (lights) Matt Otto (sound) Micah Hutz (photography) Zachary W. Ford (stage manager). Cast: Brian Crane, Annie Houston, Craig Miller, Mundy Spears.

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Native Son
April 14 - May 9, 2009
Wednesday - Saturday 8 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 2:30 pm
Reviewed April 17 by Brad Hathaway

A rarely performed 1941 stage adaptation of Richard Wright's novel of racial subjugation in pre-World War II Chicago
Running time 2:15 - no intermission
A post-show discussion program follows each performance
Tickets $25 - $32

Click here to buy the novel

Think Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In The Sun meets Romulus Linney's A Lesson Before Dying. Add a soupcon of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and season with a hint of the sense of dignity of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Sounds like a recipe for powerful theater, right? Not in Bob Bartlet's static staging of this rarely seen 1941 screed. To be fair to the director, the script he has to work with is episodic, and while it is filled with touches that have proven to be effective in the plays of its ilk which came after it, those touches have worked so well and been used so often that today they feel or sound like clichés. Maybe they were fresh and new in the months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but they fail to resonate in the first months of the Obama age. With eleven scenes in a single, lengthy act, the tale feels fractured and what emotions burst out seem tacked on at convenient points rather than emerging from the heat of the moment.

Storyline: A young black man in Chicago in 1939 hasn't much of a chance to escape the grinding poverty and discrimination of his time and place but whatever chance he might have had after he gets a job as a driver for a wealthy white family evaporates when he kills his employers' daughter in a moment of panic and tries to hide the evidence by burning her body in the family's furnace. Tried not for murder but for rape, for the white power structure assumes the murder and disposal of the body were efforts to cover up a rape, he is convicted and sentenced to death.

This company which specializes in giving audiences the opportunity to see actual productions of plays they may otherwise only hear about or read has unearthed yet another rarely seen gem from the past in this play which was, as Artistic Director Jack Marshall's invaluable Audience Guide points out, the last one mounted on Broadway by the legendary "Boy Wonder of Broadway" Orson Welles before the release of his classic film Citizen Kane which turned him into the "Boy Wonder of Hollywood." It ran a less than spectacular three months at none other than the St. James Theatre. This is the same theater that hosted Pal Joey just a few months later, was home to Oklahoma! for a majority of that decade and resounded to the laughter of The Producers for a majority of the first decade of this new century. It is somewhat difficult to conceive of what we are seeing in Gunston's Theater Two occupying that venerable stage, but, then, if anyone could spice up a production of a polemical drama, it would be Welles. The script was written specifically for John Houseman and Welles of Mercury Theater fame by Richard Wright and Paul Green based on Wright's best selling novel, the first ever Book-of-the-Month Club selection written by an African American.

JaBen A. Early has the plumb role of Bigger Thomas, who at age nineteen, goes from tenement to death row over the course of a mere few weeks. He manages to convey some of the hopelessness of the young man but there are few flashes of frustration and anger along the way. Strangely, his family and friends never seem to become identifiable individuals. The writing leaves them without traits or struggles of their own. Then, too, the wealthy family whose world he gets to enter briefly, never become individuals in the performances here although Mick Tinder has a few flashes as the father of the girl Bigger kills. In addition to Tinder, the sharpest personalities turn out to be three other white men: Bruce Alan Rauscher as a flunky in Tinder's operation, John Geoffrion as the prosecuting attorney and Bud Stinger as his opposite, a Clarence Darrow-like defense attorney. However, neither Geoffrion nor Stinger can keep the arguments of their courtroom summations from sounding like strings of clichés. Megan Graves impresses in the small role of a courtroom stenographer by appearing to do her job so well, paying close attention to the people whose words she's taking down, typing purposefully when they are talking and pausing when they do.

Part of the difficulty of this production is the staging in a fairly bare but awfully big square space surrounded by the audience in a few rows of seats on all sides. There is little, if any difference between the semi-slum in which the black family lives, the home of the wealthy white family, the courtroom or the death cell. All of the scenes seem blocked to use all of the available space which spreads things out and creates gaping distances between characters.

Written by Paul Green and Richard Wright. Directed by Bob Bartlett. Fight direction by Lex Davis. Design: Michael Null (set) Rachel Morrissey (costumes) Jen Durham (hair and makeup) Kate Dorrell (properties) Andrew F. Griffin (lights) Ed Moser (sound) Micah Hutz (photography) Jared Shamburger (stage manager). Cast: Reneé Charlow, Evan Crump, JaBen A. Early, John Geoffrion, Megan Graves, Iman Hassen, Kalon Hayward, Christine Hirrel, Jivon Lee Jackson, Farah Lawal, Mark McKinnon, Paul Andrew Morton, Bruce Alan Rauscher, Brian Razzino, Julie Roundtree, Jared Shamberger, Danni Stewart, Bud Stringer, Mick Tinder, Rob Weinzimer.

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November 25, 2008 - January 24, 2009
Life With Father
Reviewed November 28 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:35 - two intermissions
A nostalgic look back at how nostalgia looked seventy years ago
Note: The production opened in November but suspended performances during the Christmas holidays to clear the calendar for the company's Christmas show. It re-opens January 8

It is no easy trick to pull off a double dose of nostalgia. In 1938, when this play first appeared on Broadway, it was a nostalgia look backward about 45 years to the "gay nineties" of the nineteenth century. Today it is more memorable for its track record on Broadway in the thirties and forties of the twentieth century. It ran 3,224 performances over nearly eight years, becoming the longest running play in the history of Broadway - a record it still holds with only musicals lasting longer. So, has the American Century Theater pulled off the century spanning trick of viewing the nineteenth century through twentieth century eyes for a twenty first century audience? Not really. This production is more interesting for the view it gives us of the state of the dramatic art in the nineteen thirties than for its portrait of the nineteen nineties with a fairly stilted staging of a comedy that is more warm than funny.

Storyline: The upper-middle-class family living in their well appointed home on Madison Avenue in New York City in 1892 is headed by irascible but loving Clarence Day, Senior. His wife tries to keep him happy while seeing to the needs of their four sons and trying to keep peace between the maid and the cook.

The play was based on the short stories of Clarence Day, Jr. which were a big hit when they were published in The New Yorker. They became a bigger hit when they were collected in book form. Then Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse took it up as the source for a comic play. They had hits on Broadway in the form of musicals, their book for Cole Porter's Anything Goes is still regarded as a text book example of how to move a light hearted story along in song, but this was their first non-musical effort. Given its success (and the success of its subsequent film adaptation for which they did the screenplay along with Donald Ogden Stewart and the stories' author Clarence Day, Jr.) it is somewhat surprising that they returned to the musical format. But they did, giving us the books for Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music.

Joe Cronin lends a suitable sense of confusion tinged with tenderness to his portrayal of the father. He makes this prototype of the sit-com foolish father driven by excessive pride seem, if not fresh, at least somewhat less outlandishly demanding. He's paired with Deborah Rinn Critzer in the role of his long-suffering but adoring and accepting wife. She avoids overdoing the sweetness in the script, which is a good thing. Nice work is turned in by Karl Bittner as the eldest son, Clarence, Jr., and Billy Puschel as one of his younger brothers. Notable as well is Karen Lange in the small but memorable role of the family's loyal cook.

Director Rip Claassen delivers a fairly straight staging of the show without seeming to be blowing the dust off of a museum piece. This is a fine approach but it can't hide the fact that the dramatic structure of the play and not just its subject matter is very much a typical representation of the state of the comic art of 1938. That was a time when audiences expected a diversion separated into three acts in order to allow two intermissions which would give them opportunities to repair to the lobby bar for a cocktail, a smoke and a bit of hobnobbing with friends. Since then, the radio and then television sitcom took the format of family comedy to new levels with Bill Cosby breathing new life into the character of the father in stories of this sort.

Written by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed by Rip Claassen. Design: Trena Weiss-Null (set) Ceci Albert (costumes and properties) Jen Durham (hair and makeup) AnnMarie Castrigno (lights) Bill Gordon (sound) Micah Hutz (photography) David Olmstead (stage manager). Cast: Karl Bittner, Scott Clark, Ken Clayton, Brian Crane, Deborah Rinn Critzer, Joe Cronin, Megan Graves, Lexi Haddad, Paul Hogan, Sarah Holt, Karen Lange, Billy Puschel, Laura Rocklyn, Shelby Sours, Tamra Testerman, Seth Vaughn.

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September 9 - October 4, 2008
Dr. Cook’s Garden
Reviewed September 11 by Brad Hathaway

Running time: 2:15 - two intermissions
A fascinating tale well told

Click here to buy the script

Ira Levin isn't well known because he wrote this one-week wonder, a play that lasted just the last six days of September of 1967 on Broadway. He has much more memorable entries on his bio. But this theater company is in the business of unearthing gems you don't get to see anywhere else and it sure found one this time. Levin's engrossing thriller with a touch of horror is brought back to life in a competent production that lets the audience sit back and enjoy the slow unraveling of a story, the details of which surely can be imagined before each is revealed, but which are nonetheless thoroughly engrossing and highly satisfying. It is the theatrical equivalent of a beach-book. You don't expect great literature or heavy doses of social commentary from a beach-book and you shouldn't look for those things in this theatrical thriller either. But just as you might settle under an umbrella with a cold drink for a while with one of Ira Levin's novels during a vacation trip to the shore, you can abandon yourself to the pleasure of his theatrical yarn for a few hours.

Storyline: The young protégé of a small town doctor returns with his brand new medical degree to visit his mentor, the only doctor in what all agree must be the luckiest, happiest town in Vermont. In this town, there aren't any people suffering from the worst of medical conditions or the consequences of societal ills. This is obviously not simply the result of Doc's willingness to make house calls.

Levin is much better known for other excursions into dark reaches of storytelling. His is the mind that conceived of that story of a woman bearing Satan's child, Rosemary's Baby, the tale of a town full of feminine but not feminist automatons, The Stepford Wives, and the yarn of a serial killer working his way through one family, A Kiss Before Dying. All those stories first emerged as novels, but Levin is also noted for his works for the stage, although not all are of a similar genre. His first Broadway hit was the adaptation of a comic novel, No Time for Sergeants, which gave wing to the careers of both Andy Griffith and Donn Knotts. (Do you hear Earl Hagen whistling his music for the television show now?)  Lovers of short-lived musicals place his one excursion into the realm of a Broadway Musical, Drat! The Cat! on their short list of favorites they'd love to see someday. The hugely successful Deathtrap and others like Veronica's Room are of a formula. Indeed, this three-act story is proof that there's nothing particularly wrong with being formulaic if the formula you follow is sound.

Director Ellen Dempsey has assembled a cast of six, but it is the two leads that carry the bulk of the load. For these roles, she has two newcomers who dig into their parts with intelligence and enthusiasm. David Schmidt begins with charm as the old town doctor whose unorthodox approach to his practice he defends with a vigor that belies his approaching seventieth birthday. As the story unfolds he adds a touch of the demonic to the mix which works well. JB Bissex is light and humorous as the idealistic youngster just setting out on a medical career until events cause him to drop the humor and become an earnest seeker of truth. In both cases, the transitions are a bit abrupt. Dempsey's direction emphasizes clarity in the delivery of lines to such an extent that there are times when the production feels like a daytime soap opera.

Steve Lada handled the fight design and direction for the final struggle. As executed by the actors, it has something of the same mechanical feel of the dialogue scenes, with obvious set ups and pauses and a sluggish pace. Set designer Trena Weiss-Null places her detailed construction of the doctor's office on the long wall of Theatre II's black box, spreading the action over more space than necessary but creating a feeling of reality. Her choice of floral print wallpaper is a subtle commentary on the character of the old doctor who must have had some hand in selecting it decades ago when setting up his practice. Maybe he was a bit demented from the start.

Written by Ira Levin. Directed by Ellen Dempsey. Fight direction by Steve Lada. Design: Trena Weiss-Null (set) Rip Claassen (costumes) AnnMarie Castrigno (lights) Christopher Baine (sound) Micah Hutz (photography) Zoia N. Wiseman (stage manager). Cast: JB Bissex, Kathryn Cocroft, Robert Lavery, Carol McCaffrey, David Schmidt.

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July 18 - August 16, 2008
The Titans
Reviewed July 19 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:10 - one intermission
A taut recreation of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962

The company that normally produces revivals of seldom seen plays from roughly the 1930s through the 1960s is now giving us a look at a brand new play, one written by the author of another new work with which they had great success. This tense historical drama is by the man who wrote the light and lively bio-musical of Danny & Sylvia which this company premiered in 2001. While John Kennedy was no Danny Kaye and Nikita Khrushchev was certainly no Sylvia Fine, the two works have much in common. They are both chronological retellings of actual events constructed in such a way as to try to discover the "why" behind the "what." This new play is a fascinating portrayal of the events between 1960 when Soviet Premiere Khrushchev came to the United States and met the young Senator from Massachusetts, and 1962 when together they found a way to avoid nuclear war in what has become known as "The Cuban Missile Crisis." It benefits from sensible staging by Jack Marshall and solid performances by Jon Townson, John Tweel and, especially, Kim-Scott Miller. Solid contributions also come from Brian Razzino as Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Gromyko and William Aitken as everybody else (Americans Adlai Stevenson and Curtis LeMay, Russians Dobrynin and Malinovsky).

Storyline: The calculations and decisions taken in the Oval Office of John F. Kennedy and the Kremlin of Nikita Khrushchev reach a climax as the American President seeks a way to get Soviet missiles off Cuban soil without triggering nuclear war.

Robert M. McElwaine's script resembles a scrap book of pictures of key events running from September 1960 to October 1962. It carefully lays the groundwork for understanding the complexities of the final negotiations, providing the basic information needed in measured doses. Director Jack Marshall moves these early scenes along briskly so the audience doesn't loose patience with the piece. Once the crisis has erupted, the pace accelerates even more. The imposition of an intermission interrupts that progression, however. It isn't as if the two acts have their own escalating dramatic arc. It's one continuous story. Besides, without an intermission, the piece would not be too long for a single sitting.

McElwaine's script attempts to depict John Kennedy as a man growing into his job as President. In Jon Townson's hands, Kennedy seems a bit like the politically astute, but governmental lightweight that Khrushchev first believes him to be. As the events proceed, however, he becomes more thoughtful, more careful of his words and more concerned over the consequences of his actions. Because the scenes must cover so much historical ground, Townson and John Tweel as JFK's brother Robert, have to deal with some highly concentrated versions of events, as the Kennedy brothers hover over the Presidential desk with a magnifying glass examining intelligence photos without benefit of briefing officers, or when Jack simply announces to Bobby his intention to address the nation - surely Bobby had been an important player in both the decision to speak out and the tone of that fateful speech of October 22. While there are times when his Boston accent seems a bit of a heavy impersonation, there is no doubt that Townson is absolutely accurate in the recreation of that speech, right up to the hesitations and tiny mistakes that marked the live delivery under such highly emotional conditions.

The finest performance of the evening comes from Kim-Scott Miller who makes this Khrushchev a smart, deeply human, committed comrade striving with the skill of a survivor to advance the cause of his country and of the philosophy in which he so strongly believes. The brink of nuclear confrontation seems a familiar place to him, reminding us that Khrushchev survived the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, both World Wars and Stalin - danger was no stranger. His sincere effort to find a way out of the confrontation that was consistent with his duties and responsibilities rings true in a performance that won't remind you of any other time you have seen Miller on this stage. That isn't just because of his shaved head or his adoption of the stooped posture of the Premiere. It is pure and simple acting ability.

Written by Robert M. McElwaine. Directed by Jack Marshall. Design: Trena Weiss-Null (set and properties) Rip Claassen (costumer) AnnMarie Castrigno (lights) Bill Gordon (sound) Jeffrey Bell (photography) Rhonda Hill (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, Kim-Scott Miller, Brian Razzino, Jon Townson, John Tweel.

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March 7 - 29, 2008
Happy Birthday, Wanda June
Reviewed March 8 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:15 - one intermission
A vintage slice of Vonnegut - for the stage

Click here to buy the script

After publishing his most successful novel, Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut turned his attention to the stage, writing this wacky comedy which was his first and only play. The year was 1970 and the country was reeling from disillusion fueled by a war in Southeast Asia and domestic violence at home, including riots and assassinations. Vonnegut, a spokesman for the give-peace-a-chance wing of what had become known as "the hippie movement," turned his caustic wit loose on the issue of violence and the pride some people take in mastering such "arts" as fighting and killing. The result hasn't been seen on a stage locally for thirty years. Now this company that makes it their business to give audiences a chance to see the rarely seen works of importance in the history of the American stage gives us a chance to see Vonnegut's sole excursion into theater. It is more than academically interesting and it is filled with the kind of zingers you would expect of Vonnegut, but probably explains just why it was his only play.

Storyline: After an eight year absence, a he-man who values all things masculine returns to his lair - ooops, home - to find his wife believes he has died. She is being courted by two men, a peace-loving doctor and a milquetoast of a vacuum cleaner salesman. Neither seem to him to be a fit successor for him with his "woman" or father to his teen-age son. He takes steps to reestablish his primacy as the "man" of the house while, off in heaven, various characters who once had some slim connection to the family share their observations with the audience.

