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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Shining City, History Boys and
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune


A Haunting Production of Conor McPherson's Shining City

Shining City
Alex Moggridge and Beth Wilmurt
SF Playhouse launches its 2008-2009 season with Conor McPherson's memorable Shining City through November 22nd.  The Irish playwright is one the finest dramatists of his generation.  This 90-minute drama is moving, sympathetic, inventive and absolutely gripping. Amy Glazer helms an outstanding cast of four actors who explore what it means to lose faith in God, in relationships and also in one's self. 

Set in present day Dublin, Shining City takes place in the office of Ian (Alex Moggridge), a former priest turned therapist. He is visited by John (Paul Whitworth), a middle-aged man who has recently lost his wife in a tragic accident.  John is having trouble sleeping because he has been visited by the ghost of his dead wife and now he is scared stiff to return home. Ian has his own baggage, including his sexuality, a new baby and a crumbling relationship with his fiancée Neasa (Beth Wilmurt).  Ian and John are trying to put their lives back together after the calamitous events of Ian's loss of faith and John's loss of his wife.

Paul Whitworth (many regional productions in the UK and USA) is superb playing a man worn down by lack of sleep who tells an eerie tale of wretchedness in a rasping voice, almost crying as he talks. Sometimes his sentences are only fragments with spellbinding, poignant convolution. This is a tour de force of acting. Alex Moggridge (The Beard of Avon, Threepenny Opera at ACT) splendidly portrays Ian.  These two fine actors display great chemistry in the first scene. Moggridge beautifully captures Ian's fretfulness when he has a brief sexual encounter with rent boy Laurence, played brilliantly by Alex Conde (recently graduated from the Jean Shelton's actor training program). Beth Wilmurt (4 Adverbs for Word for Word) is wonderful in her brief scene as Neasa. The encounter between Ian and Neasa is tormenting, not because of any physical violence but because Ian is unable to make peace with his inner self.

Director Amy Glazer moves the story forward with inconspicuous grace. Even the shocking ending is beautifully consummated.    Set design by Bill English is a perfectly messy but detailed Dublin apartment. Lighting by Kurt Landisman is wonderfully accomplished as the months change during the production.  Valera Coble's costumes of the Irish middle class are authentic.

Shining City runs through November 22 at the SF Playhouse Theatre, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets, call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.  Their next production is the world premiere of Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party opening on December 13th.

Photo: Zabrina Tipton


A Heads Up Production of Alan Bennett's The History Boys

History Boys
I give a round of applause to artistic director and director Ed Decker for allowing San Francisco audiences to see this Tony Award winning, amazing play.  Let's face it, this is a difficult play to present since it demands split-second timing by seven young men with Northern England and Sheffield accents.

I was fortunate to see The History Boys at the Broadhurst Theatre the night before it walked off with six Tony Awards, including Best Play. Transferring a very British play with an all British cast from London was a risky enterprise, but it charmed the New York audiences.

The History Boys is a brilliant literary highbrow drama, much on the order of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll. The almost three-hour play is stronger on mood and ambience than on actual plot.  It helps to know something of the English poets since there are debates on the merits of these men, plus discussions of World War II, Stalin and even the Holocaust.  Ed Decker has created a very good crossbreed of the English play; these seven lads get into the spirit of things and handle the difficult accents (a feat unto itself, accomplished thanks to dialect coach Patricia Reynoso).  Also, Ed Decker has cast the excellent actor Richard Ryan to play Hector. Some of the boys make little in the way of individual impressions, but that is mostly the fault of Alan Bennett's text.

Outstanding in one of those roles is diminutive Ryan Foster playing the incredibly poignant musical-minded Posner, who has a terrible crush on heterosexual Dakin.  His classic line "I'm a Jew, I'm small, I live in Sheffield ... I'm fucked," is delivered wonderfully.  Anyone who has had that feeling growing up in high school will identify immediately with this young man. His little vignettes from the films Now Voyager, Brief Encounter and The Seventh Veil are charming. Even his singing of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" to Dakin is very touching. James Breedlove is excellent as the charismatic Dakin, and his seduction scene in the second act with associate professor Irwin (Jeff Cohlman) is sensual yet intellectual. Jonathan Shue, who portrays the narrator and student Scripps, gives a smart performance sporting a good North English accent with just a little of the Liverpool accent thrown in. Zac Shuman is a real hoot as Timms, and his little zingers with his Sheffield intonation to the professor are droll. When trying to memorizing so much poetry, he retorts that what "most of the stuff poetry's about hasn't happened to us yet." Nic Knerr gives an engaging performance as the class non-intellectual, especially when he describes history as "one fuckin' thing after another." Bradly Mena, Juan Carlos De La Rosa and Christopher Morrell give polished performances as students cramming for the entrance exams. Morrell's enactment of a brothel and a World War I hospital in French is comic gem. You don't have to understand the language to enjoy this jewel of a scene.

