The Siegel Column

The "Company" We Keep

As we head into the Labor Day Weekend we want to mention some of the great work being done by theater companies that wisely include the summer as part of their season. It may well be true that a lot of people leave The City in July and August, but New York is hardly a ghost town during those steamy months. If you need any evidence, just look at how fast the ATC board flies, especially on weekdays. Here is just some of the good work that's being done by theater groups large and small who service a grateful audience ...

5 Stars: Seven Guitars

The Signature Theatre is already on its way into a unique and wonderful new season. In the past, each year the company would regularly honor a single living playwright with several revivals of their work followed by the season finale, the production of a brand new play by that distinguished playwright. This year, to its credit, The Signature Theatre Company has changed its policy to honor the late, great August Wilson.

Currently on stage is one of Wilson's many masterpieces, Seven Guitars. Directed with loving care by Ruben Santiago-Hudson who won a Tony Award for his supporting performance as Canewell in the original Broadway production, this Off-Broadway rendition of the show is nothing if not more intensely intimate. From Richard Hoover's brilliantly detailed and enveloping set design to the purposefully flashy costumes designed by Karen Perry, this revival not only sounds right, it looks right.

Santiago-Hudson has assembled a world-class cast that is every bit as powerful as the original. They have a chemistry together that captures the sinew of life. All are worthy of praise but we'd like to single out Brenda Pressley who sparks the play as the knowing and cynical Louise.

August Wilson wrote a play that resonates not just with The Blues but with the pulse of the human heart. He is often referred to in terms such as "America's Greatest African-American Playwright." That may be true, but it also sets a limit on his humanity. He, like Arthur Miller, wrote plays on a large moral canvas. His plays, like Miller's, are about the big picture. And Wilson is every bit as great as Miller. Revivals like this will make that plain in time.

We understand that Seven Guitars sold out its original run, which was supposed to end on September 3rd. It has subsequently been extended through October 7th. It's summer's gift to the fall. Call the box office at at (212) 244-7529 for ticket information.

3 ½ Stars: Mr. Dooley's America

You can always count on the Irish Rep to provide entertaining theater. The company has a tendency to put on easier, lighter fare during the hotter months, and this summer is no exception with the delightful if slight Mr. Dooley's America. Based on the writing of late nineteenth century newspaper columnist Peter Finley Dunne, this is a slice of Americana with an Irish accent. You'll meet Dunne in the person of Des Keogh who introduces the character he created, a bartender/philosopher named Dooley (Vincent Dowling). In a bit of verbal sparring that will remind you of the battle between the creator and the created in City of Angels, specifically the song "You're Nothing Without Me," Dooley ultimately dismisses Dunne (who then reappears as Dooley's straight man, Hennessy). The play largely consists of Dooley's amiable delivery of homespun wit and wisdom to our modern audience. And damn if a lot of it still doesn't ring absolutely true.

This isn't so much theater as amusing oratory, but at the very least it's fascinating to learn that this newspaperman and his creation had so much sway (and say), first in Chicago and then nationally. Even more surprising is the strikingly liberal point of view that Dooley espoused. Dunne was not just a man ahead of his time; his creation was a character that helped shape the new attitudes that would finally prevail much later in the twentieth century. That's not just theater, its history. Summer school shouldn't be this much fun ...

Mr. Dooley's America runs through September 10. For ticket information, call 212-727-2737.

2 ½ Stars: The Horton Foote Project

A small and relatively new troupe called The Slant Company had the audacious plan to combine Horton Foote's Orphan's Home Cycle (a nine-play opus) into a single work they aptly titled The Horton Foote Project. The piece works (and fails) in fits and starts in its modest run at the 78th Street Lab. Most of the play takes place in a hallucinatory whirl in the mind of Horace (Stephen Plunkett), a young married man with a small baby. The year is 1918 and the flu epidemic is sweeping the world, killing even more people than the leaders battling during the last year of World War I in Europe.

What the Slant Company does occasionally capture is Foote's elegant simplicity. There is one particular scene that is handled with perfection. In his fevered state, Horace remembers the moment when he wooed and won his future wife (Amelia McClain). The scene breathes with reality as the two of them talk, each awkwardly fearing and wanting that first kiss. Beautifully acted in complement to Foote's exquisite writing, what a revelation that kiss offers when it finally comes. And what a revelation is Amelia McClain who plays a variety of roles with vitality and versatility.

The Horton Foote Project ran through August 29.

The summer is a wonderful time for young companies to put their stuff up on the boards. If nothing else, compared to the larger percentage of Fringe plays, these small, Off-Off Broadway productions look mighty good.

Barbara and Scott Siegel