Vonnegut's play is sort of like Vonnegut's novels or Vonnegut's short stories, speeches or interviews. It is filled with his idiosyncratic humor with its concentration on the illogic of the real world and the contradictions inherent in "popular wisdom." With Slaughterhouse Five, he had gone as deep as he could into his own experiences as a witness to the destruction of war (he was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing that destroyed that most beautiful of German cities) while letting his attention flit from topic to topic through the use of a time-traveling technique of "coming unstuck in time." He tries to find an equivalent technique for the stage in having scenes separated by snippets of commentary from characters in some sort of afterlife. But the essence of the piece is the story playing out in the home of the returning warrior.

The husband has only been gone for eight years, hardly long enough for there to be fundamental shifts in society in his absence. But he must have been close to "unstuck" even before his departure, holding to concepts that were coming to be seen as outdated, for he returns with a chip on his shoulder, ranting over the decay in the manliness of the current crop of men. William Aitken gets the rant right and delivers many of the barbs with an acid tongue although there doesn't seem to be even a hint of a difficulty to believe what is happening to his world. The lack of that difficulty keeps him from being even the slightest bit human. Instead - and this may be consistent with Vonnegut's intent - he's a caricature of a "manly man," a simplistic Ernest Hemmingway figure.

The home life he has returned to includes an attractive Kari Ginsburg as his wife who, during his eight year absence, has begun to exercise her own capacity to think for herself, but who hasn't quite developed the self confidence to withstand his resumption of his assumed primacy as the man of the house. Brian Crane gives a sharp performance as the "peacenik" doctor in her life, while Brian Razzino isn't able to make much of the character of the vacuum cleaner salesman who passes through. The collection of observers from heaven make the diversions entertaining: Bill Gordon as a Nazi who revels in destruction, Deborah Rinn Critzer, who puts down her martini just long enough to move the plot along one notch, and Rachel Weber as the little girl whose birthday cake plays only briefly in the story but gives the title to the piece.

Written by Kurt Vonnegut. Directed by Ellen Dempsey. Design: Trena Weiss-Null (set and properties) Rip Claassen (costumes) AnneMarie Castrigno (lights) Jake Null (sound) Ian Armstrong (photography) Maggie Clifton (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, Brian Crane, Deborah Rinn Critzer, Joe Cronin, Kari Ginsburg, Bill Gordon, Andrew Newman or Adin Walker, Brian Razzino, Rachel Weber. 

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January 4 - 26, 2008
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:10 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a taught and realistic police drama

Click here to buy the script

We have spent decades watching police shows on television, from documentaries like the "reality TV" show that shares the title of this drama and which is televised on the network that shares the name of this show's author, Terry Curtis Fox, to Hill Street Blues for which that author would write episodes after moving from stage to TV. The idea of an armed thug in a shoot out with world weary members of the brotherhood of blue is no longer quite as foreign to the "entertainment business" as it once was. For that, we may well have Fox to thank ... both Terry Curtis Fox and Fox the Network. But there is a real difference between witnessing enactment of such violence safely separated from the action by the glass front of a television screen or even the massive magnification of the large screen at the local cinema, and actually being in the room where it is happening. Such is the magic of live theater. It is still fiction, and the real people are still actors, but when it is done as well as it is here, it triggers rushes of adrenalin which get your heart pumping nonetheless.

Storyline: At two o'clock in the morning there isn't much stirring at an all-night dinner in Chicago. Just a very few customers, a short order cook, a waitress who wants nothing so much as to call it a night, and a few late night cops trading stories of life on the force. Then one customer pulls a gun and takes a hostage. In a flash lives are lost, others are changed and those remaining alive have to make quick decisions on which other lives may depend.

This is pure police drama, not crime drama. It isn't concerned with the conditions on the street, the causes of crime nor the plight of the victims. It is also completely devoid of any whodunit tease or intriguing mystery. It is the life and code of police officers that is at issue here and the way even those who may snipe at each other unmercifully in times of the routine and the mundane can close ranks in a heart beat and become a unified reaction to an external threat. Director Stephen Jarrett takes his cue from the instant the night of boredom turns to anguish. It happens so fast that it is like a knife edge separating two different slices of real life. Jarrett paces the one slice at a slow drawl with just enough punch in the punch lines of the cops stories to make them real. The other slice is so intense it seems to run at double speed except at those moments of uncertainty when the struggle between the shooter and the officers could go either way.

Brian Razzino and Regan Wilson play the plain clothes detectives stopping in for some of the caffeine of coffee kept hot on the burner for far too long, and the sugar of a slice of apple pie. Razzino's is the sharper cop who exudes a sense of command even when fatigued, while Wilson is unconcernedly frumpy and confident of his worth and not above delivering a good natured ribbing. John C. Bailey, as a uniformed cop confident that he knows his beat better than anyone, is often the recipient of that ribbing. They while away some of the wee hours of the morning together before the mayhem erupts.

To invoke the feel of "reality TV" Trena Weiss-Null has created a set that feels very much like a rundown diner in an urban locale like North Side Chicago. Dishes, dented pots and pans, a tinny cash register, banged up tables and chairs - it all feels just right. You can almost smell the grease on short order cook Rob Heckert's range. You most definitely can smell the smoke of everyone's seemingly ever present cigarette. And Rip Claassen has provided costumes that feel very lived in - as everything does at 2:00 am. The sense of reality is part of the reason the burst of violence strikes with such force.

Written by Terry Curtis Fox. Directed by Stephen Jarrett. Design: Trena Weiss-Null (set) Rip Claassen (costumes) Karen Currie (properties) AnnMarie Castrigno (lights) Michael Null (technical direction and sound) Jeffrey Bell (photography) Alicia Oliver (stage manager). Cast: John C. Bailey, Bruce Follmer, Bill Gordon, Rob Heckert, Brian Razzino, Honora Talbot, Shane Wallis, Regan Wilson.

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September 7 - October 6, 2007
Ah, Wilderness!
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:35 - two intermissions
t A Potomac Stages Pick for some superb performances in O'Neill's only comedy
Click here to buy the script

Kim Scott Miller does his best work thus far in this, his sixth show for the American Century Theater, as the warmly affectionate, humanly befuddled head of the household in "a large small-town in Connecticut" in 1906. He's fascinating to watch all evening long both in those moments when the focus is on his character and in those scenes where he helps focus the attention on others. Those others are doing fine work as well. They include the likes of Rebecca Herron as his wife, Evan Crump as their son, Tina Renay Fulp as the spinster aunt and John Collins as the uncle she loves, Kari Ginsburg as the son's love interest and Carolyn Myers and Joe Baker as those who would lead the young man astray. Together, they create an affectionate portrait of Americana that reflects the longing of the nation for an anchoring self image at the time the play was written - 1933 in the depths of the worst depression the nation had ever known.

Storyline: On the Fourth of July in 1906, the sixteen-going-on-seventeen son of a small-town newspaper editor comes of age before his family's very eyes. His girlfriend's father is adamant that he be punished for poisoning her mind with radical romantic literature and forces his daughter to write a letter ending their relationship. The son seeks solace in a disreputable bar but emerges unscathed while his family worries that he may follow in the footsteps of an uncle whose drinking has ruined his life.

Reading the storyline above, you may question the comment that this is O'Neill's only comedy. A comedy about the evils of alcohol, and "bad" women? Apply the definition of a comedy from classical drama and it fits. "A form of drama distinguished by its humorous content and happy ending." This evening does end happily, and if there aren't a lot of belly laughs, there are many knowing chuckles along the way, Still, Eugene O'Neill didn't write a mindless diversion peppered with laugh lines. Instead, this is a comedy with heft. It doesn't dwell on the negatives or the dangers of life, but it doesn't pretend they aren't there either. Alcoholism, prostitution, venereal disease, economic dependency. They are there and they are real. But they aren't the topics O'Neill chooses to highlight. Instead, he puts optimism and a deep sense of family loyalty at the heart of this, his light-hearted contribution to America's effort to keep its chin up in the face of economic catastrophe.

Miller has the role that was originated by none other than George M. Cohan. Indeed, director Bob Bartlett and his sound designer Matt Otto open this production with a blast of Cohan singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy." That is the last obvious Cohanism in the show, for Miller doesn't try to impersonate the great George M. Instead, he works to let us see the inner workings of his character's thoughts and concerns and in this he succeeds. He makes this father figure an intelligent adult with a soft spot in his heart for his family, including his wife and his middle son. Evan Crump has a bit more difficulty as the son, for it is written about a time when a sixteen year old boy in a middle class home was thought to be much less mature than in other decades. O'Neill gives him some nearly embarrassingly immature comments and actions, but also writes the part with a rich vein of hope which Crump manages to show.

This is a substantial but not sumptuous production. The set nicely represents a mercantile middle-class turn of the twentieth century New England home, but doesn't include any of the touches of decorative brick-a-brack, Victorian wall covering or ostentatious opulence that marked the time. The costumes are well matched to time and station and have the lived-in look of real clothing as opposed to theatrical costumes, but not all of them seem to fit the bodies that are wearing them. Then, too, while the electric doorbell was invented as early as 1831, the buzzer represented here seems all too modern even for up-to-date Connecticut in 1906.

Written by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Bob Bartlett. Design: Andrew Barry (set) Rip Claassen (costumes) Andrew F. Griffin (lights) Matt Otto (sound) Jeffrey Bell (photography) Michael Null (stage manager). Cast: Joe Baker, John Collins, Tina Renay Fulp, Kari Ginsburg, Harry Hagerty, Robert Heinly, Rebecca A. Herron, Evan Crump, Michael Feldsher, Kim-Scott Miller, Tori Miller, Carolyn Myer, Kevin O'Reilly, Christopher Tully, Emily Webbe.

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July 13 - August 18, 2007
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:35 - one entertaining intermission
An attempt to recreate the tomfoolery of the wackiest of Broadway shows
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(But don't bother)

This in an interesting and valuable class in The American Century Theater's course in outmoded, often unreasonably forgotten 20th century American theater genres. When the company first announced that they would attempt to recreate the wild, wacky, irrepressible and unpredictable show that was an inexplicable hit as the country began the transition from the depression to a war footing prior to Pearl Harbor, it was completely foreseeable that the result would be of tremendous interest to those who are fascinated by the history of live theater. That, after all, is the specialty of this company. What was not predictable was just how much fun the resulting show would be. Rarely has a history lesson been such a kick. It is particularly surprising because the original creators of the show tried their own transplant - in media from live show to celluloid rather than in time from 1930s to 2000s. But the movie they made of their own creation is, in the perfectly honest words of American Century's Artistic Director Jack Marshall, "practically unwatchable." Not so, his own recreation. His version is a lot of fun.

Storlyine: Are you kidding? The one thing Hellzapoppin never, ever thought of doing was tell a story!

In 1938 the team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson hit it big on Broadway with a crazy collection of sketch comedies and show music which ran for over three years and became the longest running musical in the history of Broadway (until then) if you could call it a musical and if you could call the three years of eight shows a week a "run" since the show was different practically every night. Acts were added, songs dropped, gags inserted, performers replaced, topical humor updated, hackneyed tired old material given a new twist one night and then returned to its original form the next. Sometimes Olsen and Johnson would arrive on stage from the wings in a car. At others they would make their entrance from the audience as if they were coming in late. They were old time vaudeville comedians and had developed their shtick not as a highly polished performance that was the same each night but as a rambling stream-of-consciousness assemblage of gags and concepts that changed as they "worked the house." Whatever worked on any given night would be carried along until the audience seemed to them to be just short of loosing interest - then the team would switch to something else either already scripted or improvised on the spot.

A recreation of this wild, wacky, irrepressible and unpredictable package involved both significant research (there is only one remaining original script and no one knows if the show was actually performed on any given night the way it says in that script) and sharp artistic judgment. As fascinated as Jack Marshall is with the history of theatrical genres, he somehow managed to maintain his concentration on the cardinal function of the show - entertain the audience. He wisely jettisoned the original music (now there are numbers you will remember, such as "Try to Remember," and some brighter, better material such as a number by Milton Schafer which was heard on Broadway all of 19 times. 

Marshall's cast includes people who sit in the audience heckling or being accosted and troubadours such as Steve McWilliams. There's Brian Crane who makes a fine Tevye in a Hitler uniform. There are actors (such as John Tweel) who can throw themselves into a running gag with complete abandon, or (Alex Perez) who can mime being attacked by a weasel (don't ask). In fact, the cast list numbers over twenty-five, but nearly everyone has multiple roles to play so it is nearly impossible to keep up with who is who as the show goes along. Even intermission isn't a chance to gather your wits about you and consider what you have just witnessed, for the foolishness continues in the lobby with Evan Crump wandering about with a potted plant to deliver, Tanera Hutz tapping people on the shoulder to find out if they are the "Oscar" she's been searching for throughout the first act, and Tweel struggling with his straight jacket. But most importantly, it includes Bill Karukas and Doug Krenzlin as Olsen and Johnson. They may not recreate all the humor of the original team but they come close enough to make the entire package work.

Concept and book by Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, with material by Jack Marshall, Thomas D. Fuller, Loren Platzman, Rip Claussen, Doug Krenzlin, Ron Sarro, Andrea Abrams "and the great comic artists of the 20th century." Directed by Jack Marshall. Musical direction by Thomas D. Fuller. Choreography by Kay Casstevens. Music arrangements by Lauren Platzman. Design: Mike Switalski (set) Rip Claussen (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Marc Wright (lights) Matt Otto (sound) Jeffrey Bell (photography) Rhonda Hill (stage manager). Cast: Andrea Abrams, Esther Covington, Brian Crane, Deborah Critzer, Evan Crump, Ellen Dempsey, Susan Edgar, Bruce Follmer, Alice Fuller, Kathryn Fuller, Lou George, Tanera Hutz,  Bill Karukas, Doug Krenzlin, Steve Lebens, Steve McWilliams, Jack Marshall, Sr., Mary Millben, Alex Perez, Dwayne Pierce, Jennifer Robison Potts, Ron Sarro, Ginny Tarris, John Tweel, Emily Webbe, Glenn White, Ed Xavier.

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March 30 - April 28, 2007
That Championship Season

Running time 2:25 - two intermissions
A new setting for a Pulitzer Prize Winning Drama

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In 1973 the Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to the same play that had won the Tony Award for best play, a drama about the members of a 1952 basketball team gathering for a twentieth reunion in their former coach's home. Fueled by memories, jealousies and a considerable quantity of liquor, their disappointments are exposed. The American Century Theater, true to its mission of producing the great, important or ignored from the body of work on American stages of the twentieth century, revive the piece. Their director, Ed Bishop, does more than simply revive the piece - he reinvents it. He changes the setting from Pennsylvania to Alabama and the race of the characters from white to black. In the process, he obviously hopes to make something universal out of this exploration of dreams unmet after successes that come too early and too easily. Those who remember the movie based on the play, and therefore are familiar with the story in its Pennsylvania/white orientation, will find the changes broaden the major points of the play to apply to a larger, wider society. Those who don't won't find the story any less involving or disturbing just because the racial or geographic setting has changed. Either way, this is a strong evening of emotional flare-ups

Storyline: Four of the five members of the 1952 state champion high school basketball team reunite in their old coach's living room for a twentieth anniversary celebration. Over the course of a liquor-lubricated evening each team member's frustration over the course of his life since the fabulous final ten seconds of their last basketball game. It has been all down hill from there although some have fallen farther than others. And the coach isn't too happy with the lack of team spirit among "his boys," or how his life has turned out either.

Under Bishop's direction, the cast of this five-character play begin their evening of drinking and arguing by shouting at each other too loudly or sulking at the other extreme. They use up all the dynamic range during the early exposition scenes where their conversations provide the audience with basic information on who they are and what they are doing in the trophy-bedecked living room. Morgan James Hall is the first to put too much "oomph" in throw-away lines as the former team member who is now the mayor of the small town. (The dialogue establishes that town has a population of 52,000 - hardly something to shout about.) Later, Elliott Moffitt enters as the former coach hosting the reunion and he, too, bellows many of the lines that seem to have little emotional or dramatic importance. As a result, when tempers flare - and flare they do - there's really no increased volume or emotional level to which to switch.

Two in the cast turn the volume/energy dichotomy to their own characters' advantage. Joseph A. Mills, III plays a former star who is now a wandering alcoholic. He begins the evening as a morose, quiet presence content to pour drink after drink and contribute a comment under his breath from time to time. The contrast is refreshing. Omar A. Bah, as a player turned businessman whose need for new victories has driven him to seek sexual conquests, establishes an attitude of withdrawal until he is drawn into the fray by revelations of the identity of his amorous as well as political connections. It falls to Ron Lincoln to be the link between these two extremes - the overly loud and the quietly withdrawn. His own transitions as the team member who has risen "only" to the rank of principal of the local junior high school are smooth if a bit mechanical.

