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ON CT & NY THEATRE

By Marlene S. Gaylinn CT Critics Circle / ctcritics.org OBLIVION Westport Country Playhouse Each season, Artistic Director, Mark Lamos, likes to include at least one new work. This time he has chosen a play about an American family that is very hard to describe. At first impression, “Oblivion” appears to focus on a rebellious teenager and her “open-minded” parents. Their defiant daughter is also a “freethinker,” but she chooses to follow a different path. Simply put, the play begins with a conflict, peaks with a surprise revelation, and ends in a kind of uncertain harmony. “Uncertain” is the key word, for there seems to be little purpose to what we have just seen because of play’s abrupt ending. We are literally left in the dark -expecting to learn what’s going to happen to this family next week. This formula reminds us of an “All In the Family” TV episode – which is not surprising, as Mensch’s daytime job is writing for sit-coms. But wait, that’s not the whole story. Beneath the play’s simple framework, there’s another level of expression to be considered. It’s Mensch’s philosophical ideas, sharp wit, and her use of symbolism that appears to be the most important factor. If you get at this, you’re okay. If not, it’s the writer that has taken on too much of a challenge. Whatever you think about the play’s structure and meaning, it’s certain that Carley Mensch takes this opportunity to tackle topics that may be too sensitive to discuss in mixed company. In fact, her characters are pretty blunt when they poke fun at the origins of religion. She targets hypocrisy, and the wide spread unquestioning of out-dated dogmas. The Mormons get a particular beating. September/2013 Well, criticizing religion is usually considered taboo -- even for outspoken, open-minded, Westporters – a community of special folks who never squirm with embarrassment over controversial subjects. However, under Mark Brokaw’s careful direction, we understand the characters and therefore their irreverent puns elicit lots of laughter throughout the production. Neil Patel’s set resembles a place of worship because of its high ceiling, enormous windows and colored, glass panes. At the same time, this large, living space could be considered a converted, warehouse loft. In any event, we get the feeling that what we’re seeing is a microcosm of society. With a minimum of props and creative lighting by Japhy Weideman, the setting magically serves as a family room, library, office, dining area and laundry. Kathie Broad plays the rebellious teenager, “Julie.” She’s disrespectful, her words are cold and sharp, and her insults sting like a bee. Aidan Kunze, Julie’s friend, is an Asian-Baptist named “Bernard.” Like the saintly dog, he follows Julie’s lead. Bernard’s ambition is to become a filmmaker. At times, Bernard also serves as the play’s narrator and Mensch’s thoughts are mostly expressed through Kunze’s admirably rendered soliloquies. Johanna Day and Reg Rogers are convincing in their roles as hypocritical parents whose “open minded” views suddenly change when it concerns their own daughter. Here, the playwright makes it clear that these characters are actually conforming elitists, bound by the same prejudices of the people they ridicule. When Julie arrives on the scene, after mysteriously spending a night away from home, the parents naturally fear the worst -- that their daughter is in serious trouble. Because of Julie’s evasiveness, protective instincts emerge, the defiant teenager issues

nasty insults, and the parents counter with lectures about lying. Dixon underhandedly discovers that Julie actually attended a religious retreat with Bernard and the daughter finally admits that she accepted Jesus as her savior (that is, for the time-being) – and so much for “openmindedness.” Never the less, the parents eventually simmer down (we don’t know why) and their fickle daughter returns to the family fold (for whatever reason you care to invent). That’s it! If anyone has the ambition to make sense of all this – perhaps it’s the fact that life does not have to make sense. It’s like the family’s viewing Bernard’s symbolic, movie-making at the play’s end. We continue to create our own fairy tales, desperately hoping that the film doesn’t split during the best parts, and that the show will go on forever. To sum up, this is an unconventional play about ideas rather than individual characters. There are no universal truths that can be agreed upon, and therefore the playwright cannot lead us anywhere – so be prepared to leave unsatisfied. Plays to Sept. 8 203-227-4177 “OLIVER” Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY The musical “Oliver,” contains some wonderful music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Add some professional actors, a large cast of children from Standing Ovation Studios (SOS), headed by Director/Producer, John Fahnelli and his wife Nannette (both have tons of experience working with young people) and Westchester Broadway Theatre (WBT) has another successful show. “Oliver” is based on “Oliver Twist,” a Charles Dickens book about a runaway orphan who encounters some interesting adventures and a very hard life among the street-smart characters of London. Like many of Dickens’s works, there are many characters and sub-plots that eventually fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle at the end. Unfortunately, when the novel is condensed into a musical, some important details suffer. For example, in “Oliver” the musical, we don’t learn much about England’s Industrial Revolution -- how the changes affected society,

and what motivated each of the characters to behave the way they did. Without reading the book, we cannot possibly understand the attitudes and complex family relationships of Oliver’s wealthy patrons with whom he eventually finds happiness. While the musical lacks cohesiveness, its main purpose is to entertain. In that sense, it cannot be denied that this show is packed with wonderful songs, lots of dancing, a gang of precocious children plus a few villains. Taken as pure entertainment, “Oliver” at WBT is loads of fun for folks of all ages. Of the many productions we’ve seen, Brandon Singel, a cute 6th grader at LMK Middle School, in Harrison, NY, is most outstanding in the title role. Trained by SOS, he’s spunky, moves well, and has a clear, strong voice. His sweet, innocent face and tender rendition of “Where is Love,” will surely move you. John Anthony Lopez as “Fagin,” is the appropriate father figure to his gang of starving, street orphans. He adds cartoon like amusement to the song and dance numbers “Pick a Pocket or Two,” and “Reviewing the Situation,” but does not become a fully developed character. There ‘s a lot of action going on at the same time and Fagin’s cultural background -- why he became trapped by circumstances and created his family of boys, is glossed over in favor of fun and frolic. John Treacy Egan is the sinister, orphanage director, “Mr. Bumble,” and Regina Singel aptly plays his friend, the “Widow Corney.” Lucy Braid powerfully sings her heart out as “Nancy,” in the haunting, “As Long As He Needs Me.” Her lover is Brian Krinsky, who plays a very cruel “Bill Sykes.” Christina Tompkins and John Caldara make a lively pair of funeral directors and Todd Ritch plays the Artful Dodger with charming finesse. Carrie Silvernail is responsible for the lively choreography and the orchestra is under the direction of Kurt Kelly. While the opening number in “Oliver” is “Food, Glorious Food,” which turns out to be gruel at the orphanage -- you can be assured that the menu of this dinner theatre does contain many glorious choices. Plays to Sept. 8 914-592-2225 Followed by “Kiss Me Kate” Sept. 12-Nov. 3