Fall is a vivid time at the Boston Center for the Arts, with new efforts and vintage plays keeping the companies of Theater District South very busy. Right now the premieres are as mixed as the Boston foliage, and revivals are proving the most dazzling options. Company One is opening its 15th anniversary season with Splendor, a well-cooked Kirsten Greenidge feast that needs a dazzling piece de resistance, while SpeakEasy Stage Company is staging Make Up Your Mind, a Nicky Silver adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut play. Other standouts are a very moving Zeitgeist Stage Company edition of the Larry Kramer drama The Normal Heart and a powerful and disturbing Bad Habit Productions revival of the Frank McGuinness play “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.”
Company One: Splendor
Splendor, the latest effort by talented Greenidge, the company’s playwright in residence since 2004, returns to the same fictional town of Bellington that the African American dramatist sharply evoked in her IRNE Award-winning play The Luck of the Irish. Spanning 47 years — from 1965 to 2012 — and set against the backdrop of the Thanksgiving holiday, Greenidge’s world premiere calls to mind Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s great ode to everyday life and values. As in Wilder’s insightful gem, younger characters deal with the challenges of education, career and budding romance while older characters compare notes on parenting and shopping, and reflect on marriage and the stresses of mortality.
Splendor significantly adds an interracial family: the African-American and Italian Giosa children with black father Clive Cooper. Whereas Wilder wisely focused on his Gibbs and Webb families, Greenidge’s play tries to tackle too many interwoven subplots. Although Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount smoothly moves from scene to scene, the eventual Thanksgiving ensemble seems more like a combination of dishes than a breathtaking entrée. (Despite an impressive-looking prop turkey.)
Still, LaCount and a solid cast keep Bellington and its evolving town life absorbing. Alexandria King is particularly convincing, her character transitioning from an exuberant eight-year old to an intense 35-year old. James Milord, one of Boston’s premier actors, makes the most of Cooper’s striking reunion with his vulnerable son. Nicole Prefontaine as weary ballet mom Lisa Murphy Vitello brings scene-stealing vivacity to all her character’s humorous observations. As Dave Murphy, gifted out talent Greg Maraio is heart-wrenchingly moving in mourning at one moment and wonderfully effervescent at another. Particular credit goes to Ashan Gailus for rich sound design and Jen Rock’s poetic lighting.
Bellington is not as iconic as Grovers Corners, but Company One’s radiant Splendor continues to make Greenidge country worth visiting.
Splendor, Company One, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through November 16. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.
SpeakEasy Stage Company: Make Up Your Mind
Kurt Vonnegut’s forte was masterful satires like Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle. By contrast, considering the many versions of Make Up Your Mind, the brilliant novelist seems to have struggled with the very different demands of playwriting. Despite the earnest effort of Nicky Silver, the playwright who assembled Vonnegut’s writing to create the stage work, Make Up Your Mind lacks the decisive follow-through of a fully developed play with an involving plot. Its main character, unassuming New York businessman Roland Stackhouse, ostensibly succeeds at turning his passive 1986 clients into purposeful doers: admittedly, under physical threat of an unseen enforcer for indecisive clients. But not surprisingly, Stackhouse has his own problems with decisiveness.
Unfortunately, Make Up Your Mind never makes Roland’s office sessions or even his heated exchanges with his highly critical father compelling enough to give Vonnegut’s play visceral forcefulness or justify director Cliff Fannin Baker’s praise about “the comic genius of Nicky Silver to re-assemble all eleven of Vonnegut’s drafts of the piece into a playable script.” Actor Barlow Adamson does his best to make Roland’s emotional and professional odysseys engaging, but Vonnegut’s episodic and overlong effort — even with Silver’s yeoman re-assembling — proves a hardy nemesis. Tracy Goss as Karen Finch, flirtatious wife to a billionaire, seems hampered by a character whose reflections about her wardrobe and life sound as un-affecting as the dialogue of reality television housewives. Ross Bickel has his moments when capturing the attitude of Roland’s constantly judgmental father George. Best is Richard Snee, who transcends the limitations of this largely unfocused play as the life-embattled client Ottis Fletcher, a smartly understated evocation of Vonnegut.
