Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Wittenberg, M. Butterfly and The Price

Three plays opened in Philadelphia this week - two modern American classics, and a new comedy that finds its inspiration in some classics from centuries ago.

Greg Wood, Shawn Fagan and Scott Greer
That new comedy is Wittenberg - a clever, funny, and hip play. In fact, it's practically a textbook example of a clever, funny and hip play. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much more than make you marvel at its ingenuity - it's basically an intellectual exercise with some punch lines added - but it still ends up being pretty entertaining.

Playwright David Davalos' fantasy takes place at the University of Wittenberg in 1517 and imagines a friendship between theology professor Martin Luther, philosophy professor John Faustus and an indecisive student named Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The fact that the last two gentlemen are fictitious doesn't seem to bother Davalos, for whom the classics are just a series of setups for jokes. Thus we see Dr. Faustus treating Luther for constipation ("My diagnosis is that you are literally full of shit") and planting the seeds of doubt in Luther's mind that give rise to the Reformation. Meanwhile, Faustus is giving philosophical advice to an uncomprehending Hamlet ("To be or not to be," says Faustus; Hamlet replies, "That is the question?"). And when Faustus sells his soul, everyone wonders what's gotten into him - and why he's grown even more devilish than usual.

It's obvious from the opening moments, in which Faustus uses a staple gun to attach a Xeroxed flyer to a door, that the tone is winking and playful; we're never meant to take any of this too seriously. That light tone, however, is at odds with the heavy subjects that the three characters' debate. The philosophical and religious questions are dealt with in an amusing but rather superficial way. That's probably because the playwright seems to have no point other than "isn't this interesting?" The premise gets a bit tiresome over two hours onstage. Moreover, the scenes with Hamlet tend to drag, and don't mesh smoothly with the rest of the play; the give-and-take between drinking buddies Luther and Faustus is much more enjoyable.

Still, Davalos racks up plenty of smart, quotable one-liners ("A philosophy degree is valuable every time you talk to yourself") and joking references to modern culture (Marlon Brando, John McEnroe and The Who are invoked). And it's a testament to the playwright's skill that Hamlet delivers all of his lines in iambic pentameter (during a tennis match, he declares "Aye, but 'tis not the size of the racquet but the bounce of the balls").

Director J.R. Sullivan keeps things lively most of the time, and he's helped by a hilariously broad comic performance by Scott Greer as Faustus. There's also good work by Greg Wood as Luther, Shawn Fagan as Hamlet and Kate Udall, who plays all the female roles with a confident aura which makes you wonder if, in this play full of intellectual men, she might be the smartest person in the room. And that may be the best joke of all.

Wittenberg runs through March 16, 2008 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $27 to $45 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-922-1122, online at or in person at the box office.

Unlike Wittenberg, David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly has more on its mind than just entertainment. Hwang's aim is more than to tell a seemingly salacious story - the tale, based on a true account, of a French diplomat who had a twenty-year affair with a Chinese opera singer, never realizing that his lover was a spy - or a man. Hwang also has a lot to say about politics, sexual and otherwise - messages that resonate strongly in director Joe Calarco's production at Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Hwang's objective is to take Western culture's clichéd view of the East - typified by Puccini's Madama Butterfly - and turn it on its head. As the exposed spy Song Liling says, lecturing a courtroom (and a theater audience): "You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men. That's why you say they make the best wives." But it's not just stereotypes of Asians that Hwang is out to subvert; the French Ambassador to China scoffs at his staff's attempt to be respectful of Chinese culture, saying "We don't have to be respectful - we're foreign devils." And then there are gender roles for Hwang to examine. The French diplomat Rene Gallimard is a meek bureaucrat, but his affair with Song gives him a confidence he had never known; trapped in a bloodless marriage and a faceless mid-level position, he finds himself suddenly "learning the benefits of being a man." When he finds out the truth, it's devastating - not just for him but for the person who deceived him.

