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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Something Old and Something New:
Sheridan's The Rivals and Infertility Under Glass
Each Most Notable for One Exceptional Performance

The Rivals
Christopher Conant, Amanda Baker, Colleen Smith Wallnau,
and Al Morhmann

Richard Brinsley Sheridan's wise and witty comedy The Rivals so well combines verbal wit with buffoonish high jinks that it has remained an active staple of the English language stage for over 200 years. Still, a short refresher course is probably in order.

The play is set in the English resort town of Bath. High-born and wealthy Captain Jack Absolute loves the similarly endowed Lydia Languish. However, the foolishly idealistic Lydia will only consider a poor man so that her choice will be based on true love. Thus, Jack dons the disguise of a poor sailor to woo and win her. Unalterably opposed to Lydia's involvement with a poor sailor, her aunt Mrs. Malaprop arranges with Sir Anthony Absolute for her niece to be married to Sir Anthony's son, who just happens to be her disguised lover, Captain Jack.

As a result of the foolish and duplicitous pigheadedness of all involved, a series of hilarious complications ensue before common sense is happily restored just in time for the final curtain.

There are any number of other fools and meddlers in the form of high born friends and interlopers, and lowly servants to add to the mayhem.

As directed by Carl Wallnau for the Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown, the production is inventive and lively, opening with a delightful, swiftly paced pantomime of the action to follow choreographed to the strains of a light and lively march. Additionally, light classical music enlivens the play throughout.

The thin, cartoonish sepia unit set and matching furniture by Will Rothfuss adds to the pleasure of the production. It includes an upstage platform, an arch and balustrade, and side boxes in which audience members are seated in order to be directly addressed and, once or twice, discombobulated by the players. The handsome period costumes by Sandra King are not always well fit and are in need of pressing.

The reliable Al Morhmann is, as usual, in top form. As the impossibly overbearing Sir Anthony, he retains the lightness of touch necessary to keep us delighted and amused without compromising his domineering bitchiness. There could be no better performance for a character who boasts, "I am compliance itself when I have my own way". I cannot believe that Al Morhmann would get anything less than superlative reviews if he were to bring his delightful Sir Absolute to the upcoming Lincoln Center revival of The Rivals

As Jack, Christopher Conant is a perfect foil for Morhmann. Conant is solid throughout, but is at his best in convincing us that he is simply a younger version of his impossible father.

Colleen Wallnau is a fine, impishly foolish Mrs. Malaprop. Her character's name, long ensconced in our language, is exemplified when she agrees not to dwell upon past grievances, declaring, "We shall not anticipate the past."

Amanda Baker as Lydia, the silly object of so much attention, and Doug Shapiro and Stephen L. Barron as swains Bob Acres and Faulkland, respectively, add nicely to the merriment.

Sadly, the balance of the cast ranges from just passable to downright amateur awful. In the worst instance, the audience is exposed to annoying vocal screeching, obfuscating, out of rhythm line readings, and the most indecipherable, unconvincing British accent one is ever likely to encounter. Director Wallnau must take blame for some poor casting.

Despite significant weakness among the supporting cast, there is much to enjoy in Carl Wallnau's lively and ambitious take on this Sheridan classic.

The Rivals continues performances through October 24, 2004 at the Centenary Stage Company, on campus at Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900; online www.centenarystageco.org .

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan; directed by Carl Wallnau.

Cast:
Sir Anthony Absolute............AL MORHMANN
Captain Absolute............CHRISTOPHER CONANT
Faulkland............STEPHEN L. BARRON
Acres............DOUG SHAPIRO
Sir Lucius O'Trigger............JOHN C. CUNNINGHAM
Fag............CHRISTOPHER BARBER
Davie............GREG SELM ORR
Thomas............RYAN McGLAZER
Mrs. Malaprop............COLLEEN WALLNAU
Lydia Languish............AMANDA BAKER
Julia............LAURA QUACKENBUSH
Lucy............DESIREE FITZGERALD


Under Glass

Under Glass
Bill Tatum and
Susan Knight Carlin

There IS one excellent reason to attend Under Glass, the new play by Kristine Thatcher in its world premiere production at Montclair's Luna Stage. However, the play itself is so far off the mark in so many ways that it defies correction.

