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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Good People, Seminar,
Under the Whaleback and The Pirates of Penzance

A Separate Peace
Sharon Alexander, Denise Whelan, Julie Czarnecki and Jered McLenigan
Photo by Mark Garvin
Good People is a sharp and engaging comedy, but it could easily have been a tragedy. Its heroine, Margie Walsh, a middle-aged single mother of a mentally challenged adult daughter, has just been fired from a near-minimum wage job at a dollar store, and now she's desperately looking for a way to pay next month's rent. She seeks out Mike Dillon, an old boyfriend from their high school days three decades ago, hoping that he'll hire her or refer her to someone who will. But Mike isn't the same Mikey from the old neighborhood anymore; he's a successful doctor living in an expensive suburban home, and has clawed his way into a better social class. He's so far removed from his roots that his wife Kate has never heard any stories of Mike's youth. Before long, thanks to Margie, Kate will learn more than she ever wanted to know.

Good People is set in South Boston, a.k.a. "Southie," and is stocked with working class types that playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, a Southie native, clearly knows well. Even if you've never been to Boston, you'll probably recognize them too. (For Philadelphians, think of the denizens of neighborhoods like Kensington and Fishtown.) These are people with framed needlepoint on their walls and shamrocks on their refrigerators, people who spend their nights in bingo parlors, and women who have carefully crafted hairstyles but shabby housecoats. While Lindsay-Abaire pokes fun at Margie's pushy pal Jean and befuddled landlady Dottie, he does it with gentle, affectionate humor. The playwright isn't putting down these people or their class. But he's not above more biting treatment of the social strivers Mike and Kate: they've forced themselves to become connoisseurs of wine and cheese, even though they don't particularly like wine and cheese. Like so much of Good People, this rings true. And so does the big second act confrontation between Margie and Mike, in which the playwright asks whether their situations are the result of luck—bad luck for Margie, good luck for Mike—or the result of the choices they've made.

Under Bernard Havard's direction, all the performances seem authentic. Julie Czarnecki's Margie is both desperate and endearing, Dan Olmstead's Mike anxiously clings to his hard-earned status, and Danielle Herbert's Kate has a surface charm that barely conceals her unhappiness. Jered McLenigan is sweet as the boss who reluctantly fires Margie, and Denise Whelan and Sharon Alexander score a lot of laughs as the loudmouthed friends.

Lindsay-Abaire's play has a heroine and a villain, but it's not manipulative—Margie and Mike are not drawn simplistically, so our feelings toward them feel earned, not forced. Margie and Mike are more than just Good People—they're real people.

Good People runs through April 28, 2013, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 – $85, with premium tickets available for $175, and are available online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.


A Separate Peace
Matt Harrington and Rufus Collins
Photo by Mark Garvin
Like Good People, Theresa Rebeck's Seminar is a comedy with serious overtones that recently enjoyed a successful Broadway run. And like Good People, Seminar is very funny and perceptive. Its story—a quartet of young, aspiring writers enroll in a writing course taught by a "rock star" novelist whose idea of preparing them for the challenges of a writer's life is to heap abuse on them—may not resonate with as many viewers as Good People does. But don't let that put you off: it's a tremendously appealing play, and director Scott Schwartz's production is more energetic and well-defined than the Broadway production was.

Seminar works largely because of its sharply defined characters and its observations about what they will do to make it in a tough field. Douglas (Luigi Sottile) is an affected, name-dropping twit who turns out to have lots of talent and hidden reserves of strength. Martin (Matt Harrington) is outspoken and judgmental, but he's unwilling to show his own work to the others and face criticism himself. Izzy (Teresa Avia Lim) uses aggressive sexuality to get ahead when her writing fails her. Kate (Geneviève Perrier) finds that her privileged background and elite training may have sapped the life out of her work. And leading them all is Leonard (Rufus Collins), whose nasty (but uproarious) put-downs turn the competitive foursome into a team—but one that's united against him. Is Leonard's withering criticism turning them into better writers or destroying their spirits? Can they have success without compromising their ideals? And what's Leonard's deal, anyway?

Seminar is an interesting-looking play, thanks to Kevin Rigdon's handsome set and the myriad ways Schwartz arranges his actors across it. And Schwartz does a fine job of emphasizing the characters' teeming intelligence and shifting allegiances. There are strong performances all around, especially from Collins, who revels in Leonard's malice, and from Perrier, whose dry delivery and impulsive body language are delightful.

Seminar runs through April 14, 2013, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $46 – $59, with discounts for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420 or online at www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.