Bishop wisely avoids changing the time of the piece as he changes the location and racial identity of the team. The play is still set in the year of its premiere, 1972. While there are few overt references to many of the landmark disappointments that were blows to the body politic at the time (Vietnam, Watergate) or even the heights that created such contrasts (the landing on the moon) there is a moving commentary on the rash of assassinations that plagued the era from Kennedy to King. Perhaps somewhat less true to the time, the drug of choice is exclusively alcohol. However, these men drink indiscriminately - one goes from bourbon to vodka to scotch in about twenty minutes, another bobs back and forth between whisky and beer. Thus lubricated they reveal personal disappointments more than societal ones.

Written by Jason Miller. Directed by Ed Bishop. Design: Michael Switalski (set) Rip Claassen (costumes)  Joyce Andrea Sampson (properties) Thomas B. Kennedy (lights) Matt Otto (sound) Jeffery Bell (photography) Kelly Armstrong (stage manager). Cast: Obar A. Bah, Morgan James Hall, Ron Lincoln, Joseph A. Mills, III, Elliott Moffitt.

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February 23 - March 24, 2007
Drama Under the Influence
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:20 - one intermission
Seven short plays written by women playwrights between 1914 and 1931

Steven Scott Mazola has assembled seven (or is that six? - or eleven?) plays by American women from the 19 teens, twenties and thirties to create one evening examining what was then contemporary culture. The title of the evening may imply to some that the pieces have some common thread involving prohibition or simply attitudes toward alcohol, but, truth to tell, the topic never comes up. (For the record, despite references to the prohibition era in the program notes, at least three and perhaps as many as five of these plays were written before the start of prohibition in America.) The confusion over the number of "plays" stems from the inclusion of one piece by Gertrude Stein which she titled Photography: A Play in Five Acts. It isn't really a play. Rather, it is a set of five verbal explosions, each an oral "photograph." Director Steven Scott Mazolla intersperses these five vocal interludes around the six more standard "plays" written by Sophie Treadwell, Eulalie Spence, Rita Wellman, Susan Glaspell (with her husband,) and Dorothy Parker.

Storyline: Short plays by women authors look at life in America in the period 1914-1931. Vignettes include a honeymooning couple, a murder on a Midwestern farm, the numbers racket in Harlem, the differing memories of various family members about a deceased relative and psychoanalysis.

As with most assemblies of short plays, the highlights here tend to block memories of the less successful moments as soon as the lights go up. You walk away from this evening of short pieces remembering just how delightfully humorous Jennifer B. Robison was in her first production with this company. The humor of William Aitken's silent suffering through his wife's rantings over the significance of dreams, or his successful struggle to express his frustrations and suspicions in a dark farmhouse on the great American plain linger in the mind. The super-stylized presentation of memories in Sophie Treadwell's Eye of the Beholder which opened the evening continues to resonate even after all that followed it.

The confusing separation of Gertrude Stein's Photograph: A Play in Five Acts into five separate pieces distributed throughout the evening somehow makes it recede without leaving much impression. The wildly differing quality of the performances - from Robison, Aitken and Ellen Young as a woman coping with the impact of "The Great War" at one extreme to Jay Tilley's unfortunately overplayed lover in Treadwell's Eye of the Beholder at the other - seem to blend into a general impression.

Elizabeth Baldwin has devised a set structure which serves the needs of all seven  plays nicely. A set of platforms, with doors at either side and an empty frame at the rear. It is sufficiently segmented to provide distinct playing spaces in which director Mazola can locate separate scenes, but is undecorated enough to dispense with elaborate scene changing requirements. Cast members can heft a table on here or a mirror off there. It helps to keep the evening moving right along for, as with many compilations of short works, part of the pleasure comes from the fact that, if you don't like what is happening on stage at any given moment, you need only wait a short time - another play is on the way.

Written by Susan Glaspell (Suppressed Desire, Trifles), Dorothy Parker (Here We Are), Eulalie Spence (Hot Stuff), Gertrude Stein (Photograph: A Play in Five Acts), Sophie Treadwell (Eye of the Beholder) and Rita Wellman (For All Time). Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Choreography by Lotta Lundgren and Amanda Abrams. Fight direction by Michael Jerome Johnson. Design: Elizabeth Baldwin (set) Jennifer Tardiff (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Marc Allan Wright (lights) Ian Armstrong (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Karen Currie (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, Colby Codding, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Tanera Hutz, Lauren Judith Krizner, Katherine McCann, Steve Lebens, Mary McGowan, Jennifer B. Robison, Jay Tilley, Ellen Young.

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January 5 - February 3,2007
Desire Under the Elms
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:05 - one intermission
A revival of a seldom seen but well known play

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Tragedy or drama? Eugene O'Neill's 1924 play is sometimes referred to as the first great tragedy by an American author. Never mind that O'Neill's own The Emperor Jones preceded this play by about four years and, as was ably demonstrated in this company's revival of 2005, certainly deserves that accolade. This play has all the textual earmarks of high tragedy. It has characters steeped in hubris. It has passions that boil over uncontrollably. The characters are overtaken by the terrible consequences of their own decisions and actions. And there are timeless lessons driven home by memorable moments of realization. In director William Aitken's approach, however, these elements are somehow underplayed as if the piece they are performing is a period drama, not a timeless tragedy. As a result, even Susan Marie Rhea's heart felt and often heart rending portrayal of a Phaedra-like heroine, who, though married to the father falls in love with the son with tragic results, eventually begins to falter. When the men she shares the stage with seem able to absorb the cruel blows of the plot with a certain aplomb more appropriate to a drawing room drama than a full fledged tragedy, she is deprived of the reflective power of strong reactions.

Storyline: The long-suffering and often abused youngest son of a hardened New England farmer thinks he's finally going to get the life he deserves when his father disappears and he buys out his brothers for the family farm. But his father returns with a new wife who comes to believe that her only way to secure her future is to give her new husband another son. She seduces the son but convinces the father that the child she bears is his.

Aitken's approach to the play softens some edges, but the three strong characters created by O'Neill still come through with more than a shard showing. The principal pleasure of the evening is watching Rhea, especially in the first half as she gives a fabulous performance of a woman scheming to be whatever she needs to be to two different men. She flashes from seductive to determined in the blink of an eye and both the internal strengths and the scars of her prior life, which combine to allow her character to fall into the traps that eventually destroy her, are clear and painfully visible as her world first seems to offer a simple agrarian version of happiness and then turns terribly bad at her own hand. The image of her central crime, here actually enacted before your eyes instead of simply revealed in dialogue, is a haunting one, but it is her exhausted silence which follows that is perhaps even more haunting.

The two men in her life - her hardened aging husband and his vital young son - are played by Kevin Adams and Parker Dixon. Adams is an immediate strong presence and drives a number of scenes nicely, while Dixon creates a consistent character but misses some of the ethereal nature of O'Neill's writing. (What ever happened to the sub-theme of his fixation over his dead mother's spirit?) Both handle the set up to the calamity well, and they both are believable in their attachment to the hard scrabble land that is at the heart of their conflict. Still, at key moments when they realize the extent of disaster that has befallen them, their reactions seem simply too bland for true tragedy. Dixon doesn't reel in shock when he realizes that the son he dotes on has been taken from him. Adams seems to shrug off the discovery of the theft of his life savings as a mere distraction before wandering down to the barn to milk the cows. The reactions  -- or lack of them -- rob Rhea of something to play off for her own moments of what might be termed "shock and awe" in more modern times.

Originally calling for a cast of twenty, the script has been pared down so that this cast of five can handle the material. Nothing really is lost in the process except the rendering of the final line in the play is just a bit confusing, being read from off-stage by a disembodied voice. John Geoffrion and Colin Smith set up the evening well as the two brothers that Dixon's character buys off. They introduce the audience to the heavily accented sound of the New England intonation called for by O'Neill's text ("My woman. She died. I rec'lect--now an' agin. Makes it lonesome. She'd hair long's a hoss' tail--an' yaller like gold!") The ear becomes accustomed to the twang before having to decipher lines like "my blood--mine. Mine ought t' git mine. An' then it's still mine--even though I be six foot under. D'ye see?"  Even so, it remains a bit difficult to catch some of the dialogue from the set, which is surprisingly lacking in any looming presence (where are the elms?), which is placed far back in the black box space, creating a gulf between action and audience.

Written by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by William Aitken. Dialect coaching by John Geoffrion. Design: William Aitken (set) Maggie Butler (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Kat Brais (hair and makeup) Scott Folsom (lights) Ian Armstrong (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Melissa Richardson (stage manager). Cast: Kevin Adams, Parker Dixon, John Geoffrion, Susan Marie Rhea, Colin Smith.

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September 8 - October 7, 2006

Running time 2:20 - one intermission
A recreation of a famed political satire from the 1960s

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In 1965 playwright Barbara Garson pictured Lyndon Johnson as Macbeth in an anti-war satire that used the words of Shakespeare to spear the man who took the Presidency when John Kennedy died. Topical humor may be the least portable element of theater over time since it relies on the audience's knowledge of the minutia of the day's news - imagine attempting to re-create one of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show monologues of the time - who would understand half of the gags? Add in the fact that today's audience also knows the broad outlines of what would happen in the years between the original production and today (for instance, Bobby Kennedy's assassination had not happened at the time of the original but is very much in the minds of an audience today) and the task of remounting topical satire is difficult. Director Ellen Dempsey's approach to this revival of MacBird! is obviously the right way to go - give the material the respect it deserves for its craft and its cleverness but don't sit around waiting for the audience to get each joke. Keep it moving right along so that the cumulative effect can be more entertaining than any single moment. The result is not shockingly entertaining as its original is reported to have been but mildly entertaining and also interesting on an historical level.

Storyline: Following a sketchy version of the plot of Macbeth and using the words of Shakespeare, the rise and fall of Lyndon Johnson is satirized as he accepts the Vice Presidential nomination from his rivals, the Kennedy Brothers (here called the Ken O'Duncs) and takes the White House from them only to fall himself.

If the effort to bring topical humor forward out of its time is a struggle, it is helped by the cleverness of Barbara Garson's original concept and the intelligence behind her selection of pieces of Shakespeare to carry her message. She lifts material from the bard and reassembles it in her own story's shape, never letting the constraints of her concept inhibit the barbs she slings so fiercely at her target. She even departs from Shakespeare's text when it suits her purpose (no, Shakespeare didn't write "My God. My God. Why hast Thou forsaken me?" but it ends up in one of MacBird's speeches.) It is hard to recreate the unique blend of innocence and malevolence that the semi-hippie subculture of the late 1960s brought to the role of loyal opposition, but some of the feel of the day is still here in this production. Underlying the animosity verging on hatred for its subject in the script, is the hippie's sense of joy at being able to publicly revile that is juvenile in the strictest sense of the word, i.e. not only being young but being about being young. The youngest members of the ensemble bring the greatest sense of that joy to their work.

Some of the cast here is older than the original cast was when MacBird! first opened (the original MacBird was none other than a 26 year old Stacy Keach), but even if the MacBirds (Joe Cronin and Charlotte Akin) aren't exactly bubbly subversive twenty-somethings, they bring a sense of fun to their work that fits the piece well, and the team of Kennedys - oops, Ken O'Duncs - share a touch of the juvenile jokester spirit. Cronin carries the weight of the play from first to last with energy and intelligence but an almost too-strong sense of dignity. He's spoofing Johnson's own enormous ego, of course, but it comes across a bit more genteel than one imagines that Keach would have been in the original. Akin is a kick in the smaller role of Lady MacBird (which was originally played by a 30-year-old Rue McClanahan). Working as a team as the brothers in power are Robert Rector as John, Joshua Drew as Bobby and Steven McWilliams as an almost infantile Teddy. Drew is a devilish delight as the middle brother. Brian Crane gets a chance to shine in the Adlai Stevenson rip-off, Egg of Head which must have been even funnier to an audience who remembers not just that Stevenson had a reputation as an "egg head" but knew the persona directly.

Tom Kennedy's set is just right for the production, working nicely as both a multi-level playing space and a visual representation of the mood the show attempts to set with its cartoonish backdrop of the tumbling Washington Monument and off kilter Capitol Dome flanking a White House whose pillars are crumbling. The central playing area is a simple desk and chair office area, but the use of that backdrop and a curved platform makes it a very oval office. The time is evoked effectively in some of Matt Otto's sound cues. He doesn't confine himself, however, to the rock-ish music of the subculture of the time such as Credence Clearwater. He even throws in a bit of Mancini's Pink Panther Theme.

Written by Barbara Garson. Directed by Ellen Dempsey. Design: Thomas B. Kennedy (set) Jennifer Tardiff (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Ayun Fedorcha (lights) Matt Otto (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Christine Lange (stage manager). Cast: Charlotte Akin, J. J. Area, Colby Codding, Brian Crane, Joe Cronin, Joshua Drew, Suzanne Edgar, Theo Hadjimichael, Stephen McWiliams, Anne Nottage, Alex Perez, Robert Rector, Theodore M. Snead, Maura Stadem, Jay Tilley. 

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June 22 - July 15, 2006

Running time 2:40 - one intermission
Dos Passos' three novels blend fiction and American history

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Of course The American Century Theater would want to put on a play called U.S.A. by one of the important American writers of the twentieth century - a play that not only surveys American history, it even includes in its dialogue a statement that "The Twentieth Century Will Be America's Century." Add to the mix the fact that the play is rarely seen after having had a substantial run in New York in mid-century. Can you imagine a play that comes closer to this theater's self image? The fact that the writer involved made his contributions on the written page and not on the stage might not have been a deterrent to their determination to mount the show because the material is so appropriate to their mission. However, it helps that the stage adaptation was not crafted by the author of the source material alone. Literary craftsman John Dos Passos partnered with theatrical craftsman Paul Shyre to create this interesting hybrid of literary and theatrical techniques. It wasn't Shyre's only excursion into theatrical Americana - indeed it wasn't even his only play with "U.S.A." in the title. He was the author of James Whitmore's marvelous solo-show, Will Rogers' USA.

Storyline: The life of a fictional character who rises from callow youth to master of public relations in the first third of the twentieth century provides the thread to hold vignettes of Americana together. Headlines are recited, photographs of the day are displayed and key historical figures are profiled while "John Moorehouse" comes of age, makes his fortune and suffers a heart attack at an early age.

American writer John Dos Passos (1896 - 1970) was a highly successful, influential part of his generation's cultural corps which was so influenced by the events of World War I. He published the free-form novel The 42nd Parallel in 1930. Two years later he added Nineteen Nineteen and four years after that it was The Big Money. The three, taken together as a trilogy, painted a mosaic portrait of his America published as a set under the title U.S.A. in 1938 and became well regarded as a major piece of Americana. In 1959 the three were adapted for performance by Dos Passos and Shyre and the piece played a small theater in the Martinique Hotel on New York's Harold Square for something above 700 performances. In the stage version, Dos Passos creates a vivid if somewhat long-winded portrait of a slice of American life. That slice, however, is narrow indeed. For the most part, these are the urban and urbane wealthy or would-be-wealthy who worried about selling short on the stock exchange in their maturity after sharing the cares of "the great war" and the nascent peace (what would Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George do with the map of Europe?). Nearly absent from this world were native Americans, African Americans, farmers, the chronic poor, etc. Oh, there's both Emma Goldman and Henry Ford viewed through the lens of their impact on "the workers" but those workers never seem to have faces.

Director Jacqueline Manger has assembled a well balanced troupe of six who each take on multiple roles. Evan Hoffman not only plays Moorehouse with a fine sense of style from youth through maturity, he's Orville Wright as well. The women in his life are a fine trio of actresses who also double up on roles -- Patricia Hurley is briefly statuesque as Isadora Duncan. Many of the parts call for quick cartooning of a character but brevity takes on additional importance in the segments using headlines from newsreels to create a mosaic of the times. Bruce Alan Rauscher's major part is of the character of Richard Savage who rises in Moorehouse's business to heir apparent, but some of his major contributions to the evening come in delivering one-line snippets of headlines as a member of the ensemble.

Projection designer James G. Champlain dug into photo archives to come up with a series of fascinating pictures and Manger cleverly integrates them into the staging. The effect of live passengers before a slide of the interior of a train, or of a speaker at a podium before a slide of a hotel ballroom, gives some visual excitement to the production, often at just the right time as the text seems to drag on. The use of slides displaying dates, however, gives the American Studies students in the audience a hook on which to hang a criticism, for the chronology of the material sometimes seems out of synch with the displayed dates. The Henry Ford story centering on the assembly lines for the Model T came about the time of the 1924 slide although the "T" was the predominant vehicle on the roads by 1918 and the assembly line to produce them was introduced in 1913.

Written by Paul Shyre and Jon Dos Passos. Directed and choreographed by Jacqueline Manger. Design: Michael deBlois (set) James G. Champlain (projections) Rip Claassen (costumes) AnnMarie Castrigno (lights) Brendon Vierra (sound) Jeffrey Bell (photography) Melissa Richardson (stage manager). Cast: Monalisa Arias, Evan Hoffman, Patricia Hurley, Kim-Scott Miller, Amy Quiggins, Bruce Alan Rauscher.