Mostly set in Chicago in the 1980s, Under Glass chronicles the three-year struggle of 37-year-old Jean (Susan Knight Carlin) and her 49-year-old husband Henry (Bill Tatum) to conceive a child by any means possible. They are aided by a fertility doctor (Paul Murphy) and surrounded by a gaggle of females (Jean's sister, a nurse, sundry friends, and others seeking fertilization), portrayed by five actresses in multiple roles.

Playwright Thatcher addresses the horrendous expense in time, emotional health and money, as well as the long odds facing those who seek the last resort of in vitro fertilization; the ego driven mindset which would propel a couple to go to such extreme lengths in lieu of adoption; and the ethics of the medical profession in encouraging such extreme and often unproductive efforts.

The principal characters are ill-defined stick figures on which to hang a Lifetime Movie of the Week social and personal issues TV script. The supporting characters are mostly defined by one trait on which their entire value to the play is based. There is no tension nor are there any dramatic or emotional highpoints as this two act play rambles through an astonishing 13 scenes.

One scene, a friend's baby shower, presents Jean with the five most unbelievably obnoxious "friends" in the history of the female-hating mind. At least three scenes deal with Henry's difficulty in providing a semen sample for their doctor (Thatcher is seeking some laughs here, but no where else is Henry so incredibly stupid). In scene twelve, when Jean visits her sister Franny in the latter's Greenwich Village apartment, the play finally stops rushing through dramatically punchless events as the sisters settle down to an extended conversation. However, in place of surprising or intimate revelations, we are saddled with arty drivel about Jean's dreams, which with the oh-so astute help of Franny make her realize that it's time to abandon her efforts at conception and turn to adoption. Is there any logic to the interpretation of dreams (there are several) as presented in the play? The answer will have to come from someone of sterner stuff than myself who would have the ability to force his or her mind to fully concentrate on the pretentious, lugubrious manner of their description.

No rules in art are hard and fast. However, while epic plays (including adaptations of novels, historical panoramas and the like) often have multiple scenes, most quality dramas have no more than six scenes. Each scene usually has an arc leading to a climax of sorts. There is no information or material in this play which could not have been presented more dramatically, cogently and concisely in four or five scenes. In fact, it would be a good exercise for playwright Thatcher to rewrite Under Glass in no more than four or five scenes. It would also benefit those who face the daunting task of selecting new plays to produce to be very leery of plays with high scene counts, as well as plays which substitute high concept for quirky (weren't we all?) three dimensional characters, and dramatic and literary merit.

Bill Tatum admirably struggles to a draw with his inconsistently written Henry. Paul Murphy's fertility doctor is hopelessly muddled both in writing and performance. At first, he appears to be blithefully dispensing false hope to mislead his patients down the path to financial and emotional ruin. Later on, he dispenses with his fee to help Jean and Henry. However, perish the thought that Murphy's doctor could ever be believed to be a scuba diver as posited here.

The ubiquitous women, Tamela Aldridge, Teri Furr, Mona Hennessy, and Megan McIsaac, and Linda Setzer, all do well by their sketchy multiple roles. Setzer brings off the turgid dialogue in her role of Franny especially well.

Director James Glossman has directed smoothly and elicited some good performances. However, it would be hard to believe that any director could do much with the script at hand.

So just what is that excellent reason to see Luna Stage's production of Under Glass? I can answer that question in three words. Susan Knight Carlin. Carlin's depiction of Jean weaves gold from dross. The role does not provide the detail necessary to provide a fully fleshed out character. However, moment to moment throughout the entire evening, Carlin performs with such seemingly effortless ease and natural grace that she fills the stage with a star glow. She maintains an aura of charm and dignity, quiet determination and spirited hope right through the alteration of Jean's goal and the final curtain. Under the circumstances, her work here is truly amazing. Hopefully, we will be seeing much more of Ms. Carlin on our New Jersey stages.

Under Glass continues performances through October 31, 2004 at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. Box office: 973-744-3309; online www.lunastage.org.

Under Glass a world premiere play by Kristine Thatcher; directed by James Glossman.

Cast:
Barbara, Karen........TAMELA ALDRIDGE
Beth........TERRI FURR
Pat Sweeney, Elaine........MONICA HENNESSY
Jean........SUSAN KNIGHT CARLIN
Henry........BILL TATUM
Sara, Nurse........MEGAN McISAAC
Dr. Merlin Fredericks........PAUL MURPHY
Franny, Fiona, Diana........LINDA SETZER


Photo: e j carr


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- Bob Rendell



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