Eric Levenson’s scenic design catches the exuberance of Vonnegut’s own abstract face drawings and the poetic beauty of a Central Park scene. But fans of Vonnegut’s inspired novels would do well to pass on the theatrically indecisive Make Up Your Mind.
SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through November 30. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.
Zeitgeist Stage Company: The Normal Heart
Arguably the greatest expression of moral outrage about early apathy towards AIDS is Larry Kramer’s brave Off-Broadway (1985) and Broadway (2012 Tony Award revival) hit drama The Normal Heart, now presented in a haunting Zeitgeist Stage Company revival at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Set between July 1981 and May 1984 in various locations in New York City, The Normal Heart combines an impassioned call for full equality for gays with a dramatic and well-detailed chronicle of the early days of the epidemic. Kramer speaks through Ned Weeks, an outspoken and abrasive fictional Jewish writer who shares the playwright’s unwavering commitment to LGBT rights activism and unrestrained anger at the lack of early substantive attention to AIDS by the New York Times, the Washington Post and unresponsive leaders: among them President Ronald Reagan and NYC mayor Ed Koch, suspected by many as being a closeted gay himself.
In the play, a dashing fictional New York Times fashion and food writer named Felix Turner awakens love-starved Weeks’ “normal heart.” Zeitgeist Stage artistic director David J. Miller artfully captures the heart of Ned and Felix’s love story and the play’s remarkable candor. An informative timeline and a detailed description of the enormity of the epidemic fill the walls on both sides of the audience. Throughout the staging, Michael Flowers’ brilliant projection design lists AIDS victims behind the actors in a haunting complement to Kramer’s powerful reflections. Michael Clark Wonson provides particularly nuanced lighting during a scene where gay organizers wait in a basement for a representative of Mayor Koch, underscoring the pathos of their situation and the dim chances of their efforts. In the intimacy of the Black Box Theatre, lighting effects during an AIDS Quilt segment make the immediacy of the sequence all the more personal.
Cast members are as forceful as Kramer’s drama. Victor Shopov captures Weeks’ principled rage, his loneliness as an oft-misunderstood activist, and his unflagging efforts to help AIDS-stricken Felix. Joe Pelletier as Felix conveys all the charm and sweetness that endear him to Ned, and their scenes together are alternately tender and moving. Maureen Adduci finds all of Dr. Emma Brookner’s fearlessness –most notably in outlining the politics of AIDS treatment in different types of hospitals.
As with all great plays, The Normal Heart continues to resonate with timely passion. Do not miss Zeitgeist Stage’s visceral and loving revival.
The Normal Heart, Zeitgeist Stage Company, Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through November 23. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.
Bad Habit Productions: Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Frank McGuinness’ heart-wrenching look at the ordeal of political hostages, captures the physical and emotional suffering of three very different fictional men and the daily strategies they employ to survive being chained by unseen Arabs in a stark, small cell in a Beirut prison. Bad Habit Productions, under the taut direction of A. Nora Long, sharply catches the humor and the harrowing ordeal they experience. In fact, Irishman Edward bonds with American Adam so deeply that British Michael wonders if they share physical as well as emotional intimacy.
A first-rate ensemble makes the hostages’ every word and movement — among them pushups and imagined letters home — immediately compelling. Greg Balla is a standout as sarcastic but vulnerable Edward. Sheldon Brown has all of Adam’s hope and determination. Jeff Mahoney convinces as the diffident newcomer among the three.
If you think a play about the brutality of captivity is a downer, think again. Bad Habit Productions finds all of the richly satisfying humanity in McGuinness’ heroic drama.
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Bad Habit Productions, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through November 16. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com
Pay as you go: Our web site is free, and we want to keep it that way. Bay Windows turns 31 this year. Will you pledge your support for the upcoming year by contributing funds? Your contribution will help us keep the website and paper free and improve our coverage. Please, if you are able, we welcome your support. Please note - your contribution is not tax deductible.