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March 16 - April 15, 2006
The Autumn Garden

Reviewed March 18
Running time 2:50 - two intermissions
A solid revival of a rarely seen drama

Click here to buy the script

Who knows how good or bad the cast was for the 1951 premiere of this less-than-successful Lillian Hellman drama? It quickly came and went with about 100 performances. Now, director Steven Scott Mazzola, fulfilling the mission of the American Century Theater to resurrect important but rarely seen plays from the incredibly rich body of work on American stages, gives the play a production featuring strong performances in each of the roles in what is clearly intended as an ensemble piece. It demonstrates both the strength of Hellman's ability to craft characters and the possible reason the play didn't match the success of her earlier works such as The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine and The Children's Hour. Each of those big hits were melodramatic pieces about a single big theme (sibling exploitation, the evils of Nazism, sexual scandal) while here we have a number of stories intersecting over a week at a vacation resort. It is a nice little play well performed, not an emotional bombshell.

Storyline: Life among the guests in a Gulf Coast resort in 1949 intersect. There is a family of grandmother, mother and son stressed over the plans for the son's marriage. There is a former Army general and his wife who manipulates him into staying in a loveless marriage. There is the young girl who is a refugee from war-torn France without the resources to return to her homeland. It all comes together under the pressures generated by the presence of an artist who can't bring himself to complete pictures and his long suffering wife. Then there's the woman he painted years ago in her youthful prime who agrees to sit for another portrait.

At the center of the play is the role of the artist and in Jim Jorgensen's hands the part gets the smarmy sense it needs. The character soils just about everything and everyone he comes in contact with while being so self absorbed that he not only doesn't know he's doing it, he wouldn't care if he did know. When he finally meets his match at the hands of Maura Stadem as the French girl who makes the most of opportunity when it knocks, the audience wants to cheer.

Linda High is a caustic delight as the wise grandmother who sees the strengths and weaknesses of her family clearly, while both Jan Boulet, as her daughter, and Joshua Drew, as her grandson, give performances that hint nicely at the very factors she recognizes. Another family match of note is Mark Lee Adams as the general and Annie Houston as his manipulative wife. Their short scenes together are very effective.

Mazzola's production doesn't do much to create the ambiance of the time and place of the play. The play would seem to have all the ingredients for what would be termed an atmospheric production - a formerly grand home serving as a guest house along the Louisiana coast just a hundred miles from New Orleans in that precious interlude for America between the victory in World War II and the outbreak of war in Korea. Yet the production doesn't capitalize on the potential. No thick accents. No sense of heat and humidity. No touch of jazz. Instead, the concentration is on the individual characters as they interact in ensemble fashion. The satisfaction of the evening comes from the acting.

Written by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Design: Beth Baldwin (set) Rip Claassen (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Ayun Fedorcha (lights) Kevin Harney (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Karen Currie (stage manager). Cast: Mark Lee Adams, William Aitken, Jan Boulet, Deborah Rinn Critzer, Joshua Drew, Linda High, Annie Houston, Jim Jorgensen, Mary McGowan, Maura Stadem.

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January 6 - 28, 2006
Spoon River Anthology

Reviewed January 11
Running time 2:15 - one intermission
Small town American lives of the turn of the twentieth century

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Click here to buy the script

The American Century Theater Company exists to resurrect important American works from the twentieth century. The selection of this stage adaptation of Edgar Lee Master’s collection of poetry is a strange choice for them because its importance isn’t as a piece of theater. It is as a piece of literature. As literature it may be both important and even great, but as theater, at least on the basis of this turgid recreation, it is neither. Try as they might, and the cast tries awfully hard, it never comes to life on stage. Even the addition of music seems to be a distraction rather than an enhancement and the confusing physical production simply compounds the difficulty that there is no central thread for the audience to hold onto.

Storyline: In the cemetery of the town of Spoon River, Illinois, the dead talk about their lives, telling of the high points and the low.

Masters’ 1915 book of poems included nearly 250 individual pieces, some as long as 400 lines, some as brief as 20. Each is in the voice of one of the dead delivering a story or an observation on his or her own life. Together they form a composite portrait of middle-America at the turn of the twentieth century from which the reader can sample at will, pausing to contemplate a vivid truth here, an interesting detail there. Veteran character actor Charles Aidman developed this stage adaptation as a vehicle for himself. In 1963 he took it to Broadway as its principal performer, writer and director where it was fairly well received. Whatever theatrical magic he worked to make it a satisfying evening of theater escapes this effort to recreate it for today’s audience.

It isn’t that individual pieces aren’t interesting in their own right. There appear to be literally dozens of kind-of-interesting stories played out on stage. However, there is no unifying central theme or construct that pulls them together, and the staging here is so strange you never get a chance to just sit back and listen to the poetic words or contemplate the observations by the dead of what they thought was the most important fact about their lives. Instead, a tremendously earnest troop of eight players take up one persona after another with no explanation, no structure and no one acting as our guide. At least Thornton Wilder gave us a Stage Manager to explain things in Our Town. No one explains anything in Spoon River.

The oddity of the physical production works to compound that difficulty. The set is draped with shards of fabric hanging around a plot of ground that features mounds, a stylized stalagmite and some decaying junk. The cast is dressed in drab brown semi-period clothing with fabric draped from their shoulder blades which probably represent flaccid angels' wings, but are used as everything from shrouds to swaddling clothes, and there is no explanation at all as to why one woman has one slipper and one bare foot, one man has one long sleeve and one short, other's costumes are ripped and distressed and the women seem bruised. There are a myriad of details here, but they don't add up to a single, unified whole.

Adapted by Charles Aidman from the poems of Edgar Lee Masters. Directed by Shane Wallis. Choreographed by Caroline Ashbaugh. Musical direction by Tom Fuller. Design: Jan Forbes (set) Jennifer Tardiff (costumes) Thomas B. Kennedy (lights) Matt Neilson (sound) Jeffrey Bell (photography) Eryn Chaney (stage manager). Cast: JJ Area, Caroline Ashbaugh, Edward Daniels, Theo Hadjimichael, Ellie Nicoll, Sasha Olinick, Anna Marie Sell, Patricia Williams.

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September 8 - October 8, 2005
It Had to be You

Reviewed September 10
Running time 1:45 - one intermission
Two strong characters in a semi-wacky comedy

Artistic Director Jack Marshall apparently thought it was time for The American Century Theater to lighten up a little - at least for a while. After some pretty heavy material over the past year or so, they now serve up a light piece of froth and do a good job of it. This two-character, semi-autobiographical comedy was written by the actress most people remember from her five seasons as the mother on the television sitcom The Nanny, Reneé Taylor, and her husband, comedy writer and actor Joseph Bologna. It is a comedic account of their meeting and falling in an untypical love, concentrating much of the comedy on the kooky character of Taylor. The cast here makes both characters believably human.

Storyline: A flighty-headed actress arrives late for an audition for a television commercial and nervously chatters away any opportunity for the job, but her fresh personality and peculiar view of reality attracts the producer/director. He's thinking she might be right for another project. She's thinking he might be right for her. Figuring that her only chance to start a romantic relationship with him is to keep him from leaving after they share a cab ride to her apartment, she uses all of her unorthodox talents to seduce him and enlist him in her cockamamie scheme to write the great American play.

Playing the scatterbrained actress is the very intelligent actress Karen Jadlos Shotts. She mines the material for many laughs and keeps up a certain comic intensity while avoiding getting too cloying with a part that is actually a self-written confession of insecurity. Shotts has built an impressive body of work in a wide range of roles on stages in Northern Virginia. She was very good as Annie Sullivan opposite Mollie Clement in The Miracle Worker, was nominated for a WATCH award for her "Sally Bowes" in Cabaret, and brought life to the role of the mother in Pack of Lies. This is her second outing in a comedy for The American Century Theater, having been featured in the the Carol Burnet Show retrospective they put together three years ago. The lady obviously can tackle just about anything.

Opposite her, in a role that works because he can do more than simply react to her zaniness, is Mark Lee Adams, himself a WATCH award nominee. The role is rather unrewarding in the first act when the relationship between the two is shallow and tentative. Indeed, the show itself tends to get a bit grating toward the end of that first act. But both the show and the role get better in the second act and this is in no small part a result of his ability to move from annoyed bachelor who just wants to escape after a one-night-stand to an intrigued and attracted man of a bit more depth.

Thomas B. Kennedy has created a properly claustrophobic set for the actress' New York apartment littered with the detritus of her efforts to build a show business career, and Ayun Fedorcha adds a tight spotlight for the audition scene. Costume designer Rip Claussen comes up with a mixed bag of outfits, especially those for Shotts. The red cloak and fur coat are both very good, but for most of the play she is in a nicely slinky item that exposes bra straps which would seem out of place with her character's seduction effort at the time, since the play is set in the early 1980s.

Written by Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna. Directed by Ellen Dempsey. Design: Thomas B. Kennedy (set) Rip Claausen (costumes) Ayun Fedorcha (lights) Kevin Harney (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Christine Lange (stage manager). Cast: Mark Lee Adams, Karen Jadlos Shotts.

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July 28 - 31, 2005
One Touch of Venus

Reviewed July 28
Running time 2:30 - one intermission
A free staged reading with keyboard accompaniment

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What a service The American Century Theater performs for the Potomac Region's theater lovers with its "Rescues" series of professional staged readings! This year's service is the chance to get to know the musical by Kurt Weill (Lady in the Dark) with book and lyrics by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash which originally starred Mary Martin. It is a modern take on the legend of Galatea in which the statue of a goddess of Venus comes to life in New York City in then-present day 1943. It is almost never performed today because it is pretty dated, requires a very large cast by today's economic standards, and relied on two major ballets by Agnes de Mille. The opportunity to see and hear it presented in this manner is to be treasured, and opening night the house was packed. There are only three more performances - Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 1:30 pm.

Storyline: A wealthy New Yorker acquires an ancient statue of the Goddess of Love, Venus. His barber, who has come to give him his morning shave, is about to become engaged and has the ring in his pocket. He notices that the statue's finger is the same size as that of his fiancée and, to prove it, places the ring on the statute's finger. The statue comes to life and falls in love with the barber, but eventually realizes that the life he offers in the new suburban development of Ozone Park would not satisfy her, and she takes the ring off, becoming a statue again.

One review of the show when it opened at Broadway's Imperial Theatre said it had "personality and wit and genuinely high moments of music and dancing." With the exception of "dancing" the same can be said of the staged reading. All of the leading performances are enjoyable with Amy Sheff, Andy Clemence and the team of Carl Randolph and R. Scott Williams standing out in a cast of 31 professionals. Sheff is at her best with the title song and with "Very, Very, Very," while Clemence sets up the entire piece with the "New Art is True Art" opening, leads the lovely "West Wind," and then joins with Randolph, Williams and Dan Herrel for the crowd-pleaser "The Trouble with Women."

Herrel is fine as the barber who sets the complications in motion. The lead role of the statue turned Goddess with all the supernatural powers that implies is played by Joanne Schmoll. She sings the role very nicely and captures a good deal of the flippant insouciance that Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman managed to give the character in their script. However, no one can really be expected to recreate the charm and magic that made Mary Martin such a super star on the live theater stage. Still, Schmoll lets us understand the material in this, Martin's first starring role. 

There is no reserved seating for this general admission presentation. Choosing to sit on the left side of the audience is a good idea because Grace Marshall's slide show is projected on a screen to the audience's left. Her presentation makes up for much of the information and feeling that might otherwise have been lost in this staged reading which uses just six stools for furniture and set. She not only provides slides identifying location for the scenes, she throws up song titles, quotes from the stage directions in the script, montages of period-looking photos (some shot recently but made to look appropriate for 1943) and even a few bits of whimsy of her own. Among the art displayed during the song "New Art is True Art" includes one side of a different kind of art - Art Carny. Most impressive, however, is her touching montage of images illustrating the thought process of Venus as she considers what life really would be like if she stayed with the barber and lived the life of suburbia he offered.

Music by Kurt Weill. Lyrics by Ogden Nash. Book by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash based on The Tinted Venus by F. J. Anstey. Directed by Jacqueline Manger with additional direction by Jack Marshall. Musical direction by Tom Fuller. Power Point presentation conceived and designed by Grace Marshall. Design: Tom Kennedy (lights) Jean Grogan and Marge Tischer (wardrobe coordination) Rhonda Hill (stage manager). Cast: Andrea Abrams, Caroline Jane Angell, Michael Bigley, Kat Brais, Tara Chiusano, Andy Clemence, Gilly Conklin, Amy Conley, Tom Dillickrath, Rebecca Dreyfuss, Yvonne Erickson, Lauren Furjanic, Christine Gahagan, Tina Ghandchilar, Caren Hearne, Dan Herrel, Scott Kenison, Tracy Krulik, Randy Lindgren, Jason Massey, Dave McLellan, Lynn Audrey Neal, Carl Randolph, Brian Rodda, Joanne Schmoll, Amy Sheff, Nelson Smith, Jason Strunk, Marge Tischer, R. Scott Williams. Keyboard: Alvin Smithson.

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June 23 - July 23, 2005
The Emperor Jones

Reviewed June 25
Running time 1:15 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a rare opportunity to see and not just read O'Neill's blend of realism and expressionism
Click here to buy the script

This fascinating production of one of the most important rarely produced plays of the twentieth century captures your attention and imagination long before the play actually begins and holds it until a few brief minutes before it ends. Barbara Weber's drum beat is the first thing to catch your attention as you enter the theater. The sound continues throughout the evening with the exception of a few brief moments when the intensity of the action is better served by a jolt from silence. Ed Bishop's fine fluid direction finds the tempo of Eugene O'Neill's tightly compacted story.  The production starts out strong and just seems to get more and more impressive, but it climbs to such heights that the final resolution seems a bit flat.

Storyline: It is the last day of the reign of Brutus Jones, self proclaimed Emperor of a Caribbean island. He's an escaped convict from the United States who has bullied and bamboozled his way to control of an entire island, but the natives have had enough and he knows it is time to flee. His well laid plans for escape backfire, leaving him wandering the jungle, confronted by visions drawn from his memories and his demons, while the ever-present drums shake his resolve.

Eugene O'Neill's exciting experiment with blending the realistic with the expressionistic came very early in his career. Fresh from his success with the Pulitzer Prize winning Beyond the Horizon, this short (one act of eight scenes) play set a number of firsts for Broadway, not the least of which was the portrait of a black character as the leading role being played by a black actor. In 1920 it was a ground breaker as well because the black actor was at the head of an integrated cast, something that hadn't happened on Broadway before. In this production it is John Tweel who has the one part for a white man, a cockney overseer on the Emperor's estate. (Just why that overseer is wearing a diamond stud in one ear is unexplained.) The play has rarely been seen as audience acceptance of the story of a vicious, conniving black man brought down by his own faults written with such intensity by a white author has been suspect, at least since the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The fact that the visions which ultimately destroy Jones include racial memories of the slave trade and ultimately the jungle from which his ancestors came is open to interpretations of racism even though The American Century Theater's Artistic Director, Jack Marshall, concludes that the fall of the corrupt emperor is "a metaphor for all mankind and not a racial slander."

For any production of this show to succeed it must have an actor of towering capabilities for the title role. He is on stage practically the entire evening undergoing a tremendous change as he falls before the audience's eyes from arrogant ruler to frightened fugitive, from a man in supreme control to one literally terrified of his own shadow, and ultimately to a destroyed remnant. Bus Howard is superb in the role showing great egotistic overconfidence at the start and proceeding in carefully measured steps down the long decline. He is surrounded by an ensemble whose strength is movement. The visions and specters are evocatively choreographed by Patricia Buignet and Anthony Rollins-Mullens. As Jones' mind deteriorates, his visions become more and more impressive, peaking with a memorable tableau of slaves crammed in the hold of a ship, rolling through rough seas. It is one of the few moments when Barbara Weber's drum goes silent, leaving the room full of the sound of creaking planks, stretching rigging, wind and waves.

Thomas B. Kennedy's set is an expressionistic suggestion of an island surrounded by the audience. Set pieces on wheels are moved into place during blackouts as the jungle closes in on Jones. The characters in his visions give costume designer Rip Claassen plenty of opportunity for invention. His spirits with twinkling lights trigger Jones' decline and a Crocodile God ends the parade of visions while Jones' own deterioration is made even more evident through progressively more tattered versions of his egotistically flamboyant uniform. Even his shoes make the transition from well-heeled to tattered. Lighting designer AnnMarie Castrigno actually seems to be designing darkness for this production, providing shadows, silhouettes and gloom while sound designer Keith Bell's ever escalating jungle soundscape matches the increasing intensity of Weber's drum. They combine to make a compelling evening you are not likely to be able to find anywhere else.

Written by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Ed Bishop. Choreography by Patricia Buignet and Anthony Rollins-Mullins. Design: Thomas B. Kennedy (set) Rip Claassen (costumes) Suzanne Maloney (properties) AnnMarie Castrigno (lights) Keith Bell (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Melissa Richardson (stage manager). Cast: Patricia Buignet, Bruce Allen Dawson, Constance Ejuma, Clarence V. M. Fletcher, Bus Howard, Delon Howell, Jason Nious, Ron Pawelkowski, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Julia Stemper, Jimmy L. Tansil, Jr., Linda Williams Terry, John Tweel, Barbara Weber.