Richard Ryan almost steals the show as the stout teacher Hector.  He is a gargantuan figure and an unconventional kind of teacher whom every student will remember to the end of their days. He crafts a sharper and more intentionally rationalizing character than Richard Griffiths did in the New York production. Yet you can see that he is fatally imperfect in many aspects of his somewhat lonely life.

Jeff Cohlman as associated teacher Irwin is cold and methodical in the classroom but a wilting wallflower outside of school.  He is especially touching when Dakin is attempting to seduce him.  Michaela Greeley as teacher Mrs. Lintott, the only female in the cast, gives a softer performance than Frances De La Tour in the Broadway production. She imbues the character with realism and sarcastic wit about the education policies in Britain during the 1980s.  Her monologue near the end of the play is excellent when she talks about the established view of history which tends to laud men while leaving women "following behind, with a bucket."  The last member of the playwright's academic staff is the Headmaster, well played by Stephen Schwartz. He plays the role like an opportunistic businessman rather than the head of a school.

Alan Bennett's invigorating dialogue and psychologically rich situations make for a very provocative evening of entertainment. Ed Decker once again proves that the New Conservatory Theatre Center can produce plays that are intellectually stimulating. The History Boy plays in the main theatre of the NCTC, located at 25 Van Ness just off Market Street and has been extended through November 8.


An Intimate and Poignant Production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Frankie and Johnny
Terri McMahon and Rod Gnapp
Marin Theatre Company kicked off its 2008-2009 season with this touching and cherished Terrence McNally play at their theatre in Mill Valley.  I first saw this early work of the playwright at the West Side Theatre in 1987 with a very young Kathy Bates playing Frankie and Kenneth Welsh playing Johnny. Over the years the two-character play has been presented in regional theatres throughout the land and in 2002 Joe Mantello mounted a Broadway production at the Belasco Theatre starring Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci. There was even a shortened version in a 1991 film adaptation by Paramount Pictures that starred Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Frankie and Johnny centers on short order cook Johnny (Rod Gnapp) and waitress Frankie (Terri McMahon).  These two lonely, middle-aged people tumble into bed and have fantastic sex (heard but not seen on a darkened stage).   He has found his soul mate and is ready to have a permanent relationship with the woman. She is far more cautious and unwilling to jump to conclusions.

As the night unfolds, both start to slowly reveal themselves to each other. They have a lot of baggage in their lives and they take tentative steps toward a permanent relationship. Johnny calls the late night disc jockey on a Manhattan radio station and requests the most beautiful piece of music for them, the third movement of Debussy's Suite bergamasque called "Clair de Lune."  This becomes a key element in the modern fairy tale.

This play requires two charismatic actors, and director Jasson Minadakis has found the most compelling performers to play the lonesome couple.  Ron Knapp (many productions in the Bay Area including Frozen at Marin Theatre) gives a terrific performance as the voluble and self-taught philosopher-cook who likes to quote Shakespeare.  He is cheerful and energetic in his performance, and maybe his character talks too much. However, as he says, he just can't help it since is so happy to find his true mate.

Terri McMahon (company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years) is perfect as Frankie. She plays the role as an introverted and guarded woman not sure if she is ready to commit herself to this garrulous man.

Frankie and Johnny is not really about sex, even with the sexually charged opening, but about the characters themselves.  The playwright's dialogue is brittle and literate, droll and poignant.

Under Jasson Minadakis' able direction, the story of the couple builds slowly toward its psychologically high-energy climax. Set design by Kat Conley is a wonderful detailed messy mid-Manhattan studio apartment with a working stove producing the smell of eggs frying during one of the scenes.  Lighting design by Michael Palumbo is excellent with light and darkness emblematically exposing the characters' vulnerabilities. Chris Houston's sound is essential, especially in the opening when you hear the orgasmic moans coming from the opened sleeper sofa, and then he reverts to quiet sounds of Debussy's exquisite "Clair de Lune."

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune closed on October 5th at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley.  Their next production will be Conor McPherson's Seafarer opening on November 11 and running through December 7.  For tickets call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Photo: Ed Smith


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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