Monday, January 29, 2018

Murder for Two Knocking ‘em Dead

Barney Stein and David Saffert. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

By Tina Arth

It’s a good thing that audiences don’t actually die laughing – if they did, last Friday Tigard’s New Stage would have been the scene of unimaginable carnage. Broadway Rose’s season opener, Murder for Two, didn’t just draw the frequent laughs and occasional rounds of applause common to good musical comedy. Instead, the cast repeatedly drew show-stopping bursts of full on cheering. Director Dan Murphy and his production team pull out all the stops for authors Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair’s frenetic 2011 murder mystery, and killer (pun intended) performances by David Saffert and Barney Stein bring it all home.

At the most superficial level, Murder for Two is just a slightly twisted take on an Agatha Christie-style drawing room murder mystery, set in a wealthy American household. Frustrated artiste Dahlia Whitney has planned a surprise birthday party for her husband, famed novelist Arthur. As he walks into the darkened living room full of hidden guests, a shot rings out, and Arthur is no more.  Enter Marcus Moscowicz, a lowly street cop who aspires to detective status, and his partner Lou. With some not-always appreciated assistance from Arthur’s niece Steph, a 21st Century Nancy Drew wannabe, Marcus rigidly adheres to protocol as he probes the usual suspects – the shrink, the lover, the wife, the neighbors – plus an utterly unprecedented three- member boys’ choir, inexplicably dressed and played as street-wise urchins who could be New York refugees from Oliver.  Eventually, of course, we learn not only who murdered Arthur, but also who stole all of the ice cream from the party (which bothers Dahlia a lot more than her spouse’s sudden demise).

The show moves from “slightly twisted” to full-on comic chaos because eleven roles (Moscowicz and the ten suspects) are all played by two men. Are they actors? A finely matched vaudeville team? Physical comics? Vocalists? Dancers? Yes to all of the above, taken to the next level by the added challenge of constantly accompanying themselves (sometimes alone, sometimes as a duet) with some damned fine piano playing. Their only on-stage assistance comes from the unheard, unseen Lou and a brief corpse cameo by an unsuspecting audience member (on opening night, Cindy from Row E set the bar impossibly high with her spasmodic death throes). Stein certainly holds his own as the dim but determined cop, and he handles the lion’s share of the piano work, but it is Saffert’s quick-change portrayal of the ten suspects that really drives the comedy over the top. Words like wacky, zany, nutty, madcap make my skin crawl – they generally evoke irritating visions of The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, or Benny Hill – yet all of these words not only apply to Murder for Two, they constitute high praise.  Using no more than some oversized glasses, a few other key accessories, and an impressive repertoire of voices, Saffert works up quite a sweat during 90 minutes of zipping from character to character, sometimes even arguing with himself. The songs will never stand alone, but Broadway Rose’s production design team dresses them up as full-on production numbers accented by Lawrence Welk-style cascading bubbles, glorious lighting, and a host of other imaginative and hilarious touches. Add in some spectacularly funny choreography (I especially liked Timmy, Yonkers and Skid’s big dance number, but Dahlia’s “Steppin’ Out of the Shadows” is a true show-stopper) and the stage is set for an evening of hard-core laughter.

Murphy, Saffert, Stein and the rest of the team are brightening the dark days of winter with a brilliant dose of pure comedy that is not to be missed. Watch the State of the Union address if you must, but by all means give equal time to the energetic, untrammeled joy that Broadway Rose has brought to town.

Murder for Two is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, February 25th.

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Compelling Receptionist from M&M’s Unmasked

Amelia Michaels, Patti Speight, Tony Broom and Michael Hoeft.
Photo by Nicole Mae Photography

By Tina Arth

Back before extended phone menus made receptionists obsolete, actual humans used to populate front offices, take messages, screen and direct calls, and perform hundreds of other once-cherished clerical functions, including the always off-putting “Please hold” and the usually genial “Can I put you through to his voice mail?” Playwright Adam Bock’s quirky, Orwellian The Receptionist uses this kind of clichéd, comfortingly banal office setting as the backdrop for a terribly funny (in Act I) and equally troubling (in Act II) little allegory about, as the program’s cover reveals “the consequences of complicity with evil.”  It’s exactly the kind of production Tigard’s Mask & Mirror Community Theatre needs for its “Unmasked” series at the tiny Tualatin Heritage Center, where small, edgy productions can provide riveting entertainment to sophisticated audiences. Director Tony Broom’s vision is realized beautifully by his tiny four-person cast (including Broom, who plays a smaller but utterly pivotal role) – with only a two week run and a small house, I suggest you buy tickets asap.

It’s impossible to give any meaningful synopsis that won’t spoil the show’s gut-punching twist, but some exposition will at least set the stage. The show opens with an odd monologue where Mr. Raymond (Broom) muses in slightly creepy detail about his distaste for hunting and his love of fly-fishing. The stilted language and delivery in the prologue evoke the image of a man on the edge, reminiscent of Nick Adams in many Hemingway stories, without really giving the audience any clear vision of what’s to come. The lights then come up on an utterly ordinary office setting, dominated by Beverly (Patti Speight), the lovably frazzled, gossiping and motherly receptionist who reigns supreme over her telephone, desk, plants and pens. Every time the phone rings, she trills out “”Northeast Office” before either transferring the call to the voicemail of her absent boss, Mr. Raymond, or resuming her all-important conversation with her friend Cheryl Lynn about the perils of dating married men. When co-worker Lorraine (Amelia Michaels) rushes in, late and at best half-dressed for work, Beverly adds to her weighty job description by counseling Lorraine about her self-absorbed ex, ordering a birthday cake for Mr. Raymond, and fussing over an over-priced tea cup and a cute birthday card – all of the stuff of the most ordinary of offices. The biggest excitement of the day is the unexpected arrival of Mr. Dart (Michael Hoeft) from the main office – Dart is young enough and attractive enough to send Lorraine rushing into her office, from which she emerges moments later dressed to kill and dripping with flirtatiousness that is more than welcomed by the (married, of course) newcomer. Beverly, in perfect momma fashion, has reassured Mr. Dart that his four-year-old son’s paste eating is no big deal, because everybody eats paste. By the time Mr. Raymond arrives at the office, we feel like we know these characters – until Mr. Raymond mentions a small wrinkle in his morning’s work that throws everything off and sets up a starkly different second act.