The best part of this production of M. Butterfly is Christopher Innvar's tightly wound performance as Rene. With his impassive face and large glasses - just as much a mask as the makeup worn by his lover - Innvar hardly seems the hero of an espionage tale. (In fact, he looks a bit like Bob Saget wandering over from the set of "1 vs. 100.") But, as he did in the Wilma's Passion seven seasons ago, Innvar proves adept at conveying the conflicting emotions of an ordinary man who is overwhelmed by his own feelings.

Yet, while Rene comes across as a man of great passions, you never quite feel that he is passionately in love with Song. Telly Leung's turn as Song is part of the reason. Leung's "feminine" movements are unconvincing (right down to his walk), and his attempt at a high, breathy female voice is distracting; it sounds like he's trying to imitate Marilyn Monroe but can't hack it. While the point may be that Rene is fooling himself more than being fooled, it still would be nice for the actor and the director to make more of an attempt to be realistic. Oddly, Leung comes off as quite sympathetic in his scenes as a female; when he reveals himself as a man in the final scenes, his character becomes so obnoxious that he burns off that sympathy quickly.

Calarco's production is intensely theatrical. For the most part, that's good; the mannered movements of Song in the opening scenes and the striking set design of Michael Fagin heighten the drama. At times it can get too theatrical, though. The scene where Rene and his wife (Susan Wilder) end their marriage is played in too overdramatic a fashion.

Still, this is an effective production of a powerful and thoughtful play - a work that has a lot to say and has found, in this production, an effective way to say it.

M. Butterfly runs through February 24, 2008 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $46 to $58, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at, or by visiting the box office.

Robert Prosky
Finally this week, there's Arthur Miller's great 1967 play The Price, in an excellent production at the Walnut Street Theatre that stars veteran character actor (and Philadelphia native) Robert Prosky. Prosky plays Gregory Solomon, the wise appraiser who tries to make a business deal with two estranged brothers, played by Prosky's real-life sons.

Andy Prosky plays Victor Franz, who has spent 28 years as a New York police officer, sacrificing his own ambition to provide for his wife - and for his father, who was ruined financially in the Depression. Now Victor and his wife Esther have returned to the spacious attic of the family home (the impressive set design is by Robert Kramer) to sell off the remnants of their parents' estate before the house is demolished. Victor and his wealthy brother Walter haven't spoken in sixteen years, and Victor speaks of Walter bitterly. But when Walter finally does show up (played by John Prosky), he's hardly the monster Victor has described him to be. While they haggle over the price the appraiser Solomon offers for their parents' furniture, they also discuss the price that each of them has paid to live a satisfying life. "You wanted a real life," says Walter. "And that's an expensive thing; it costs." They also learn that their perceptions of the reasons for their family squabbles have sometimes been very different from reality.

As Solomon, Robert Prosky's role is basically comic relief - but what great relief it is. Speaking in an exaggerated Eastern European accent, he lands every joke perfectly. (The way he tells the 49-year-old Victor "You're a baby boy" is just marvelous.) John Prosky is animated, wiry and full of outrage as Walter, and Leisa Mather is warm and engaging as Esther.

Only Andy Prosky disappoints. In the central role of Victor, he's too detached; he spends all of act one wearing the same sour expression, and that prevents the audience from warming up to him. (It's easy to see why Esther erupts in frustration at him.) He does come through in the end, though, during the climactic arguments between the brothers in act two.

Michael Carleton's direction allows the drama to build naturally, but he seems in a hurry to wrap things up at the end; a revelatory moment for Esther seems rushed and doesn't allow us to savor her anguish. But those are minor flaws in a drama that builds up to revelation after gripping revelation.

"You're fortunate people," Walter tells Victor and his wife. "You know that, don't you?" So are we, to have the chance to see the Prosky family in this absorbing and moving production.

The Price runs through March 2, 2008 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $57.50, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at or, or by visiting the box office.  

-- Tim Dunleavy

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