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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Race, Amadeus, and The Little Prince

David Mamet's Race is a play in which every moment is designed to be provocative, starting with its title. And it is. But there's a lot of substance beneath its incendiary tone, and director Scott Zigler's production for the Philadelphia Theatre Company makes it a very entertaining ride. You might be offended by Mamet's words or his subject matter, but you sure won't be bored.

We're in the conference room of a high-powered, big-city law firm. (Kevin Rigdon's set design is full of cold, angular lines; appropriately, the windows are opaque and the brick walls are whitewashed.) The firm has been hired to defend a rich, middle-aged white man accused of raping a young black woman. The accused man virtually emits guilt with his every word and movement; he swears he didn't commit the crime, but something is weighing heavily on his mind. He has fired his Jewish attorney and hired this firm, led by a black partner and a white partner, in hopes that a mixed-race legal team will make a good impression on a jury. The two partners are assisted by Susan, a black woman fresh out of law school; she has a lot to learn, but she also has a lot to teach her employers. Jack, the white partner, is a cynic who makes pithy pronouncements like "There are no facts of the case. There are two fictions which the opposing teams seek to impress on the jury." When Susan asks Jack if he thinks black people are stupid, he snaps, "I think all people are stupid. I don't think blacks are exempt."

This is all played as a lie-or-death matter; even when there's humor in Mamet's lines, these actors play it straight. During the show's first half hour, there are no raised voices and no raised eyebrows. Jordan Lage, as Jack, keeps his mouth a solid horizontal line and his eyes cold and impassive. Ray Anthony Thomas, as Henry, the black partner, is less impulsive, moving slowly and deliberately; his every movement tells you that he means business. But he's no less a shark; like Jack, he looks cannily for any angle that can help him win his case. Lage and Thomas understudied these roles in last year's Broadway production, and their familiarity with the characters is one of this production's pleasures.

Susan is the most expressive character, and Nicole Lewis does a nice job making her seem both sympathetic and frustratingly headstrong. But it's John Preston, as Charles, the client, who gives the most satisfying performance. He plays Charles as a proud man desperately trying to cling to whatever shreds of dignity he thinks he has, and failing at every turn. Upright and uptight, he clings to a pompous façade as long as he can, even if it costs him his attorneys' trust. When Charles tells Henry "I don't have to defend myself to you," a man sitting behind me in the theater chuckled and murmured, "Oh, no?."

Race is full of moments like that. The play's biggest problem is that it sometimes seems Mamet is more interested in making terse, quotable lines than telling a story. For instance, the motivations of two of the characters aren't satisfactorily explained. But in the end, what matters is the mood, and Zigler's production is suitably tense. Characters move about the stage methodically, speaking calmly, their arms at their sides, rarely making big gestures. That's all to lull us into a false sense of security, so when the characters eventually explode, the release is satisfying.

Race is full of truths and half-truths. Like many a legal case, you may not agree with the conclusions, but it's worth listening to the arguments.

Race runs through February 20, 2011, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $25 $59 and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.


Amadeus
Rob McClure and Ellie Mooney
Photo: Mark Garvin
The Walnut Street Theatre is currently offering Amadeus, Peter Shaffer's famous historical play which supposes that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's death at the age of 35, in 1791, may have been caused by his jealous and mediocre rival, fellow composer Antonio Salieri. Historians tell us that there's not much truth in Shaffer's premise; indeed, BBC Radio last year presented a five-part "Composer of the Week" series which revealed that Salieri's talent was nothing to sneeze at. What counts here, though, is Shaffer's exploration of the contrast between Salieri's well-regarded ability and Mozart's timeless genius, and his persuasive dramatization of how Salieri crosses the line between envy and madness. Director Malcolm Black's production sags towards the end, but it does feature some excellent performances.

The standout in the cast is Rob McClure, who revels playfully in Mozart's coarse antics. When his Mozart sits at the keyboard and improvises an "improved" version of one of Salieri's melodies, the glee on McClure's face is contagious. He's an obnoxious show-off, but he doesn't care; he's having a grand time, and he won't be satisfied until everyone else is, too. Greg Wood is delightfully dense as the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, while Ellie Mooney, as Mozart's wife, meshes well with McClure in the comedic moments, then shines when the drama takes a more serious turn. Dan Olmstead brings a good sense of gravity to the role of Salieri; he portrays Salieri as a man of action and importance, and conveys the agony Salieri feels when humiliated by the infantile, conceited Mozart. However, Olmstead errs in the wraparound scenes that depict an elderly Salieri in "the final hour of [his] life." Olmstead does not alter his voice for these scenes; he acts and sounds as vigorous in these moments as he does when he portrays the younger Salieri in flashback scenes. He's unconvincing as a sickly septuagenarian.

The production also boasts impressive costumes by Colleen Grady and a striking set by Paul Wonsek that blends faux marble with metal scaffolding, playfully showing the majesty of Emperor Joseph's court while revealing it's all a pretense.

Shaffer's dialogue remains poetic and often touching, but the second act lacks confrontational fireworks and begins to feel dull. Black's production loses energy as it goes along; as Mozart takes ill, the production begins to die along with him. Still, the work's intelligence and insight shines through, and everyone does a good job. It may not be an exciting production, but it's a respectable one.

Amadeus runs through March 6, 2011, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $80, and are available by calling the box office at 800-982-2787, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.


The Little Prince
Leila Ghaznavi and Lenny Haas
Bristol Riverside Theatre is presenting a lovely adaptation of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic about an interplanetary visitor who teaches life lessons to a grounded aviator. What makes Bristol's production special is the minimal but delightful stagecraft that conjures up multiple worlds.

It all starts with Tom Gleeson's set, in which a circular sandbox takes the place of the desert where the aviator crashes his plane. Projections appear on a circular screen in the rear which also doubles as the prince's home planet, while the theme is compounded by a series of black concentric semi-circles that surround the playing area. Ryan O'Gara's lighting conveys both the space of the desert and the isolation of outer space. And then there are the puppets. Four of the five cast members are puppeteers, wielding witty, plush puppets designed by Michael Schupbach and built by Monkey Boy Productions, whose work has been seen on Broadway in Avenue Q and Little Shop of Horrors. (The way Schupbach has worked a volleyball into the design of several of the puppets, extending the circular/globular motif, is especially clever.)

Although The Little Prince is ostensibly a children's tale, its story is not a simple one. At the performance I attended, a child who appeared to be about four years old spent a lot of time asking her mother to explain the plot, and I suspect many of the adults in attendance had similar questions. What's notable about The Little Prince is not the plot but the philosophical pronouncements the prince makes and the lessons he teaches the aviator about beauty and "what is essential" in life. The script by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar sticks closely to Saint-Exupéry's original 1943 book, with just enough interaction between characters to keep the plot moving forward. And director Scott Hitz treats the material with the gentle hand it deserves; it's not bombastic, but it's not overly cute either.

As the aviator, Lenny Haas projects a hard-edged skepticism that gradually evolves into a sense of wonder. Puppeteer Leila Ghaznavi has the perfect voice for the prince, convincingly childlike and suffused with curiosity, yet never annoying. And her fellow puppeteers are also terrific, especially designer Schupbach, who does a wistful turn as a wild fox that the prince must learn to tame.

The Little Prince may be too low-key for some viewers, but for those willing to concentrate and let themselves be transported to the prince's dimension of fantasy, it's a worthwhile journey.

The Little Prince runs through February 13, 2011, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices start at $31, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, online at www.brtstage.org, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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