Speight is perfect as Beverly – warm, efficient, guileless, and cheerful as she counsels and comforts her friends, family, and co-workers while fiercely defending her cherished stash of pens. Though none of her dialogue is specifically funny, she draws an endless series of (first-act) laughs with her intonations and expressions – the play really rises and falls on our attitude toward Beverly, and Speight’s Beverly is as loveable as they come. Michaels delivers a cute, flighty, flirty Lorraine whose angst and moral relativism give her character engaging depth, and Hoeft’s vaguely smarmy charm, puzzling at first, does a fine job of setting up the truth about his second act role. As the frequently unseen Mr. Raymond, Tony Broom tries for nonchalance about his departure from the protocols of his job, but undercurrents of tension and despair permeate the performance.

My one complaint is that the show ends abruptly, leaving the audience with a host of emotions and no time to process them. I would suggest a brief audience talk-back session after each performance, which would allow us and the actors to decompress before going back to our own often comfortingly banal lives. A reasonable alternative is to go with a friend so you can talk over the show on the road home, or (better yet) over an adult beverage in any of several nearby eateries.

Mask & Mirror’s The Receptionist  is playing at The Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 SW Sweek Drive, Tualatin, through Sunday, January 28, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:00 on Sundays.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

God of Carnage – Dark Humor in The Grove

Benjamin Philip, Kate Barrett, Teri Lee Scoles, and Brandon Weaver.
Photo by Jenn McFarling.

By Tina Arth

Theatre in the Grove’s current offering, God of Carnage, is a beautiful (but not pretty) and hilarious (but not always fun) piece of theater that inhabits a grey area between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Married with Children. This vision of marriage is softened only by author Yasmina Reza’s incessant dark humor – the sort of show where you don’t really know whether to laugh or cry, but come down on the side of laughter (and feel a bit guilty about it). Director Zach Centers is no stranger to gut-punching theater, and I still have flashes of PTSD four years after he brought August, Osage County to Forest Grove, but he and his cast find in Carnage a much less painful way to celebrate the savage potential of urbane American society.

The plot is secondary – just a set-up to bring the cast together to illustrate what four people can do with a sparse, sharp script and some really brilliant acting. Brooklyn residents Michael and Veronica Novak are hosting an awkwardly civilized meeting with neighbors Alan and Annette Raleigh to discuss an unfortunate incident – a disagreement between their eleven-year old sons that culminated in the Raleigh boy whacking young Novak with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth. The two women are, at first, determined to have a reasonable discussion about how they should respond. Through facial expressions, tone of voice, and exquisite timing we gradually detect hostile undercurrents that fight their way to the surface as the show evolves. Bleeding-heart Veronica just wants everything to resolve with a kumbaya moment of sincere apology in a meeting between the two boys, while Alan, convinced that his son is an unrepentant savage, sees no point in trying. Annette, like Veronica, initially aims at civility, and Michael, while a bit crass, seems to have some human potential until we learn about an unfortunate hamster-related tragedy. Alliances constantly shift throughout the show, and as the cast moves from espresso and clafouti to rum and cigars they show us exactly who they are. What begins as two couples confident that their spouses have their backs ends up as an expose of the dog-eat-dog character of their marriages and lives, ruled more by a god of carnage than a god of love.

Tori Lee Scoles is quite wonderful as the initially nervous Annette, who murmurs all of the right sentiments while her eyes send death-rays of contempt at her hostess (who puts apples and pears in clafouti?) and her disengaged, cell-phone addicted ass of a spouse – and she’s even more fun when the rum kicks in.  Benjamin Philip’s Alan is the man we most love to hate – a snide, disengaged “wealth manager” who has offloaded all responsibility for home and parenting on his wife. Even before we see the cell phone, he is clearly despicable, and his frequent phone interruptions of the group’s discussion reveal a fundamental vileness that goes way beyond poor manners.

Kate Barrett brings a hefty dose of self-righteous confidence to her portrayal of Veronica, occupying the moral high ground across the spectrum of human interaction from schoolyard spats to genocide in Darfur. Barrett captures the spirit of her comfortably suburban pacifist humanism until a little rum and a lot of anger finally push her over the edge, and her explosion is intensely believable.  Brandon Weaver gives husband Michael a sometimes-dizzying combination of blue-collar machismo, clumsy upscale snobbery, and appalling heartlessness, all leavened with unpredictable touches of tenderness and concern that keep the audience off balance and remind us that the world is far from black and white.

Centers has designed a stunningly spare set – just a few pieces of furniture, a spectacular floor, and one huge abstract painting, combining smartly civilized décor with a background of red and black splashes to capture the dichotomy between order and chaos. Lighting designers Sandy and Tom Cronin deliver an incredible moment at the end, spotlighting just the vase of tulips to bring a flash of hope to the show’s grim message.

God of Carnage delivers some of the best acting you’ll see this season, wrapped in a compelling show that builds steadily and combines raw humor with a thought-provoking look at “civilized” behavior. Expect to be utterly riveted for slightly less than an hour and a half (one long act) – and by all means, go see this show. Because of mature themes and strong language, the show is not appropriate for children.

God of Carnage runs at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove through Sunday, January 28th with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.