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March 24 - April 30, 2005
Moby Dick Rehearsed

Reviewed March 30
Running time 2:20 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick astonishing staging
Click here to buy the script

Jack Marshall again directs Orson Welles' 1955 play based on Herman Melville's novel, using most of the original cast members from the well remembered 1997 production. That was the first production to draw considerable attention to the then-two year old company dedicated to presenting "
great, important, and neglected plays of the Twentieth Century." This revival of that revival builds to a superb climax (as did its source novel, of course) in a demonstration of just how effective live theater can be when it concentrates on its strengths and not its weaknesses. In the age of digital special effects making everything from movies to television commercials deliver virtual spectacle, Marshall marshals his crew to create real excitement in a very personal, very direct and highly imaginative way.

Storyline: A dictatorial theater director in search of the ultimate dramatic production leads his cast in a run through of a stage version of Melville's Moby Dick with himself in the role of dictatorial ship captain in search of the ultimate prey.

In 1955, at the age of forty, Orson Welles was a washed up former wiz kid of the theater, radio and movies. Julius Ceasar, The Cradle Will Rock, Voodoo Macbeth, The Shadow, The War of the Worlds, Citizen Kane, Jane Eyre, and The Third Man were all behind him and he'd developed a reputation as, well, "difficult to work with" is way too tame a term. He turned to Melville's novel and brought his own literally inimitable style to a stage adaptation which meant, of course, that he became the focus of the piece which he would write, direct and star in as Melville's "Captain Ahab." The program says this is Moby Dick Rehearsed by Orson Welles, but the centrality of Welles makes it really Moby Dick Rehearsed by Orson Welles. This is something of a pity, for its best moments are those when Melville and not Welles shines through. In creating a one-evening presentation of the essence of Melville's 500+ page novel, Welles writing is superb. Actually, it is his editing that is superb as Marshall points out that 80% of the lines in the story of Ahab are from the novel. The concept that this is a rehearsal rather than a fully staged production releases the piece from the confines of set and costume resources. It becomes much more about what the production does with its resources than about what resources it amasses. But Welles went further, mixing in metaphors from Shakespeare in a gimmick about the cast being in the theater to rehears King Lear and not Moby Dick that comes across as simply silly.

Unlike Welles, who starred in the original production, Marshall uses an actor other than himself in the part playing the director playing Ahab. In Charles Methany he has an impressive Ahab. Of course, Methany also has to play the director in the silly King Lear side story which is a curse he has to overcome to make his Ahab fully effective. It takes him a while, but he succeeds. In the climactic whaling scene he is splendid. Splendid from the start is William Aiken who sets the transition from Welles' extraneous King Lear scenes into the core of the evening with the famous words "Call me Ishmael." His narration is the real glue that binds the pieces together. David Jourdan makes a marvelous Stubb while Timothy Hayes Lynch gives heft to the role of Starbuck. Christian Yingling goes touchingly insane as Pip.

The design and implementation of this very theatrical piece is both unique and impressively effective. A platform, a ladder and a scaffold are the principal pieces being used, but it really is Michael deBlois' utilization of those pieces, Marianne Meadows imaginative lighting, Dan Murphy's nearly ever-present sounds of creaking decks and straining ropes and the entire casts' synchronized sway that creates the world of the whaling ship Pequod. The efficiency of this concept is key to the success of the climactic battle with the white whale which is a piece of theater not to be missed.

Written by Orson Welles. Directed by Jack Marshall.  Design: Michael deBlois (scenic coordinator) Rip Claassen (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Tom Fuller and David Jourdan (additional song lyrics and music direction) Shane Wallis (fight choreography) Marianne Meadows (lights) Dan Murphy (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Rhonda Hill (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, James G. Champlain, Jeff Consoletti, Joe Cronin, Tom Fuller, David Jourdan, Derrick Lampkins, Timothy Hayes Lynch, Chalres Metheny, Michael Sherman, John Tweel, Calres Upton, Shane Wallis, Glenn White, Christian Yingling.

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January 6 - February 5, 2005
Tea and Sympathy

Reviewed January 8
Running time 2:25 - two intermissions
t A Potomac Stages Pick for solid drama and smooth performances
Click here to buy the script

This is what The American Century Theater does best. This substantial, satisfying performance of a fascinating play rarely seen today on any stage – professional, collegiate or community – is more than just a trip back a half a century in theater or even American history. It is a thoroughly satisfying drama touching on topics as relevant today as they were in the age of Ozzie and Harriet. With polished, if somewhat subdued - even restrained - performances, the focus remains on the well constructed storyline and the naturalistic writing of Robert Anderson. Opening on Broadway in 1953, this touching drama ran for nearly two years. It was his first big hit and presaged works to come including plays such as I Never Sang for My Father and screenplays such as The Sand Pebbles and The Nun's Story.

Storyline: At an exclusive boys school in the 1950s a boy comes under suspicion for homosexuality because of his combination of interest in the arts and a certain lack of macho swagger. While the headmaster of his dormitory is appalled by the prospect of scandal in his house and fears its impact on his own career, his new wife finds something in the young man that she can't find in her husband.

Director Steven Scott Mazzola has been responsible for a number of the fine presentations of this company including The Second Man, which was also designated a Potomac Stages Pick, and Picnic, which would have been had it not been produced before we began designating picks. He has a touch for the kind of naturalistic drama which was produced in such quantity for the American stage in the post-World War II period. He lets the stories tell themselves, avoiding excesses of staging and directing his cast to avoid performance excesses which could distract.

This time out, Mazzola's passion for avoiding over-acting seems to have held his cast in even tighter restraint, and at times that restraint is too noticeable. Sheri S. Herren gives a cool, clean performance as the headmaster's bride who sees in the troubled teenager a glimmer of events in her own past, but the heat, anger and frustration her character feels boils over in too brief an explosion. Joe Baker's performance as that teen is kept under tight control when he might well explode a time or two. Carl Randolph probably benefits most from this approach as his character, the headmaster, is the most repressed and ready-to-blow part in the play. He finally explodes quite nicely. William Aitken, despite a few strangely blocked scenes (he manages to hit the liquor decanters before so much as a how-de-do in one scene) makes what may be the most dated of the characters ring true when necessary.

Matt Soule has designed another of his sprawling sets. While the spreading of Titus Andronicus over the spacious floor of the Clark Street Playhouse for the Washington Shakespeare Company worked beautifully and his vertically challenging design for Lord of the Flies at Rorschach Theatre provided multiple levels for the multiple threads of the story, this simple two-room and a hall setting becomes a barrier for all too many in the audience. He places two audience seating bleachers on the south and east sides of the playing space. Those sitting on the east have a clear view of nearly all the action but some of those those sitting on the south find a closed, full height door between themselves and significant scenes. The theater follows an open seating policy so, if you attend - and we suggest that you do - take a seat in the rows to your right when you enter the house rather than those directly in front of you.

Written by Robert Anderson. Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Design: Matt Soule (set) Cynthia Thom (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Marianne Meadows (lights) Kevin Harney (sound) Shane Wallis (fight choreography) Jeff Bell (photography) Annie Alesandrini (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, Joe Baker, Michael W. Bigley, Jeff Consoletti, Brian Crane, Kathryn Fuller, Sheri S. Herren, Carl Randolph, Devon Schall. 

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November 18 - December 18, 2004
Paradise Lost

Reviewed November 19
Running time 2:30 - two intermissions

Click here to buy the script

Not to be confused with Milton's epic poem, Clifford Odets' middle-class at mid depression play of the same title is both intriguing drama of social consciousness and interesting social history -- just the thing for this company which specializes in resurrecting important, neglected gems from the enormous output of the American theater of the twentieth century. This was the last play Odets wrote before heading off to Hollywood to pen screenplays. He left behind a solid body of work, some much better known than this (Waiting for Lefty, his best known pre-Hollywood piece, opened the same year as Paradise Lost). Here he captures a slice in time by stretching out time. By showing the progressive corrosion of the spirit under years of economic decline, he captures and transmits to future generations the essence of the grinding decline that marked Americas 1930s in very human terms. This production is a solid rendering of the piece with great attention to detail, a fine sense of ensemble work and a few standout performances.

Storyline: The extended family of a middle-class American businessman succumbs in stages to the crushing pressures of the Great Depression beginning in 1932 when, while America is voting for Roosevelt and against Hoover, the breadwinner's resources are stretched to the limit and continuing in a grinding spiral through to the 1935 day when the family is to be evicted from their home with no place to go, nothing to do and no way even to buy food. Through it all, however, the head of the household hangs on to a set of moral values. 

There is much to explore in America's experience of the twentieth century, the century which gave us such wonders as  penicillin, a polio vaccine, as well as the horrors of the atomic bomb and the holocaust, but the great depression is one of the collective experiences of the entire American population that, with its scope and duration, is difficult to really understand from afar. This slice of that life helps. Because Odets lets us see the large extended family in three subsequent years as the Depression deepened we can appreciate the fact that from year to year, not only did things not get better -- they kept getting worse.

The key to this view of that reality is the role of the father, the head of the household who is as proud of his responsibility as he is in his ability to fulfill it. Norman Aronovic starts the evening seeming to overplay that "wise old man" part, but soon that very over-earnestness is what makes his fall from the pinnacle so riveting. Odets contrasts it with an equally forceful recitation of the opposite view in a speech by a street person brought in at the end. Howard Stregack delivers that speech with an intensity that ignites the conclusion of the play, setting up Aronovic's final impassioned plea for moral values and human dignity. Together, the two speeches capture the conflict of a world apparently disintegrating.

There is some doubling up so that this production can use a cast of 18 as opposed to 24 in the Broadway debut. Still, this is a very large cast for the confines of the small Theatre II at Gunston Arts Center. Director DeAnna Duncan puts an emphasis on distinguishing the many roles from each other as Odets' script isn't always crystal clear about who is whom and what their relationship to each other may be. With a good deal of help from costume designer Rip Laassen and an emphasis on placing people together in groups around Thomas B. Kennedy's wide set, she overcomes some of the confusion that might distract the audience from the message.

Written by Clifford Odets. Directed by DeAnna Duncan. Design: Thomas B. Kennedy (set) Rip Laassen (costumes) Beth Baldwin (props) Franklin Coleman (lights) Bill Wisniewski (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Melissa Richardson (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, Norman Aronovic, John C. Bailey, Sara Barker, Bernie Cohen, Brian Crane, Joe Cronin, Rebecca A. Herron, H. Alan Hoffman, Martha Karl, Christine D. Lee, Jason Lott, Brian Razzino, David Ruffin, Manolo Santalla, J. Calvin Smith, Howard Stregack.

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September 9 - October 9, 2004
The Time of Your Life

Reviewed September 15
Running time 2:30 - one intermission

This production is precisely what the American Century Theater was formed to do - give audiences a chance to see what all the fuss was about over some of the great plays that marked the American stage in the twentieth century, a period of tremendous achievement and amazing variety in the theater. Here is a play that won the Pulitzer Prize, ran a season on Broadway, was revived twice, made into a movie and later into a teleplay when plays were being performed live on TV. Still, today, few have the opportunity to see it performed and it is even difficult to find a copy to purchase. Part of the reason is the size of the cast required. For this production, director Terry Kester has five cast members double up on roles so he can get away with paying only nineteen actors, but that is still a sizeable group in today's cost-conscious world. The production has a feeling of affectionate restoration, not of skimped resources. It offers the considerable pleasure of spending the evening in the company of some very interesting people, people only the life-loving short story writer turned dramatist could envision.

Storyline: A wide variety of people wander into a bar in San Francisco's embarcadero waterfront and spend a little time over a drink, play a little pinball, dance or play a piano or harmonica, tell a few stories and enjoy life. Practically plotless through much of the early going, a few of the stories coalesce toward the end as a police detective throws his weight around too much and the patrons unite in reaction. 

Beth Baldwin's detailed reproduction of a prototypical cheap waterfront dive and Rip Claassen's 1930s costumes set a standard for realism which demands a realism in the performances which many in the cast are able to deliver. The result is a feeling of eavesdropping on strangers which is always an interesting pastime, especially when the strangers are this interesting. Of course, it is the charm of Saroyan's writing which makes the eavesdropping so much fun. He writes dialogue for each character that reveals intriguing details and gives each actor the raw material from which to create fascinating, believable people.

Bruce Alan Rauscher and Joe Cronin are at the center of the play. Cronin is the bartender who keeps tabs on events in his establishment. Rauscher is a customer who is spending most of his time sipping champagne, sending Timothy Andrés Pabon out to buy things on a whim, trying to lighten life's load for a prostitute played by Angela Lahl, and listening to the stories of all and sundry strange characters. He listens so intently and so well that his view of events is the audience's view. The show is somehow less satisfying during those few minutes he's off stage.

Dan Murphy has the hardest time of all because his character is the only one in the entire cast not written by Saroyan with some sympathy. He clearly despised the mid-level detective that he makes the heavy of the piece. His enmity did not extend to the beat cop, however, for he created a stereotypically warmhearted, hard working one and then had him rhapsodize over the possibility of finding another line of work. Saroyan's heart was with the underdog and he finds the positive in practically everyone - that's the charm of the piece.

Written by William Saroyan. Directed by Terry D. Kester. Design: Beth Baldwin (set) Rip Claassen (costumes) Suzanne Maloney (properties) Thomas B. Kennedy (lights) Bill Wisniewski (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Rhonda Hill (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, Caroline Jane Angell, Matthew Aument, Jake Call, Evan Casey, Joe Cronin, Valerie Fenton, James Foster, Jr., Deanna Gowland, Bill Hensel, Elizabeth Kauffman, Angela Lahl, Keith Lubeley, Kim-Scott Miller, Dan Murphy, Timothy Andrés Pabon, Paula Phipps, Bruce Alan Rauscher, Brent Stansell.

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July 29 - 31, 2004

Reviewed July 29
Running time 2:20 - one intermission

This one-weekend run of the play on which the famous Porgy and Bess is based is labeled "a fully staged reading" but it is much more. Yes, the cast carry their scripts about with them, and yes, they only had one week to put the show together, but there is a fully realized, functional set, the cast is costumed, both sound and lighting designs are rich and evocative and the performance is fully blocked so that the scenes are played out and not just read. Music director James Foster, Jr. has researched the gospel music which would have been a part of the original play and of the world of the people that the authors depicted, which makes the performance much more affecting. Director Ed Bishop clearly hasn't had the rehearsal time to polish and perfect the performances, but he has had time to turn what could have been an intriguing but static opportunity to hear this historic script read into a rare opportunity to see it performed. For that opportunity, lovers of theater should be grateful.

Storyline:  The play tells the same story as does the folk opera Porgy and Bess. It is a portrait of life in Cat Fish Row, Charlottesville, South Carolina's community of poor blacks who fish the nearby banks. During a night of gambling, drinking and sniffing "happy dust" the mean tempered Crown kills one of the men of the row and has to flee, leaving his girl Bess behind. Only crippled Porgy, who lives in a shack, will give her shelter. They fall in love as he treats her with the respect she's never known and she treats him with an affection he's never known from a woman.

Porgy began as a novel by South Carolina native DuBose Heyward, who, although white, had developed a solid reputation writing short stories about the lives of blacks in his native South Carolina, and poetry that attempted to capture some of the patois of the Gullah dialect spoken locally.  The novel was based on the true story of a crippled man known as “Goatcart Sam” who lived in Charleston, South Carolina. Bishop suspects that his condition, having no use of his legs below the knees, may have been polio, which was fairly common at the time. Published in 1925, “Porgy” was Heyward's first novel. He and his wife (pictured) collaborated on the stage version.

The play was produced by The Theatre Guild, a leading company on Broadway, in the 1920s and 30s, and had a successful run of over 350 performances beginning in 1927. It was its concentration on the sound of the Gullah style and the impact of music on the people in the play, as much as the story itself, that made Gershwin want to create an opera based on the play. Gershwin wasn’t the only one interested in converting the play into a musical work. As hard as it is to conceive, Al Jolson was said to be interested in turning it into a musical with himself playing the title role in black face.

This performance gives a rare opportunity to see where so many of the touches that theatergoers have come to know and enjoy in Porgy and Bess came from. You will recognize lines of dialogue which were retained in the libretto of the opera but you will also recognize lines or scenes that were turned into songs like "Summertime," "My Man's Gone Now," "Bess, You Is My Woman," "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon For New York" and "Oh, Lawd, I'm On My Way."

Written by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward. Directed by Ed Bishop. Musical direction by James Foster, Jr. Design: Mike deBlois (set) Rip Claassen (costumes and properties) Thomas B. Kennedy (lights) Brian Mac Ian (sound) Johnna Magdalena Young (stage manager). Cast: Dionne Audain, Renee Charlow, Bruce Allen Dawson, Joe Day, Betty Entzminger, Steve Ferry, Clarence V. M. Fletcher, Kathleen Gonzalez, George F. Grant, Rashard Harrison, Joseph Kelliebrew, Gordon T. Kumbatira, Derrick Lampkins, James Lewis, Andre Manly, Cynthia Webb Manly, Carlyn Paschall, Rick Peete, Michael Sherman, Shane Wallis, Linda Williams, Patricia Williams.

