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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

God of Carnage, Steel Magnolias and
Hope Street and Other Lonely Places

God of Carnage
Julie Czarnecki and Susan Riley Stevens
Photo: Mark Garvin
In Yasmina Reza's quick-moving and quick-witted God of Carnage, two couples meet for a civilized discussion in an elegant apartment filled with sleek furniture and expensive books on art. Their sons have just had a violent playground encounter that cost one of the boys a couple teeth, and the two sets of parents have decided to work out an agreement that arranges for the boys work out their differences in a civil way. You know, like their parents.

Before 90 minutes are up, we'll find out that there's nothing civil about the parents. One of these grown-ups may be a lawyer, and another may be an author, but deep down they're savages when they get pushed to the limit. And once the superficial air of cooperation fades away, the battles begin. Small irritations turn into big ones. The alliances keep shifting: one moment the argument is couple versus couple, the next it's the men versus the women, and pretty soon it's one person versus the other three. These people can't even depend on their spouses for support; toward the end, one of the wives tells her husband "every word that comes out of your mouth is destroying me."

Did I mention this is a comedy? It is. And it's a really funny one, too. The cynicism of Reza's play (in a sharp translation by Christopher Hampton) can be a little too much to take at times, and there's a calculation to its outrageousness that is a bit too blatant. But the fun in the Walnut Street Theatre's production is in seeing these characters get their comeuppance. What starts as a squabble soon degenerates turns into a farce, and director Bernard Havard makes the most of his cast's verbal and physical dexterity, keeping the story moving in interesting ways.

Greg Wood is Alan, a condescending, sarcastic attorney whose ever-ringing cell phone is just one sign that he'd rather be anywhere else. Susan Riley Stevens is his wife Annette, who gets sick (literally) over Alan's attitude. Julie Czarnecki is Veronica, who spouts platitudes about "the art of co-existence" even though she's the most cutthroat of them all. Ben Lipitz is her husband Michael, a tough guy who gets antsy at the thought of touching a hamster. They're all terrific, mastering the intricacies of some exceedingly complex individuals. Robert Andrew Kovach's stylish, spotless set is the perfect backdrop for a fight that gets dirty in more ways than one.

God of Carnage is at its best when it shows people at their worst.

God of Carnage runs through April 29, 2012 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 $80, with premium tickets available for $150, and are available online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or by phone (800) 982-2787.


Steel Magnolias
Jo Twiss and Jennie Eisenhower
Photo: BRT Staff
Steel Magnolias is a funny play, too. Robert Harling's 1987 play about six Louisiana ladies who gather and gossip at a beauty shop has an easygoing appeal, and the likable cast of Bristol Riverside Theatre's production helps to make the show enjoyable.

Yet it's not nearly as good a play as God of Carnage. Steel Magnolias has its share of funny lines, but the best jokes are one-liners ("An ounce of pretentious is worth a pound of manure") that don't pertain to the plot or seem intrinsic to the characters. The tone established in the first scene is so light that when conflict arises between new bride Shelby and her concerned mother M'Lynn in scene two, the transition is clunky. And even though Harling's dialogue repeatedly hints that tragedy is on the way ("The doctor said she shouldn't have children," M'Lynn says icily), that tragedy seems less a natural development than a graceless, tear-jerking plot device.

But, thanks to Susan D. Atkinson's assured direction, the play's flaws aren't fatal, just minor annoyances. The cast lands all the laughs with ease and radiates a sincerity that helps to sell the play's problematic moments. Jo Twiss gets the best wisecracks as the beauty shop's bombastic proprietor ("I can spot a bottle job at twenty paces"), and Laura C. Giknis is a ditzy delight as her assistant. Jennie Eisenhower's sunny and spunky demeanor as new bride Shelby makes her journey through life worth paying attention to, and Barbara McCulloh has some good dramatic moments as the determined and dignified M'Lynn.

While the plot of Steel Magnolias is too bluntly manipulative, Harling does have a gift for creating women who are both realistic and larger than life at the same time. Bristol Riverside Theatre's Steel Magnolias provides a fine way to get to see these endearing characters and to see an excellent cast portray them with spirit.

Steel Magnolias runs through April 8, 2012, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Ticket are $30-$50, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available online at www.brtstage.org, or by phone at (215) 785-0100.


Proving that it's not always sunny in Philadelphia, Azuka Theatre's Hope Street and Other Lonely Places is a murky, earnest and dull play by Genne Murphy about people dealing with drugs and alienation on the mean streets of "Deep South Philly." Murphy's characters struggle with the scourge of heroin, while the audience struggles to care about the simplistic, stagnant characters.

Hope Street opens just after Denny, a winning young man with a seemingly bright future, has succumbed to a drug overdose. In the days after Denny's death, his mother Jeanette does nothing but grieve: over the course of four repetitive scenes, we see her sobbing while lying in bed, staring into space while lying in bed, and repeatedly watching a movie while lying in bed. Eventually Jeanette resumes her job at the library, thanks to some prodding from her other son Sam, a Temple University student. Meanwhile, Frankie, one of Denny's junkie friends, uses the death as a motivation to clean up her life. She tries to reach out to Jeanette, but that causes complications because Frankie and Jeanette were lesbian lovers as teenagers. And we also meet Frankie's friend Jack, another ex-user who works at a clinic providing clean needle exchanges. But now he's starting to slip back into his old addiction, which his loving and supportive girlfriend Megg doesn't notice until it's too late. (That's strange, since the foreshadowing is blatantly obvious to the audience.)

Hope Street is talky, but its dialogue doesn't reveal much about its characters. Playwright Murphy mentions neighborhoods like Kensington and Fishtown to add local color, but that technique doesn't take the play very far; if all the local references were removed, there'd be almost nothing of interest here. There are a lot of scenes, but little is accomplished dramatically; after two hours, most of the characters end up pretty much where they started. There's also a recurring theme referring to the characters' love of books (tied in with Jeanette's job as a librarian), but the theme never pans out and is dropped near the end. There's no urgency to Murphy's writing or director Kevin Glaccum's staging, and there's no reason to care about how these lives turn out. Most of the acting is too subdued; only Kimberly S. Fairbanks (as Jeanette) and Leslie Nevon Holden (as Megg) make their characters appealing.

Still, Thom Weaver's striking set design, which makes inventive use of scavenged doors, windows and metal frames, will linger in the mind. Janelle Kauffman's video projections convincingly bring a rainstorm and a fireworks show to life (greatly aided by Robert Kaplowitz's sound design). Christopher Colucci's gritty photographs evoke the harsh slums of Philly more eloquently than Murphy's words do.

Hope Street and Other Lonely Places runs through April 1, 2012, and is presented by Azuka Theatre Company at the Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $15 - $27 and are available online at azukatheatre.org or by phone at (215) 563-1100.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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