A Moon for the Misbegotten and [title of show]
Grace Gonglewski is warm and authentic as Josie Hogan, a woman who maintains a tough façade to the world but who has a soft spot (and a sweet smile) for her liquor-soaked landlord, James Tyrone, Jr. Tyrone is a famous stage actor, but as played by Eric Hissom, he's no show-off; he knows his appeal, but he doesn't oversell it. Tyrone is tormented with guilt over his past transgressions and he views his romance with Josie as a chance at redemptionbut his inability to rise above his past gets in the way.
Gonglewski and Hissom are both superb; Josie's raw strength and Tyrone's weaknesses complement each other rather than clash. Yet no single performer dominates the proceedings. H. Michael Walls is also excellent, playing Josie's rascally father without overdoing the eye-twinkling in the Irish comedy routines during act one.
Pfeiffer's direction intensifies the sensitivity of the story. The best example of that is the silent transition added between the first two acts, which illustrates Josie getting ready for her big date with Tyrone. We see her cleaning up her ramshackle home as best she can, getting dressed, even splashing herself with water from the pump in the middle of her yard to make herself more presentable. So when the second act starts, and we see Josie has waited in vain for hours, we feel her pain more acutely.
Matt Saunders' efficient set is surrounded by audience seating on three sides, giving the production an intimate feel. And James Sugg's somber musiccello, clarinet, and spare piano chordsfits the understated, poetic mood perfectly.
Pfeiffer's Moon is low-key but not lazy; it's a bit long, but unlike one other version I've seen, it never drags. It's a production that rewards deep concentration, focusing on the hopes and regrets of two people who spend a memorable night out under the moon. And like the moon, this production glows.
A Moon for the Misbegotten runs through February 27, 2011, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.
Jeff Bowen (who wrote the songs) and Hunter Bell (the book), are depicted as theater geeks with an obsessive knowledge of musicals; the show's set (designed by Kyle Melton) is an apartment whose wall is decorated with posters for shows both famous (Into the Woods) and obscure (Romance/Romance). If you're not familiar with the latter show (a 1988 musical which starred a pre-"Quantum Leap" Scott Bakula), that's okay; you don't have to be obsessed with theater to get a chuckle out of these guys and their fixation on Broadway demi-stars like Dee Hoty and Mamie Duncan-Gibbs. Just like Monty Python and its jokes about obscure British politicians, you don't even have to get all the references in [title of show] to find it funny.
But a little of this inside humor goes a long way, especially when nearly all the songs are about the same thing. And Bowen's melodies and rhymes are, to put it mildly, unexceptional. It takes ninety minutes until we reach a sensitive, lovely song: "A Way Back to Then," in which Heidi, one of the actresses hired for the show, reminisces about a childhood spent "Hearing Andrea McArdle sing/From the hi-fi in the den." It's a song with real insight that gives Heidi's character some depth. The other actress, Susan, gets to sing "Die Vampire, Die!," a bitter pseudo-comedy number about how artists must defeat the "vampires" who stifle their creativity. This leads to some conflict between the characters over whether they will "sell out" to become successful; you can guess how that turns out. You can also guess whether Susan will commit to the life of an artist or keep her office job, and whether Heidi will stick with the show or join the cast of Mamma Mia!. That's right, everything turns out fine in the end, and the writers and their friends get to congratulate themselves on staying true to their principles. This only makes them seem more insufferable.
Fortunately, Peter Reynolds' direction makes the best of a mediocre situation, and Brandon McShaffrey's choreography makes witty references to Broadway hits of the past. And best of all, there's a wonderfully appealing cast that makes this all go down easily. Ben Dibble (as Jeff) and Michael Philip O'Brien (as Hunter) pull off the trick of seeming smart and na´ve at the same time. As the sarcastic Susan, Kate Brennan has razor-sharp comic delivery and a delightfully skeptical expression. And Kim Carson is sweet and self-assured as Heidi, showing off a great singing voice. Mat Wright is the accompanist.
[title of show] is a smart show that is very enjoyable at times. In the end, though, it isn't as funny as it thinks it is, and it ends up being more tiresome than endearing.
[title of show] runs through January 30, 2011, and is presented by Mauckingbird Theatre Company at Upstairs at The Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street. Ticket prices range from $15 to $25 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-923-8909, online at www.mauckingbird.org, or in person at the box office.