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June 17 - July 24, 2004

Reviewed June 19
Running time 2:25 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a spellbinding staging of an intriguing play

Click here to buy the Script

Lee Mikeska Gardner's staging of this unique1928 play grabs your attention and your imagination from the first image and holds on tight for a fast paced sequence of scenes that are each fascinating in their own right but which combine in a mesmerizing way to explore the character of a woman driven by the pressures of society and the peculiarities of her own reactions to them into a final desperate act that sends her to her death in the electric chair. The performance of Marnie Penning as the woman at the center of the vortex is an evening-long marvel as is Gardner's use of the strikingly simple set designed by Thomas B. Kennedy.

Storyline: In New York City in the 1920's a woman finds her life ever more restricted by the pressures first of work, then of marriage and motherhood making demands on her mind, body and soul. She marries her boss even though she can't stand his touch and can't find the "wedded bliss" society expects. She bears a daughter but can't find the "maternal instinct" she's supposed to feel. Only in an affair can she feel any release, but her lover doesn't offer a permanent arrangement and finally turns on her as well. Murder, even with the consequence of the death penalty, represents her only opportunity to be "free."

The play is not a case of a "true crime story" put on stage, even though its genesis was a headline grabbing case. In 1927 playwright and journalist Sophie Treadwell followed the story of Ruth Snyder, a Long Island wife accused, convicted and executed for the murder of her husband assisted by her lover. Treadwell's play, however, isn't the story of the criminal act itself (indeed, the murder isn't reenacted at all) or even of the trial and execution although they are portrayed in the final two scenes. No, the play is about what would drive a woman to do such a thing. It is about the pressures that ground this particular person down, entrapping her in an existence so intolerable that murder and death were acceptable alternatives. It fascinated Treadwell. Through her script, it fascinates audiences.

Marni Penning gives a high-energy, highly intelligent performance as the woman suffering from pressures she doesn't fully comprehend and certainly can't endure. In the modern vernacular, she is neurotic, but it is the reasons for her neurosis that interested the playwright and the director.  Penning makes those reasons clear in her carefully modulated performance. She begins the play already approaching a level of anxiety and confusion that marks a breakdown in progress and then she escalates to the nearly frenetic as her world is circumscribed by the pressures from her mother, her co-workers and her boss who proposes marriage. Penning uses that increased mania to create a contrast for the sense of release from those pressures found in the bed of a lover where she first hears the word "free" used in a way that captures her imagination and drives her final actions.

The two men in her life are given very different but equally satisfying performances by John C. Bailey as her boss/husband and Carlos Bustamante as her lover. Bailey manages to make much more than a mere insensitive and demanding creep out of the role by finding ways to show some real concern and confusion in their developing relationship, while Bustamante gives the man on the make who beds her enough tenderness and compassion to make her fascination with the "freedom" he represents completely understandable. These intelligent performances, along with that of Sheri S. Herren as the woman's mother who can't understand her response to the marriage proposal, give Penning's performance the surfaces off which it bounces and rebounds in the escalating spiral to a striking climax. Excellent ensemble performances set the tone, most notably a marvelous Annie Houston in multiple rolls.

Written by Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Design: Thomas B. Kennedy (set) Michele Reisch (costumes) Suzanne Maloney (props) Marc A. Wright (lights) Brian MacIan (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Arthur Rodger (stage manager). Cast: Andrea Abrams, John C. Bailey, Carlos Bustamante, Joe Cronin, Danielle Davy, Sheri S. Herren. Annie Houston, Paul McLane, Anne Nottage, Marni Penning, William Sweeney.

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March 25 - April 24, 2004
A Flag is Born

Reviewed March 27
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes

The American Century Theater has resurrected rarely produced but famous plays from the twentieth century before, but it has never before managed the feat of bringing to light a play so little known but with such a fascinating history. This seems to be very first time this play has been performed since its original production's national tour ended in 1947. Director Steven Scott Mazzola tries mightily to make it work as theater, as opposed to simply being interesting historically, but it wasn't originally designed to be captivating theater. It was designed to be rousing propaganda and Mazzola is caught in the trap of changing times, unable to recreate the emotions the play was intended to stir. A troubling number of issues of that time are still issues of our time, but the audience of 2004 doesn't bring into the theater the same views and outlooks as did the audience of a day fifty-six years past when, among other things, there was no Jewish state in the world and Americans were just beginning to absorb the reality and immensity of the Holocaust.

Storyline: On the deck of a ship hauling Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe to their hoped for new homeland in what was then the British protectorate of Palestine, a fearful but hopeful band reenact the story of an elderly survivor and his wife who stopped on their journey to the Holy Land to rest in a cemetery one Friday night, uncertain of which way to go or how to survive. As the wife finally succumbs to the combined effects of persecution, the man has visions of encounters with spirits from the Scriptures and he pleads for direction. A younger survivor of the death camp at Treblinka has also stopped here along the way and, as the Angel of Death arrives to claim yet one more victim, he takes up the cause and determines to carry this Jew's commitment forward toward the establishment of a Jewish state.

The original play was written by Ben Hecht, author of plays such as the classic comedies Twentieth Century and The Front Page with Charles MacArthur, but better known nationally for his screenplays (Wuthering Heights, Spellbound, Notorious). It was a blatant effort at propaganda and also served as a fundraising device for the American League for a Free Palestine (the American organization working to establish the Jewish state of Israel). The show was actually produced by that committee, not by a Broadway producer. They rented the Alvin Theater (now named The Neil Simon Theatre where Hairspray is playing) and mounted the show with a cast that was headed by Paul Muni and featured relative newcomer Marlon Brando. It was a limited run but it was successful enough that the run was extended. They then took the play on a tour with stops scheduled in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston and here at the National Theatre in Washington. The show again made history because the National did not then admit blacks and Hecht was one of a group of famous playwrights who would not allow their work to be performed in theaters discriminating against African-Americans. The National refused to change its policy so the booking was cancelled and the show played the old Maryland Theater in Baltimore which did admit blacks but only in the balcony. The producers refused to go along with this discrimination as well and, under pressure from the league and the NAACP, the owners of the Maryland Theater permitted unrestricted seating for the first time.

Such historical importance, however, does not guarantee a theatrically satisfying show. While director Mazzola attempts to connect the events in the play with the events in the world of its time, he cannot fully compensate for the fact that the play was and remains a pageant, not a drama. The original didn't take place on the deck of a ship approaching Palestine. That was Mazzola's idea. The concept of the refugees reenacting the story of the elderly Jew and his wife's stop in the cemetery adds a bit of complexity to an overly simple show but it doesn't make the central story any more compelling. The resources that Mazzola and his team have to throw at the simple story are far less than the original which featured incidental music by Kurt Weill played by a full orchestra and a chorus of nearly two dozen. Mazzola has a cast of fourteen.

Joel Snyder is the elderly Jew and he is simply unable to give the part any depth at all. What should be a heart-touching portrait of a burned out shell struggling with the last ounce of energy, dignity and faith comes across instead as healthy, energetic and complaining. Keith Warren, as the "angry young man" who has survived Treblinka seems amazingly fit despite the shabby shape of his shoes. Only Annie Houston as the dying wife seems to capture the fatigue and misery of her character in both a realistic and a sympathetic way. The finest contribution of the team comes from Lynnie Raybuck who designed the imposing masked and robed oversized puppets of the spirits in the old man's visions - King David, Saul, the Angel of Death - which create memorable stage visions.

Written by Ben Hecht. Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Design: Beth Baldwin (set) Cynthia Abel (costumes) Lynnie Raybuck (puppets) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Marianne Meadows (lights) Cantor Maurice Singer and Tom Fuller (music selection and direction) Roxann Morgan (choreography) Brian Mac Ian (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Rhonda Hill (stage manager). Cast: Sara Barker, Rebecca Dreyfuss, Katya Falikova, Lucinda Hart-González, Annie Houston, Genevieve James, Jon Reynolds, Steven Schatzow, Joel Snyder, Kerry Stinson, Darius A. Suziedelis, Andy Tonken, Keith Warren, Shane Wallis. 

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December 4, 2003 - January 31, 2004
Mister Roberts

Reviewed December 6
Running time 2 hours 20 minutes

Jack Marshall is usually in his element when tackling one of the fine plays produced in the heyday of his favorite century, the century after which he named his theater. Therefore, Mr. Roberts, a 1948 hit of massive proportions which is now rarely produced because of the memory of the 1955 film, should be another of the productions to be savored from the company that gave us 1945’s Home of the Brave, 1953’s Picnic, 1959’s The Andersonville Trial and 1962’s A Thousand Clowns. There are moments when it approaches the level of those other productions, just not enough of them.

Storyline: In the last days of World War II, the crew of an insignificant cargo craft that sailed “from tedium to apathy and back again” in the “safe areas” of the Pacific are shielded from the worst of their incompetent Captain’s abuse of power by the one officer aboard who they can admire, Mr. Roberts. Unbeknownst to them, he gives in to the Captain’s demand that he cease his efforts to be transferred in exchange for granting the men their first liberty in over a year.

The key roles are those of the officers: the cargo officer (Mr. Roberts), the captain, the ship’s doctor and the junior officer aboard with the combined duties of laundry and morale officer (Ensign Pulver). They are supported by a large and satisfying ensemble of sailors and one well behaved goat for a brief comic turn. This cast features one good Ensign Pulver, one very good Mr. Roberts, one fabulous Doc and one disappointing Captain. The memory of the 1955 film version of the play sticks in the minds of many and the cast has to battle these memories. David Jourdan is not able to dispel the memory of James Cagney’s Captain and, indeed, seems at times to be doing a Cagney impersonation. John Tweel fares better with his effort to replace Jack Lemmon’s mannerisms with a satisfying portrayal of the junior officer Ensign Pulver.

Timothy Andrés Pabon makes the title character his own even when the ghost of Henry Fonda seems to hover over all efforts to create a Mr. Roberts very different than the one of memory. (Fonda originated the role in the play as well as in the movie.) John C. Bailey is the most impressive of the four, creating a persona for the Doc that is just right and doesn’t seem too heavily influenced by William Powell’s version. Bailey’s line readings are just fine but it is in those moments when his character is listening rather than speaking that he is most satisfying. He seems able to focus the audiences attention on the speaker with the intensity of his gaze.

It is in its physical production that this Mr. Roberts misses the boat. The boat that it misses is The USS Reluctant, the cargo ship on which all of the action takes place. The set is in no way nautical and seems to be the result of both a constrained budget and a lack of design ingenuity. It is well lit and the sound design helps set the feeling of war time on board, but the set where a “deck” is a floor and a “cabin” is a room gets in the way.  Perhaps the need to accommodate the set requirements for the World War II holiday revue If Only In My Dreams  which is playing in repertory with Mr. Roberts was responsible. Even so, Marshall’s blocking served to emphasize the inadequacy of the set as he chose to have his performers walking through the invisible downstage wall of the officer’s quarters set. This dispelled impact of the one locale where the effect of the confines of the close quarters on the world of these characters could have become clear.

Written by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan based on Heggen’s novel. Directed by Jack Marshall. Design: Marc A. Wright (set and lights) Beverly Nicholson Benda (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (props) David Meyer (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Rhonda Hill (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, John C. Bailey, Kevin Boggs, Jake Call, Joe Cronin, Steve Ferry, Olev Jaakson, David Jourdan, Steve Little, Elizabeth McNamara, Timothy Andrés Pabon, Sean Pier, Daniel Susskind, John Tweel, Shane Wallis.

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November 20, 2003 - January 3, 2004
If Only In My Dreams

Reviewed November 22
Running time 2 hours 20 minutes

Jack Marshall, Artistic Director of The American Century Theater, has assembled a revue of World War II Christmas songs and selections from personal histories of the era to play during the run of their revival of the war drama Mr. Roberts. Marshall, who has made a career of exploring the American experience of the 20th Century through its theater pieces, clearly hopes this grounding in the tone of an era rapidly receding from memory will make the experience of Mr. Roberts more meaningful and affecting while, at the same time, providing a holiday-themed entertainment that can be enjoyed on its own. In this he succeeds.

Storyline: From “White Christmas” to “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” a collection of the songs America sang between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima presents a view of the homeland during World War II. Four men and four women take solos, combine into groups and play out scenes which draw from correspondence of the day, mainly letters to and from the men away at war.

The war years came at the end of an incredible period of popular music in America. The big band era was at its peak and popular songs were everywhere with the advent of radio and records. The number of Christmas-themed songs written, recorded and released during the war years was impressive, as is demonstrated by Marshall and his collaborator Tom Fuller’s assembly of holiday songs. But not all of the songs in this revue are holiday-themed. The assembly includes standards like “Thanks for the Memory” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” in addition to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “You’re All I Want for Christmas.” There are also a few specialty numbers peculiar to that moment in history such as “Their Either Too Old or Too Young.”

The revue does a good job of capturing the home front experience of the century’s biggest war. The prevalence of the war in every day living was something difficult for those who don’t remember it to comprehend. Today we are rightly appalled when the news reports deaths of American soldiers in Iraq nearly every day. Imagine a time when the average death toll among American soldiers on the battlefields ran in excess of 200 a day. Imagine a conflict that imposed that rate of casualties for four years.  Marshall and Fuller manage to bring that reality home through the importance normal family life took on in the face of such carnage and sacrifice. They ignore other parts of the American experience of the time, with no treatment of the experience of racial minorities or opponents of the war. But the picture of the home front for the white middle-class is effective and affecting.

David Ruffin is quite impressive in song and sketch with an impassioned “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and Kim Scott-Miller does a nifty impersonation of Winston Churchill in his Christmas speech during his visit to the White House. Patricia Hurley looks and sounds like the Saturday Evening Post cover image of the girl back home and does a nice job on ‘It’s Been a Long Long Time.” She joins Kathryn Fuller and Lynn Audrey Neal to recreate some of the Andrew Sisters routines. Without a big band for support, the piano and bass generally captures the jazziness of some of the arrangements of the day.

Conceived and adapted by Jack Marshall and Tom Fuller. Directed and choreographed by Jacqueline Manger. Music direction by Tom Fuller. Design: Marc A. Wright (set and lights) Anita H. Miller (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) David Meyer (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Lee Zahnow and Dionne Hughes (stage managers). Cast: Kathryn Fuller, Tony Gudell, Dan Herrel, Patricia Hurley, Kim-Scott Miller, Lyn Audrey Neal, David Ruffin, Anna Marie Sell. Musicians: Alvin Ellsworth Hough, Jr., David Baurrelli.

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September 11 - October 11, 2003
The Robber Bridegroom

Reviewed September 17
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes

In 1976 this quirky musical earned some praise and a following when it played off-Broadway but bombed when it transferred to a big house where people seemed to expect more for their $7.70 admission. Here, in this 125-seat black box theater, The American Century Theater does what it is famous for, putting rarely performed shows on stage so we can see them in the flesh, so to speak, rather than read about them. With a strong cast and a sense of style, they try very hard to bring this show to life but it has some problems they simply can’t lick.

Storyline: Drawn from a fairytale but set in the pre-civil war Mississippi Territory with a touch of hoe-down in the music, the story revolves around a charming rogue who “steals with style” and maintains two separate characters, a disguised highwayman and a gentleman. As the gentleman he sets up a wealthy plantation owner for a con while as the highwayman he victimizes a young woman. It turns out that the young woman is the daughter of the plantation owner and that her father wants to marry her off to this supposed gentleman. She, on the other hand, is intrigued by the highwayman who stole her clothes in the woods and bored by the gentleman her father wants her to marry.

Director DeAnna Duncan has done more than just return the show to the intimate confines of a smaller theater. She has re-imagined the presentation, giving it a different persona. But, in the process, she may have revealed more reasons the audience stayed away from the original production which ran only 145 performances despite a Tony Award winning performance by its lead, Barry Bostwick. Even with a cute score of catchy tunes and playful lyrics and a collection of intriguing characters, the show’s charm is inconsistent and has difficulty stretching to cover the entire intermissionless hour and three quarters. She emphasizes what she calls “the darker, more ironic” elements of the show which ultimately gets her into difficulty when our hero behaves in a very un-heroic manner.

Duncan’s concept finds the show being put on in a museum with the dioramas coming to life to enact the story in scene and song. The cast works hard to make the piece work, including Brian Childers in the Zorro-like double role of the scoundrel who steals from the rich to give to himself. He sings his big numbers with zest and is highly likeable as the gentleman. But even his charm can’t overcome some of the ugliness of his actions as the rogue. There is a lovely seduction ballet with Childers and Tara Garwood as the plantation owner’s young daughter set to fiddle music that seems to overcome some of the problem of the story. But this is followed by a rape scene set to song which can’t have been very acceptable in the 1970s and has become even less so today.