A Separate Peace
Brian Ratcliffe, Pearce Bunting
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev
Wilma Theater's production of Under the Whaleback is simply stunning to look at. It's set on a big commercial fishing boat, and Matt Saunders' huge set recreates both the deck of the boat and the sailors' quarters below. And thanks to elaborate hydraulics, the set pivots quickly and violently; when the boat is pummeled by waves, the ship rocks back and forth before our eyes. Together with Allen Hahn's stark lighting and Daniel Perelstein's rich sound design, it all adds up to a powerful physical experience—about as close to the experience of being in the middle of a tempest as you're likely to have indoors. But Richard Bean's play is so odd that even the set, the strong performances, and Blanka Zizka's focused direction can't quite save it.

Bean scored a big Broadway hit last year with his hilarious farce One Man, Two Guvnors, but Under the Whaleback is a different kettle of fish. This time, Bean has focused on the decline of the fishing industry in his hometown of Hull, England, and how that decline has affected multiple generations. The play has three acts (with an intermission after act two); each act takes place on the same boat in a different year. Most of it takes place below deck, under the whaleback (a sheltered portion of the deck that's designed to allow water taken over the bow to escape easily).

In act one, it's 1965, and we're introduced to Cassidy (Pearce Bunting), a legendary Hull-based sailor. Cassidy is a drunk who makes colorful statements about a sailor's life ("Houses – I don't trust them. Never have. I like a floor to move") and brags about the time he decked the Archbishop of York ("He had it coming"). In act two, it's 1972, and while Cassidy isn't around, the current crew still talks of his legendary exploits. But these merchant fishermen are mostly focused on staying alive; they're off the coast of Iceland, caught in a violent storm. It's all too much for Norman (Keith Conallen), a young sailor tortured by claustrophobia and paranoia who goes stir-crazy in the confined space. In act three, it's 2002, and the boat is now a museum docked permanently in Hull—a monument to a way of life that's now gone. Cassidy's son Darrel (also played by Bunting) runs the museum, and he's visited by a former shipmate's son (Conallen again) who has a violent streak and a grudge to settle.

Zizka's direction captures the terror and frustration of shipboard life vividly. But it's not a feeling you may want to wallow in. The play is so disjointed and sketchy that it can take a while to figure out how the characters in the different scenes are connected and what the playwright's point is. And in act three, the play takes a violent turn that is downright repellant.

The Wilma's production of Under the Whaleback is superb, but Bean's play just isn't worthy of it.

Under the Whaleback runs through April 7, 2013, at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street. Ticket prices range from $39 to $66, with discounts available for students, groups, or anyone in their 20s, and may be purchased by calling the Wilma Box Office at 215-546-7824, or online at www.WilmaTheater.org.


A Separate Peace
Nick Cordero and Cast
Photo: BRT Staff
Operetta isn't seen often at the area's major theatres, so Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance is a nice change of pace for Bristol Riverside Theatre. If the production isn't perfect, it's still good to see BRT doing something out of the ordinary.

BRT's Pirates boasts charismatic and well-sung lead performances from Nick Cordero as the Pirate King and from Patrick Dunn as Frederic, the kind-hearted apprentice who finds that leaving the pirates' world behind isn't as easy as he had hoped. As Frederic's love interest Mabel, Maria Failla boasts a beautifully pure soprano, although it's sometimes hard to make out her lyrics over the orchestra. She also doesn't project much personality; Samantha Kuhl and Erika Strasburg, as two of Mabel's six sisters, are much livelier despite having much less material. And a few of the supporting actors have voices that are not up to the score's demands, including Larry Cahn, who can't keep up with the fast pace of the show's most famous song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General."

Director and adaptor Keith Baker has added some clever staging bits that emphasize the characters' traits: the Pirate King casually stabs a man with his sword, while Frederic woos Mabel's sisters with Elvis-style hip swivels (as an electric guitar can be heard in the 12-piece orchestra). Jokey bits like this work well without disrespecting the source material, and they amplify the invention that Gilbert and Sullivan invested in their work, which premiered in 1879. (Baker also made some judicious cuts.) Baker's actors make entrances and exits through the theatre's aisles and play off each other with lots of gusto.

But, while it's easy to appreciate the effort that went into this Pirates, much of it simply hasn't aged well. Too much of the comedy is overly corny, labored and obvious, like the over-explained puns (pirate/pilot, orphan/often). The appallingly sexist treatment of Ruth the maid—she is repeatedly dismissed as old and ugly, even though the actress playing the role, April Woodall, is neither—is never easy to take. And the whole enterprise has an antiquated fussiness that has always made Gilbert and Sullivan hard for me to warm up to. But the audience loved this Pirates of Penzance, and if you're a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, you probably will too.

Julia C. Lee's set for act one is a simple silver wall with sheet music painted on; a few set pieces are added in act two. Linda Bee Stockton's colorful, richly detailed costumes make a nice contrast with the plain set.

The Pirates of Penzance runs through April 28, 2013, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Tickets start at $41, with discounts available for students, military and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100 or online at www.BRTStage.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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