Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Muswell Hill, The Diary of a Madman and

Paradise Park

Victoria Rose Bonito, Seth Thomas Schmitt-Hall, Ahren Potratz, Sarah Moya and Madeline Iacobucci Photo by Paola Nogueras
Photo by Paola Nogueras
In Torben Betts' pointed and cynical Muswell Hill, everything is state of the art. We're in the kitchen of a "fashionable flat" in a posh London suburb, and everything looks beautiful—the hardwood floors, the sleek cabinets, the shiny appliances. And the people we meet keep up to date with the world around them, constantly checking their iPhones and laptops to catch the latest news and to communicate with each other. They're so busy checking their screens that they can hold entire conversations without looking each other in the eye. But when they put down their gadgets, communication gets tougher; these people even have a hard time keeping each others' names straight (is that Jessica or Jess, Matthew or Mat, Karen or Kate?). Villanova Theatre's production of Muswell Hill, an American premiere, brings sensitivity to this tale of people who are connected and disconnected at the same time.

Thirtyish businesswoman Jess (Victoria Rose Bonito) and her writer husband Mat (Ahren Potratz) are throwing a dinner party, but we know it's not going to be a smashing success when, just before the first guest arrives, Mat confronts Jess with his knowledge of her infidelity. The guests are a diverse lot who add to the sense of unease: Karen (Madeline Iacobucci) can't stop prattling on about her late husband, and Simon (Seth Thomas Schmitt-Hall) is an antisocial, anti-capitalist conspiracy theorist (Karen describes him as "good looking in a Ted Bundy sort of way"). Making a late arrival are Annie (Sarah Moya), Jess' 23-year-old alcoholic airhead sister, and Annie's lecherous 60-year-old fiancé Tony (Joe Guzmán). The night ends disastrously for nearly everyone, but not before all six are forced to face some hard truths about their relationships with each other and with the world around them.

Betts' characters have a lot of depth, and their flaws are revealed in interesting ways. Be warned, though, that these are all exceedingly self-absorbed people, and by the play's conclusion you may be fascinated by them while disliking them intensely. And the play's climax gets too predictably heated; a screaming match during the final scene seems to arrive on cue, as if these reserved characters have no choice but to explode. But for the most part, Muswell Hill is rich and rewarding. Harriet Power's direction keeps the tension tight while allowing the characters' quirks to shine through. And the performances are all excellent, although Iacobucci rushes through her lines so quickly that she's sometimes hard to understand. I especially liked Potratz's performance as the husband who treats his wife and friends with snide contempt until, in the play's final moments, he is confronted with his own failings.

Daniel Boylen designed a kitchen you'll want to move into, with appliances loaned by local retailer K & D Appliances.

Muswell Hill runs through February 24, 2013 at Villanova Theatre, located in Vasey Hall on the Villanova University campus in Villanova, Pa. Tickets are $21-$25, with discounts available for seniors, students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 610-519-7474 or online at

Daniel Fredrick
Photo by Shawn May
The Diary of a Madman is a play that gains more and more strength as its main character becomes more and more unstable. Director Alexander Burns' production for Quintessence Theatre Group takes a while to find its footing, mainly because the titular madman, a poverty-stricken Russian clerk named Poprishchin, is hard to warm up to. Daniel Fredrick's lead performance is initially pitched too high; his stylized mannerisms seem too pronounced at first, and some attempts at comedy (via three pratfalls) seem labored. And the rubber wig that he wears is so obviously fake that it's off-putting. But his tortured, overdramatic approach is suitable for the character. And eventually the force with which Fredrick attacks the role becomes undeniably compelling. When Poprishchin falls deeper into his mania in act two, Fredrick rises to the occasion, making the descent riveting.

In Nikolai Gogol's 1835 story (adapted for the stage by playwright David Holman with director Neil Armfield and actor Geoffrey Rush), Poprishchin is a "clerk of the ninth grade" who spends his days sharpening quills in a government office and his nights in a bleak, dingy attic. Everyone looks down on Poprishchin, and he is disdainful of them too. The only person who visits his attic is a Finnish maid who remains cheery, mostly because she can barely speak his language. But Poprishchin longs to impress the world, especially Sophia, his boss' delicate, beautiful daughter. His dreams of greatness become delusions of grandeur, and before long he believes he's Spanish royalty.

Burns' production has several nice touches that take us deeper into Poprishchin's bizarre world. The floor of Burns' set has a steep rake that seems symbolic of Poprishchin's skewed view of the world, and as the madman spins further out of control, the set spins too, finally breaking apart. And instead of writing his diary with one of those sharpened quills, Poprishchin writes it on a laptop computer. It's a clever anachronistic touch (the story is still set in the 19th century), making his plight seem relevant. (However, the live webcam video projected on the back wall, another interesting idea, is so jerky that it becomes distracting.)

Rachel Brodeur brings nice variety to her performances as the sweet, misunderstanding maid and the haughty, unapproachable dream girl. And Jamison Foreman sits at a piano at the side of the stage playing David Cope's score. Even though Foreman never speaks a word, Poprishchin senses him at all times, even shushing him once. When Foreman appears at the beginning of act two wearing the white lab coat of an asylum doctor, we know that Poprishchin's days of freedom are numbered.

The Diary of a Madman runs through March 10, 2013, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Tickets are $30, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling 1-877-238-5596 or online at

My wristwatch was running fifteen minutes slow the night I went to see playwright Charles Mee's Paradise Park, so I got to the theatre a little late. As a result, I expected to be confused, and sure enough, I was. Yet later that night, when I read the play (Mee posts all his scripts for free on, I was surprised to find that I had actually gotten there just after the lights went down and that I hadn't missed a single line of dialogue. So why was I confused? Probably because that's what Mee seems to have intended.

Paradise Park is set an amusement park where people have come to escape their worries. Some are there for the day, while some have been there for ten years. They're all searching for meaning in their lives, and trying to find it in the park's various attractions. It's a pretext for a series of scenes filled with Mee's trademark absurdity. A few examples: A husband dances to Latin jazz while his wife throws cardboard boxes at him. A pizza delivery man admits he committed a triple murder. A voice from a loudspeaker questions the nine-member cast on what the best qualities of a cheerleader should be, even though no cheerleaders appear in the show. And a ventriloquist has an intellectual discussion of theatrical theory with his two dummies (who are played by humans); in a nod to the most famous ventriloquist act ever, the three are named Edgar, Charlie and Mortimer. It's all symbolic of something, or rather it's symbolic of a whole bunch of things; some of it is meticulously explained, but most of it isn't explained at all.

All of this has a certain wacky charm, but the main plot threads never coalesce; the husband and wife who have misplaced their teenage daughter seem to be in a different park than the young couple making sincere but awkward stabs at romance. There are plenty of funny moments, but plenty of moments that fall flat too. The cast performs with gusto, although John D'Alonzo, who shouts most of his lines, has a bit too much gusto. (He plays a magician, or an angel, or something.) Directed by Tina Brock (who also plays that box-hurling wife), the production never slows down, and Anna Kiraly's set design, full of curtains and witty projections, is always interesting to look at.

I wasn't always entertained by Paradise Park, but I sure wasn't bored.

Paradise Park runs through March 3, 2013 and is presented by The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium at the Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. For tickets, visit

-- Tim Dunleavy

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