Garwood suffers both from having the least believable part (she’s supposed to fail to recognize Childers when he is disguised, but the disguise is simply a berry stain painted around the eyes) and her voice is too frail for some of the songs of lament and longing she has to deliver. The rest of the cast is full voiced and is obviously having fun in their over-the-top roles. Best of all is John C. Bailey as a disembodied head kept in a trunk by his brother played by Christopher Gillespie. They, of course, get to sing a number about how “Two Heads” are better than one.

Book and lyrics by Alfred Uhry. Music by Robert Waldman. Directed by DeAnna Duncan. Music direction by Jenny Cartney. Choreography by Sherry Chriss & Chrystyna Dail. Design: Michele Reisch (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Marc A. Wright (lights) David Meyer (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Christine Wessels (stage manager). Cast: Andrea Abrams, Anthony Aloise, John C. Bailey, Rebecca Breed, Brian Childers, Joe Cronin, Kathryn Fuller, Tara Garwood, Christopher Gillespie, Rebecca A. Herron, Emre Iz’at, Kim-Scott Miller, Brian Rodda, Melissa Stamps, Maya Weil.

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July 5 – August 23, 2003
Dear World

Reviewed July 17
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

This is what The American Century Theater is for - to give us the chance to experience important twentieth-century American shows that we probably won’t find anywhere else. Here is the show that Jerry Herman came up with to follow the satisfying Milk and Honey, the mega-hit Hello, Dolly! and the substantial hit Mame. They don’t take us all the way back to the version of the show that flopped in 1969 (it was supposed to open in 1968 but previews kept being extended as a host of play doctors tried to fix it). Instead, Jack Marshall and his troupe give us the revised version that Herman and his book writers, the esteemed Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, produced when, in the early 1970s, they returned to the original concepts and structure they had envisioned before all that doctoring. Stripped of all the flash and pizzazz that Broadway had encumbered it with is a musical play of great charm which will capture the imagination of those willing to suspend a great deal of disbelief and accept it for what it is, a fantasy with a moral.

Storyline: This musical version of Jean Giraudoux’s gentle fantasy bordering on the surreal tells of a group of eccentric genteel ladies and their friends as they foil the plans of evil corporate interests who would level Paris in order to mine its resources. They do so by relying on the powers of the kind of positive thinking that simply refuses to hear about negative things. Leading the pack is the “Madwoman of Chaillot” who, along with other madwomen, trap the evil doers in the lowest level of the sewers of Paris where “The Ugly Garbage” belongs.

The charming script based on a charming play has the benefit of a notable score by Jerry Herman who has a marvelous facility for the kind of melodies which he once termed, during a flap over unsuccessful allegations of plagiarism as “tunes you can whistle which you’ve never whistled before.”  No doubt about it, the composer of Hello,  Dolly!’s  “Before the Parade Passes By” and Mame's “Open A New Window” matches them here with “One Person (Can Beat A Drum.)”  His melody for the rejection of ugly news (“I Don’t Want To Know”) is every bit as insinuating as Mame’s “If He Walked Into My Life.” His trio of individual songs for three madwomen, which blends into a thrilling climax of counterpoint, demonstrates the technical mastery that accompanies his talent for melodic inventiveness. But, as is frequently the case with Herman, the lyrics are the poor second cousins to his melodic gifts. Frequently obvious, imprecise, predictable and short on wit as opposed to humor, they strike the ear as a fine first draft of lyrics that could become sparkling partners for the tunes.

Played in the intimate black-box theater at Gunston, this production has many highlights, most notably the consistently effective performance of Ilona Dulasky in the staring role as the principal madwoman. She sings the anthem-like numbers with a touching dignity and tosses off lines like “if you wait until something is safe, it is gone before you get there” as if it is a breezy aside rather than stuffy pontification. Her supporting cast includes Jacqueline Manger and Liz Weber as the other two madwomen, who are both strong voiced and nicely nuanced. Steven Cupo, who finds a slightly acerbic touch that is just right for the crucial but small part of the Sewerman, provides the secret disposal method for the evildoers, a troika of corporate bad guys played with panache by Kim-Scott Miller, John C. Bailey and Joe Cronin.

Costume designer Pam McFarlane creates the feel of early twentieth century Paris, giving the madwomen truly distinctive attire and assembling hip boots, a utility jacket and a work hat complete with headlamp for Cupo as the Sewerman. Music Director Daniel Sticco appears to have spent more time working with his synthesizer dominated quartet than with the singers. Those singers are talented individuals and they deliver their songs nicely but the balances in the duets, trios and full cast numbers could have been sharper. The two-keyboard, one harp, one percussion quartet produces an unfortunate near calliope sound merely representing the lush orchestral treatment the score received on Broadway. Still, it is rare indeed that this marvelous score can be heard on local stages at all. 

Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Directed by John Moran. Music direction by Daniel Sticco. Choreography by Pauline S. Grossman. Design: John Story (set) Ayun Fedorcha (lights) Pam McFarlane (costumes) Shannon Thomas Kennedy (props) David Meyer (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Karen Spacie (stage manager). Cast: John C. Bailey, Joe Cannon, Lisa Carrier, Evan Casey, Joe Cronin, Steven Cupo, Deborah Davidson, Ilona Dulaski, Michael Hadary, Mary Idone, Maggie Keele, Jacqueline Manger, Kim-Scott Miller, Tim Olson, Brendan Walsh, Liz Weber.

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April 24 – May 24, 2003
The Second Man

Reviewed April 26
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes

Potomac Stages Pick

Thanks to The American Century Theater, another gem of America’s tremendous twentieth century accomplishments in popular culture is back on a stage where it belongs. S. N. Behrman’s 1927 Broadway hit, the first in a string of literate comedies for grownups with its sparkling dialogue, its seamless structure and its cast of sharply defined characters, makes one wonder how such a piece could ever have passed out of frequent production. Surely it wasn’t that audiences stopped appreciating such engrossing entertainment. No, the secret is that the rest of the century produced so much popular entertainment for the stage, the screen, radio, television, computer games and wide-screen/high-definition video that there was always something new to distract attention from everything but the rarefied best or most successful. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But there is certainly nothing wrong with The Second Man either, as this superb production proves.

Storyline: A writer needs to marry a rich woman to support his life style but is intrigued by a younger, more exciting girl who happens to be the object of one of his less worldly friends’ affection. The friend, a nerd of a physicist, wants very much to marry the girl but she’s intrigued by the writer. In one afternoon and evening over drinks, the relationships between the four ebb, flow and disintegrate.

Steven Scott Mazzola directs this comedy of manners in the round with all the flair and style it was obviously intended to receive. The pace is always lively but never excessive and the dialogues, as bright and inventively humorous as they are, seem to stem from the events. Rarely is there a feeling that the story has paused for a quip or a clever observation. There are lots of quips and many clever observations but they all seem just right for the character and the moment in the story.

Of course, the fact that Mazzola cast four actors who have a felicity for comic exchanges helps a great deal. The lynchpin of the quartet is Bruce Alan Rauscher as the writer. It is always a pleasure to watch Rauscher in action. He has the ability to display the thought process of his character as clearly as any actor working in the region right now, and can toss off a flip riposte with the best of them. It is his ability to listen to the others on stage that is most impressive. You can see his character processing what he is hearing. It is a crucial skill for this part for all three of the other characters are in his orbit.

Those others are a talented trio indeed. Maura McGinn is elegantly striking as the wealthy socialite who would be the solution to the author’s financial woes, and Amy Quiggins exudes the sexuality of the prototypical 1920’s liberated woman that so intrigues both the writer and the physicist. That physicist is Brian Childers whose very funny nerdish persona is something more than mere stereotype, with real human pain visible just under the surface. Together, these four deliver a marvelously entertaining evening.

Written by S. N. Behrman. Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Design: Beth Baldwin (set) Michele Reisch (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Marianne Meadows (lights) David Meyer (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Christine Wessels (stage manager). Cast: Brian Childers, Maura McGinn, Amy Quiggins, Bruce Alan Rauscher.

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May 10 – 18, 2003
Song Series – 1947

Reviewed May 10
Running time 55 minutes
Price $10

The problem with this survey of the Broadway songs of a specific year is that it tries to do both too much and too little with the concept. The basic idea of assembling songs from one year’s output is a fine one and there certainly is a wealth of fabulous material from which to choose. But rather than present a traditional cabaret-style set or do a presentation of “what was Broadway like then?” illustrated by its songs, director Brian Childers tries to structure it as a mini-drama about characters his four performers assume. The problem is that this robs the show of its historical context while the songs are too tied to their own show’s stories to take on this new story. Then, too, some of the performers aren’t good enough to pull most of their numbers off.

Storyline: Herein lies one of the problems of this short show, it presents a confusing concoction about two men and two women flirting, romancing, pairing off, switching partners and regretting. All this takes place while they sing 22 songs from five different musicals in fifty-five minutes.

1947 was a peak year in the American Century when the nation, flush with the success of World War II, was all but giddy over its new found primacy in the world. It was the year of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, Jackie Robinson’s signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black major leaguer and Chuck Yeager’s first flight faster than sound, the Hollywood Black List and the founding of the Tony Award. 1947 was the year of Brigadoon, Finian’s Rainbow, Allegro, Street Scene and High Button Shoes -- all heard here -- and of Louisiana Lady, Caribbean Carnival, Angel in the Wings not heard here or nearly anywhere else for the last 55 years.

One can’t fault Childers’ song selections. These 22 are the absolute cream of the crop of a very rich year. Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Heather on the Hill,” E.Y. Harburg and Burton Lane’s “If This Isn’t Love” and “Old Devil Moon,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Gentleman Is A Dope” and “Allegro,” Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Papa, Won’t You Dance with Me?” and “I Still Get Jealous” and Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill’s “Wouldn’t You Like to Be on Broadway” and “Lonely House” -- what a year!

There are five performers, a quartet of singers and Music Director Lori Roddy on piano. The best of the bunch is Steve Tipton whose rich voice, confident presence and graceful movements are almost strong enough to carry the show. His “There But for You Go I” from Brigadoon is the highlight of the show.  Two others make nice contributions. Tim Tourbin is quite good throughout and does a lovely “Come to Me, Bend to Me” from Brigadoon. Tipton and Tourbin are marvelous paired up on Finian’s Rainbow’s “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.” Susan Grogan is a bit stiff at times but has a few fine moments, especially Street Scene’s “What Good Would the Moon Be?” But Barbara Papendorp is frequently off pitch and has difficulty with the patter of such numbers as Brigadoon’s “The Real Love of My Life” and Roddy’s accompaniment seems to highlight the insufficiencies by acting as a metronome setting time rather than provide subtle support for the soloists.

Directed by Brian Childers. Choreography by Jacqueline Manger. Musical direction by Lori Roddy. Arrangements by Willis Rosenfeld. Cast: Susan Grogan, Barbara Papendorp, Steven Tipton, Tim Tourbin.

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February 6 – March 1, 2003
Benchley Despite Himself

Reviewed February 8
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes
Performed at Theatre On the Run

If you already love the humor of Robert Benchley, you will love this show by his grandson which mixes biographical information, analytical opinion and a generous helping of the original wit of the man. If, instead, you are simply intrigued by the history of the gentle soul who combined nonsense humor with mild self-depreciation, you will find much to contemplate in this rambling rumination by a descendent with an uncanny resemblance to the humorist. If you come to this cold, however, you may wonder just what all the fuss is about. Still, you will find yourself laughing at a good deal of the material.

Storyline: The grandson of Robert Benchley tries to explain to the audience both the public successes of his grandfather and the life he took such pains to keep private. Robert Benchley was one of Broadway’s best known critics in the 1920s and 30s, a successful author of humorous short stories and sketches and the author and star of a number of Hollywood short subjects into the 1940s. The grandson delivers some of the grandfather’s funniest material is in his effort to explain both the attraction of his humor and the way it deflected attention from his private world.

Robert Benchley’s output of seemingly effortless humor fills many volumes. He published a dozen compilations during his lifetime with titles that reflected his unique mixture of whimsy and nonsense – titles like “The Treasurer’s Report & Other Aspects of Community Singing” and “My Ten Years In a Quandary.”  The former contained, as the title piece, perhaps his most famous standup comedy routine. “The Treasurer’s Report” became one of the very first talking short films, the success of which launched both a new film genre and the movie career of its author. His fifty short films included classics like “The Sex Life of the Polyp.” Watching Nat Benchley perform material from these shorts is very much like watching the originals. He is uncanny in his ability to use the genetic gifts of his family tree and his own skills as a professional actor to bring his grandfather’s public persona to life.

The script also generously samples Robert Benchley’s great record of throw away one-liners that seemed so genuine and revealed a deep affection for language as well as a twist of mind that was absolutely unique. Who but Benchley would wire from Venice “Streets all full of water - please advise”? Who but Benchley would say “a boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down”? Who else would say ” It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous”? But Nat Benchley manages to pull these and many other famous lines together without fulfilling another of his grandfather’s famous observations: “The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.” Instead, he makes a human being out of the public comic.

There is a reason that Robert Benchley’s greatest successes were short stories, short articles and short films. A little of his unique blend of non-sequiter, nonsense and gentle criticism goes a long way. If “genius is knowing when to get off” then Grandfather Benchley was a genius while Grandson Benchley is a talented practitioner of the performing arts. There’s a difference and that difference shows when this show goes ten minutes longer, contains one more standup routine and features at least a dozen more quips than it should. Director Nick Olcott should have said “no” early and more often. He also permits overly busy lighting and sound designs which occasionally get in the way of some genuinely enjoyable moments.

Written and performed by Nat Benchley. Directed by Nick Olcott. Design: Marc A. Wright (set and lights) Eleanor Gomberg (props) David Meyer (sound). Caricature by Al Hirschfeld.  

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December 19, 2002 – January 25, 2003
The Seven Year Itch

Reviewed December 21
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes

Here’s a prime example of the value of having The American Century Theater in our community – the chance to experience one of those plays that are part of our common cultural heritage but which are rarely given competent professional productions. The Seven Year Itch was made into a movie and it is that movie, with Marilyn Monroe no less, that is so well remembered. Its author, George Axelrod, became well known for light comedies both on the stage (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) and on screen (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). This play was his first hit and, as such, was almost always appended to adds or reviews of his later works . . . as in ”George Axelrod, author of The Seven Year Itch, will adapt Bus Stop for the screen.”  Yet the original, despite a run on Broadway of nearly three years, has never been revived. 

Storyline: With his wife and child off to the shore for the summer, but a job that keeps him in their downtown apartment during the work week, a husband of seven years fantasizes about having a fling with a young woman who is apartment sitting in the unit above. The scenes in his head combine with actual events as his fantasies and his fears merge.

 Axelrod’s script does one thing better than it is done almost anywhere else and that is to use the technique of having a character talk to himself in order to explain the plot to the audience. The script’s alternation between reality and fantasy is made both understandable and believable because we can know just what this man is thinking because he verbalizes everything. It is a writers dream, but it can be an actor’s nightmare. Unless, of course, the actor has the skill to pull it off. Christopher Brophy has the skill and, as a result, it works.

 The two women in his life, Maura McGinn as his wife and Amy Quiggins as the girl in the apartment upstairs, are actually four characters as each exists both in reality and in his imagination. These are complicated parts for the actresses, in part because some of the humor in the comedy is based on not letting the audience know immediately if a scene is reality or is taking place in Brophy’s character’s mind.  McGinn makes the most of the gap between fantasy and reality through posture, body language and attitude. Quiggins uses the youthful sexuality of the real neighbor as a starting point for the fantasy character. Among supporting characters, Joe Cronin creates a very funny Viennese doctor and John C. Bailey is suitably oily as seen through the eyes of the husband in his fantasy world.

 The design team deserves extra credit for restraint and subtlety. It would be so tempting to draw too much attention to the difference between fantasy and reality. But they don’t go beyond serving the script, don’t over do an effect.  The movie version was the source of those photos of Marilyn Monroe with her white halter top dress blown up by a blast of wind. Here Quiggins, with dark hair rather than blond, has a picture-perfect red confection and a number of other right-on outfits provided by costume designer Michele Reisch.

Written by George Axelrod. Directed by DeAnna Duncan. Design: Eric Grims (set and lights) Michele Reisch (costume) Brian Mac Ian (sound). Cast: Chris Brophy, Maura McGinn, Amy Quiggins, Joe Cronin, John C. Bailey, Sheila Cutchlow, Anna Lane, Danielle Davy, Paula Phipps, Philip Saphos.

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September 12 – October 19, 2002
Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Reviewed September 20
Running time 2 hours 55 minutes
Performed at the Gunston Arts Center
Potomac Stages Pick

This remarkable production is an important theatrical event as well as a cultural "must see." That the pre-civil war original from which this production springs was historically significant with an impact on both political history and a century and a half of race relations and racial stereotypes is well known. What the American Century Theater has accomplished here is to reveal the compellingly dramatic personal stories that lie beneath the historical importance of the work and they do so with an exceptionally satisfying theatricality that makes watching the show not a history lesson but a fascinating dramatic experience.

