The Gentleman Caller, by Phillip Dawkins. Directed by Tony Speciale. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Juan Francisco Villa, Daniel K. Isaac; photo: Maria Baranova
Interviewing youngish Tennessee Williams in St. Louis on November 10, 1944, journalist William Inge lets his baser instincts get the better of him and he brutally attacks the playwright whose first major play is set to open in Chicago one month later. By brutal I mean a sexual assault. Inge, a very closeted gay man lets it all out within a few minutes of the first act, than regrets his actions, apparently setting a patter for this play, as well as for his own real life. By Act II , new year's eve, and opening night of the play called "The Gentleman Caller" but soon to be better known as "The Glass Menagerie" the tables are turned and it is Williams who attempts to seduce and molest Inge. How much of this actually happened is open to question, but the results of their short-term romantic friendship changed Inge's life forever, opening the door for him to pursue his own dramatic course, leading to "Picnic" and "Come Back, Little Sheba," and a host of other excellent plays.
Abingdon Theatre Company's production at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York's Greenwich Village is ably presented on a fascinating set by Sara C. Walsh which lends itself to the magical imagery of Williams poetic utterings. Director Tony Speciale with the able assistance of Fight Direction/Intimacy Consultant Ryan Bourque brings an utter sensuality to the performances of Juan Francisco Villa as Williams and Daniel K. Isaac as Inge. And though Dawkins script seems to concentrate on Williams, he is really writing here about Inge and his emergence. Speciale keeps the balance alive and well through all the machinations of both men to dominate their situation. In this play there is a fine line between farce and pornography and Dawkins has managed to walk the line in ballet slippers that become point shoes now and then.
This is a fascinating imagining by the author, director and actors. Isaac, a Korean-American actor has a glorious voice and a set of mannerisms that speak volumes. He plays the mind of Inge more often than the body and the result is a character who moves us to tears as he lets his inner frustrations loose in the world of the theater to which he aspires.
Villa, in a much more open and showy role gives us the early stage of a mania that would support, then destroy, the talented Tom Williams whose early works were sheer genius but whose talents dissipated through alcohol, drugs and sex into the dreary inner monologues of monomania. Villa is so vital here, so exciting and so much a dominant force, that the response from audiences is almost a standing ovation every time he moves sensually around the stage.
This is a limited run at the Cherry Lane, so hurry downtown and see what will be a revelation in personal drama.
A Letter to Harvey Milk, book by Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer, Jerry James, based on the short story by Lesléa Newman; lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz and Cheryl Stern; music by Laura I. Kramer. Directed by Evan Pappas. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Turning the tables"
First of all, and this is why I'm writing this, you will be moved by this 88 minute long one-act musical. You will laugh, gasp, weep before its done. This is partly due to the material: the show is very good indeed. It is also due to the performance by Adam Heller who should be a star and if this show goes further he will be one, finally. He plays Harry Weinberg, a widower without a goal in life who signs up for a writing class at the senior center and by doing so meets a young lesbian who completely alters the course of his life.
His dead wife Frannie, played by Cheryl Stern, haunts him throughout the play and, like Elvira in Noel Coward's fine comedy "Blithe Spirit", is jealous of Barbara Katsef, the teacher who pulls from Harry not just a letter to Harvey Milk, but a personal, deeply hidden and deeply felt reminiscence about his boyhood in Nazi Germany.
Adam Heller; photo: Russ Rowland
It helps, frankly, to know a bit of Yiddish to completely grasp the irony in the lyrics, but Cheryl Stern's gestures help a lot in getting her hilarious points across. The song "What a Shanda" is the darkest piece in this line, but it is also a funny experience. She makes one devil of a ghost, by the way, but for all her negativity this character is a charmer.
Julia Knitel, as Barbara, is Stern's equal in the charm department and she is a superb actress who also sings delightfully. Barbara is a troubled woman whose failures have brought her to "teach" rather than to "write." However, as the story progresses she shows signs of hope and fewer moments of inner despair. She is the perfect new partner for Harry whose loneliness is exhibited in his nightmares.
The other four actors in the show play multiple roles and they handle them all nicely. I saw an understudy play Harvey Milk (who is not actually a character in this story, but. . .) named Ravi Roth who was terrific. The four musicians who play the show were excellent as was the simple but effective production.
Under Evan Pappas' direction the show flows and fills the stage and still remains intimate and personal. His success is certainly due, in part, to the performance of Adam Heller who is just terrific. He has captured the man he plays and lets him loose on the stage at the Acorn Theatre on 42nd Street to live and to grow and in spite of Harry's reluctance to relive his origins, he does so and the result is amazing.
This show has been extended to the end of June and I would strongly suggest you see it as soon as possible. You may want to see it again.
You can find information on both of these shows on line.