Storyline: A decade before the start of the Civil War, a plantation owner has to sell some of his slaves to avoid foreclosure on his mortgage and the loss of everything. Among the people he has to sell are a mature man with a strong set of Christian beliefs who would accept terrible, even fatal punishment rather than violate his values, and the child of a young married woman who would flee with her child rather than accept her fate. Her flight from captivity and effort to reach freedom brings a wide range of characters of both races into the spotlight where their strengths and weaknesses are revealed.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin began as a novel which was a "best seller" before that term had been invented. Actor/playwright George Akin turned Mrs. Stowe’s novel into a play which became even more of a phenomenon before, during and after the Civil War. His version was as rich in melodrama as Stowe’s novel had been rich in righteous anti-slavery commitment. Many of the stereotypes now attributed to Stowe’s novel actually come from Akin’s dramatization. But, wherever they come from, and whatever implication they carry today, the concepts of Uncle Tom, Simon Legree, Topsy, and the image of Eliza escaping across a frozen river are cultural icons. In a new adaptation of Akin’s play, Tom Fuller and Jack Marshall have stripped the material of the barnacles of a century and a half, burnished the pure drama of the story and streamlined the storytelling to fit today’s audience’s expectation for an evening of theater. It works spectacularly.

The genius of Mrs. Stowe’s original concept was to bring the horrors of slavery to vivid life, showing the pain and suffering to both body and soul of both owned and owner in a system that flourished in her day and which deposited such corrosive residues in the American society that a century and a half later the pain continues. For today’s audiences, the intellectual concept of a slave market, or of one person being free to beat another to death because he "owns" him, or of the emotional wrench of parent and child or man and wife pulled apart, seems distant and remote. The genius of this production, directed by Jack Marshall and Ed Bishop, is to bring those horrors back into focus, making a modern audience face and feel and understand them. There are painful moments in this play but they are honest and compelling moments which is the stuff of theatrical drama.

Among the changes they made was to have Harriet Beecher Stowe narrate the play, explaining why she wrote what she did. Some of the words she speaks seem like they were written sometime after the terrorist attacks of one year ago. But they were actually taken directly from her novel written in 1850. Another significant change, one that makes it clear that we aren’t watching a mere recreation of a pre-civil war production, is that the blacks are portrayed by blacks and the whites by whites. Here there is none of the blackface makeup that made the story seem safely fictional for early audiences. Here Michael Sainte-Andress brings a mellifluous voice and an imposing presence to Uncle Tom, Linda Terry creates a Topsy that is almost a force of nature and Ray Felton strides across the stage with a John Wayne swagger of evil intent as Simon Legree. But most importantly, Jack Baker brings all her righteous passion to the narration as Harriet Beecher Stowe. They and their colleagues create a memorable evening of theater that is also a timely and valuable lesson in human relations.

Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (novel), George Akin (play) and Tom Fuller and Jack Marshall (adaptation). Directed by Jack Marshall and Ed Bishop. Design: Marc A. Wright (set and lights) Ricki Kushner (sound) Kathryn Fuller (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Jeff Bell (photo).. Cast: Jack Baker, Michael Sainte-Andress, Linda Terry, Ray Felton, Gordon Kumbatira, Maya Martin, Brendon Davies-Sekle, Glenn White, Eleni Sarris Peyser, Richard Henrich, Sharon O’Brien, Alexandra Lundelius, Signe Allen Linscott, Joe Cronin, Lakeisha Raquel Harrison, Jeff Davidson, Chris Davenport, Greg Glover, Brian Mac Ian, William Sweeney, Christian Yingling, Sam McFarland.

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June 20 - July 28, 2002
Danny & Sylvia

Reviewed June 21
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

It is not unusual to be able to go see an Oscar winning performance because movies are re-released. And most Emmy winning performances are re-run. But a Helen Hayes award winning performance is usually a thing of history long before it even wins the award. How good it is, then, that this year’s Helen Hayes Award winning best actor in a resident musical, Brian Childers is repeating his role in this two-character musical that so marvelously spotlights his particular talent. He becomes Danny Kaye in a way that lets a new generation discover - and an older generation re-visit – a unique performer. Childers may not have quite as strong a voice as Danny Kaye did, and his enunciation may falter occasionally, but he delivers both the performance persona of that unique comic/crooner/clown/character and his off-stage charm, creating a touching portrait of a real person while channeling rather than merely impersonating an inimitable performance style.

Storyline: This musical, based on the career of the star of stage, movies and television, concentrates on his marriage to, and working relationship with, songwriter Sylvia Fine. It tells its story from the day a young, unknown Danny Kaye meets audition pianist Sylvia Fine, and chronicles their relationship through courtship, marriage and the strains of success as he rises to nightclub notoriety singing the specialty songs she wrote for him, Broadway stardom in Lady in the Dark, Hollywood stardom with movies such as "White Christmas," "Hans Christian Andersen" and "The Court Jester" and finally concert headliner at the London Palladium. The story is told using new songs written for the musical but includes the Ira Gershwin, Kurt Weill "Tschaikowsky" that was his first big Broadway hit, Cab Calloway’s "Minnie the Moocher" which became something of a signature song for him and the best known of the songs Sylvia Fine wrote specifically for him, "Anatole of Paris".

The musical is the work of Bob McElwaine who wrote both the script and the lyrics, and guitarist Bob Bain who wrote the music. Structurally the script plays smoothly as it avoids the twin pitfalls that afflict so many other bio-plays, boring the part of the audience that is familiar with the subject with information it already knows or leaving the rest of the audience in the dark by skipping over material it may not know. Having the Danny Kaye character narrate the story, addressing the audience directly in the friendly, inclusive style that came so naturally to Kaye himself, accomplishes the dual feat of letting us get to know the man and the man’s story. And this is, indeed, the man’s story. "Sylvia" may get equal billing in the title but the story here is the rise of Danny Kaye’s fortunes and the role Sylvia Fine played in his life.

Last year the role of Sylvia was played by Janine Gulisano and she earned a Helen Hayes Award nomination for it right alongside Childers. In this remounting of the play, Perry Payne handles that role during June and then Gulisano returns for the July portion of the run. Both women have good voices, are fine actresses and create a real sense of partnership with Childers during the performance. But Payne’s take on the role is quite different from Gulisano’s. Payne’s Sylvia seems more manipulative while Gulisano’s seems more smitten. But both make of the role something human, something understandable and something touching. With either on the stage, it is possible to root for the success of both characters, not just for Danny Kaye to reach fulfillment.

The lilting score is precisely right for the show business world of Danny Kaye between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. It includes two dozen songs that move the story along, recreate the feel of the times and the places and provide a glimpse now and then into the mind or heart of one or the other or both characters. Isn’t that what good theater songs are supposed to do? True to the demands of the time, many are catchy tunes, especially the lovely "I Can’t Live Without You" and the personal patter piece "You Got a Problem With That?" The three piece, on stage combo featuring pianist Alvin Smithson is all that this small house needs to properly support this lightly swinging score.

Book and Lyrics by Bob McElwaine. Music by Bob Bain. A joint production of MetroStage and The American Century Theater. Directed by Jack Marshall and Jacqueline Champlain Manger. Music director Tom Fuller. Arrangements by Loren and Daniel Plazman. Choreographed by Jacqueline Champlain Manger. Design: Mike deBlois (set) Jean Grogan (costumes) Marc A. Wright and Adam Magazine (lights). Bill Wisneiwski (sound). Cast: Brian Childers and Perry Payne or Janine Gulisano.

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June 20 – July 20, 2002
Laughter at Ten O’Clock

Memories of the Carol Burnett Show

Reviewed June 22
Running Time 2 hours 30 minutes
Performed at Arlington’s Theatre on the Run

The creators of Laughter at 10 O’Clock were already at work on their project to recreate the "Carol Burnett Show’s" mix of sketch comedy and celebrity guest singers when, for last November’s "sweeps," CBS decided to bring the team back for a reunion with clips from the original show. It turned out to be a grand idea for the ratings mavens as the nostalgia binge drew nearly 30 million viewers to top the month. Laughter at 10 O’Clock was and is a grand idea too, and it lives up to its title by providing an evening of laughter. Of course, the laughter will come mostly from audience members of a certain age for whom the sketch comedy of Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman and Vicky Lawrence is a familiar commodity and who recognize the quirky characters of guests such as Sonny and Cher, Steve and Eydie.

Storyline: The audience is placed in the role of the audience of a taping of "The Carol Burnett Show" in a studio in Hollywood’s Television City circa 1973. The cast recreates not only classic sketches like the "Gone With The Wind" take off "Gone With The Breeze" and the soap opera take off "As The Stomach Turns" and song spots for guest stars, but the trademark elements of the show: the question and answer session at the beginning; the ritual signing of the guest book at the closing; and, of course, Carol’s tug at her ear signaling to her mother at home that all is well.

Director Jack Marshall’s program notes make a point of the crucial role of the unique persona and talent of Carol Burnett in making this mix work on TV for twelve years. For "Carol" in this production he has Nancy Dolliver, veteran of the Potomac Region’s own "Capitol Steps." She’s good in the role. But Carol Burnett was the best thing on her show and Dolliver isn’t the best thing in this recreation. Bruce Alan Rauscher is and that comes as a very pleasant surprise to those who know him from his impressive dramatic performances in such works as Breaking the Code and The Andersonville Trial for which he was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. In the sketch comedy roles originated by the inimitable Tim Conway, Rauscher has the good sense not to imitate Conway but to play the characters. But he proves it was a conscious decision, not the inability to do impressions, with his rock-solid impersonation of Sonny Bono in the classic Sonny and Cher "I Got You, Babe" routine. (Of course, it helped that he wore the best of Michele Reisch’s marvelously witty costumes – lime green polyester formalwear with cummerbund and shoes to match.)

Bill Karukas has the Harvey Korman parts and does a great job with them. Others who spark in the sketch comedy material are Allen F. Reed, Karen Jadlos Shotts and Mary McGowan who played the Vicki Lawrence material. The show alternates between the skits and recreations of the song spots of guest stars, and here the impressions are more than half the fun. Kathryn Fuller’s "Half Breed" by "Cher" is both an effective impression and a funny routine, Karen Hayes and Scott Kenison recreate the syrupy affection between Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme in a marvelous "Besame Mucho" and George Chapin captures both the smarmy stage mannerisms of Englebert Humperdink and the overly dramatic warbling of Anthony Newley.

The evening gets off to a cute start with Lou Swerda warming up the TV audience but the TV show itself seems to start slow. Once it picks up speed it becomes a very affectionate as well as a very funny tribute to a special genre of comedy. But it goes on too long. There is a reason that the Carol Burnett show was successful as a one hour show, not a two and a half hour evening.

Assembled from material of the Carol Burnett Show written by the likes of Ken and Mitzi Welch, Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf, Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett. Directed by Jack Marshall. Music Direction by Tom Fuller. Design: Thomas B. Kennedy (set) Michele Reisch (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (props) Ellen Bone (lights) Keith Bell (sound). Cast: Bruce Alan Rauscher, Bill Karukas, Nancy Dolliver, Mary McGowan, Allen F. Reed, Karen Jadlos Shotts, Karen Hayes, Scott Kenison, Kathryn Fuller, George Chapin, Chris Davenport, Lou Swerda, Kate Kirby, Jean Fallow, Rhonda Hill.

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February 5 – March 5, 2002
Home of the Brave

Reviewed February 14
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes

Director Benjamin Fishman uses modern theatrical technology to enhance an already powerful theatrical property as his Washington Jewish Theatre and the American Century Theater join forces for their first co-production. "Multi-media" techniques such as filmed images projected on the back wall, full stereo sound environments, pre-recorded dialogue and high-impact lighting effects can enhance a strong play or camouflage the problems in a weak one. Of course, when improperly used, they can harm a good play. Here they strengthen the theatricality of a piece that could have been a bit static and preachy in less capable hands.

Storyline: A Jewish soldier is part of a five man squad sent behind the Japanese lines during World War II where the traumatic events of battle trigger a psychosomatic paralysis. The play is presented as a flashback during treatment in a battlefield hospital.

This World War II combat play was the first major dramatic work by Arthur Laurents who went on to give us West Side Story, Gypsy and the movies The Way We Were and The Turning Point. It was and is remarkable for the sophistication of its view of the psychological damage that combat can do, and for the complexity of the relationships between the six characters (five soldiers and a doctor). Unlike so many "male bonding" movies of recent vintage, the five soldiers do not form a relationship so strong that it overcomes their individual incompatibilities. Most notably, the anti-Semite remains anti-Semitic. Laurents has his characters grow and learn and mature – but they don’t overcome all of their imperfections and they don’t reform completely.

The cast of young actors is a particularly strong group. Michael Laurino as the soldier who looses the use of his legs as a result of psychic injuries, and Tim Getman as a soldier with different wounds are particularly noteworthy. Getman has a marvelous scene in Act II with Richard J. Price as the officer in charge of the mission behind the lines. Jon Cohn does impressive work in the dual role of the doctor treating Laurino’s character and his best friend in the unit. Each have given impressive performances on Potomac Region stages in recent months (Cohn in A Life in the Theatre at Source, Getman in The Chosen at Theater J, Price in Rorschach Theatre Company’s J.B. and Laurino in The Muckle Man at Source). A newcomer to the area, Arthur J. G. Rosenberg, more than holds his own as he makes more of his role than just a symbol of bigotry.

The multi-media aspects of the production are effective if uneven. Daniel Schrader’s sound design is wonderful from the bird sounds that are almost inaudible but set the feel of the place before the show begins, through the sounds of combat that surround the audience in the second act. He takes full advantage of a quality sound system to produce for the audience some of the feeling of being encircled that is affecting the soldiers on stage. Marc A. Wright’s set is workable and his lighting design is particularly impressive. But the video elements of the "multi-media" are too dimly projected to be fully effective.

Written by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Benjamin Fishman. Design: Marc A Wright (set and lights) Daniel Schrader (sound) Michele Reisch (costumes) Branbox Productions, Inc (video.) Cast: Michael Laurino, John Cohn, Richard J. Price, Arthur J. G. Rosenberg, Tim Getman.

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January 2 – February 2, 2002

Reviewed January 5
Running time 2 hours 25 minutes

The American Century Theater lives up to its mission with its new production of Picnic. William Inge’s 1953 drama is a classic case of a play whose strengths made it a big hit in its day but which have gone out of style, leaving it a seldom-produced curio. With this solid production under the direction of one of the best of the Potomac Region’s crop of new directors, Steven Scott Mazzola, audiences can once again understand its power, its attraction and its success.

Storyline: In post World War II middle America, the women who occupy two neighboring houses have their lives uprooted on the day and night of the Labor Day Picnic when an attractive young drifter comes into town.

Picnic won a Pulitzer Prize when it first appeared and was one of Inge’s string of solid Broadway successes. Just like Bus Stop, Come Back Little Sheba and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, it was turned into a well-received movie. It is a solid example of the kind of realistic drama where the audience is called upon to process all of the details revealed in dialogue to put together the back stories of the characters without everything being spelled out for them. Movies today – with their linear plotting and their strength at showing events rather than talking about them – don’t usually require the audience to "connect the dots" in this way and it seems that many modern playwrights working today have picked up the habits of screenwriters.

Inge is at his best writing dialogue for women and four excellent actresses bring his creations to life. Sheri S. Herren is an attractive but wounded single mom. The script never explains exactly what happened to her husband but is full of comments that reveal the failure of her marriage. She has pinned many of her own dreams on her older daughter who she hopes will quickly marry her college graduate boyfriend. ("Pretty doesn’t last forever" she says. Jeanne Dillon, as the daughter, protests that she’s just 18 but mother says "and next year you will be 19 and the next year you will be 20 and the next year 40.") Dillon is pretty indeed and good at showing the frustration over being expected to fulfill her mother’s dreams instead of her own. Mary Rasmussen is the younger daughter, mischievous and just emerging into her own sense of attractiveness and self-worth. Kathryn Fuller gives depth to the character of a middle-aged schoolteacher afraid of permanent spinsterhood.

The Theatre on the Run is a confining space but this one-set play is just the kind that can work there, giving a sense of intimacy to the action. Eric Grims’ realistic structures of the back porch and back door of the neighboring houses flank an off-kilter painted view of the Kansas fields. The costumes of Michele Riesch are particularly notable as they add to the realistic feel of this recreation of the time while saying a great deal about each character’s self image. (Her cream and green creation for one of the town’s spinster teachers is as much fun as Lee McKenna’s performance in the part.) Choreographer Roxann Morgan adds a nice touch as well for an Act II dance lesson.

Written by William Inge. Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Choreography by Roxann Morgan. Fight director Stefan Sittig. Design: Michele Reisch (costumes) Eric Grims (set) Don Slater (lights) Michael Perryman (sound,) Cast: Sheri S. Herren, Jeanne Dillon, Mary Rasmussen, Kathryn Fuller, Peter Cassidy, Jason Lott, Kevin Adams, Rhonda Hill, Lee McKenna, Jack Baker, Joshua Drew.