Night and Her Stars by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Eric Peterson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"They were good days; make no mistake."
Shawn J. Davis and Carleton Carpenter in rehearsal; photo: Robert Sugarman
How many men does it take to make a really good man? Start with intelligence, stir in intellect, add a bit of humility and a nattering of morality, throw in a pinch of humanity and heat up with handsome features, a good body and eloquent hair and what do you have? The impossible dream it would seem. In the 1950's all of these elements existed, split among a dozen men who appeared as often as possible on television’s quiz shows. Some, like Herb Stempel, were unattractive savants with miserable lives but transforming brains, men who could remember everything and sort it out quickly from those steel trap brains of theirs. Others, like Charles Van Doren, could channel Don Juan, ignite cigarettes with only their smiles and still spout poetry and history and solve math problems with transcendent grace.
When the game show "Twenty-One" pitted these men against one another sparks lit up the airwaves and the pulse of the nation speeded up for a while. But then it all changed. Stempel lost his agonizing attraction and Van Doren became a morning pedant. These two, who had combined passion and intelligence, charm and a touch of madness, almost made that historic single person in the minds and hearts of the American public. But when scandal broke around these shows and their own participation became a question mark in the press and in congress the world we knew changed drastically. So did the players.
Richard Greenberg’s play "Night and Her Stars" deals with this situation. Never a playwright to avoid problems, the author of "Take Me Out," "The Velvet Hour," "Three Days of Rain," and "Eastern Standard" sets his sights on the conflicts within Stempel and Van Doren as well as the conflict between them that sparked so much of the trouble. In its current production at the Oldcastle Theatre Company’s soon-to-be-lost home space in Bennington, Vermont, an odd thing has happened to the play itself. Director Eric Peterson has created around an extraordinary cast a new problem - focusing the play.
From the final scene’s sentimental look at lost idealism we should be clearly dealing with the sadness and the destruction of Charles Van Doren and the play should be giving us the costs of fame and fortune when a wholesome scholar betrays his background to become a media darling. However through the performance of the actor playing Herb Stempel the play has been transformed into a single-thread irony concerned with the valueless appropriation of a genius savant with personality disorders. This, and the strength it achieves in the superb performance by Matt Malloy as Stempel, throws the play into a careless careening imbalance. And somehow, that’s just fine. As the characters are caught off-balance so is the audience. Greenberg in the hands of Peterson has created something to talk about!
Peterson’s entire cast takes on the play with verve and drive and a deep understanding of the flaws and the power each character is endowed with by the author. TV producer Dan Enright, who sometimes narrates the story unnecessarily, is played with weird mental lapses by Bill Tatum. If the character is written that way it is a disconcerting technique. If the character is being played that way because Tatum doesn’t have his lines down pat it is upsetting. Either way the man emerges as a person of interest who is struggling with his story and his part in it. This is fascinating and it enlarges the character of Enright, making him less manipulative and more a flawed man trying to protect his interests at whatever cost. Tatum plays to that image and makes it work.
As his partner in TV and crime Richard Howe gets to be very New York Jewish as Al Freedman. He handles this well and keeps the voice of reason going throughout the show. Ron Nagle, in multiple roles including TV host Dave Garroway, shows off his abilities to transform himself nicely. Peter D’Arcy Langstaff does a fine job as Jack Barry and also plays a congressional investigator with a shadowy hauteur that seemed just right for the man and the time.
Melissa McCloud Herion plays her multiple characters very nicely and manages to imbue each one with enough new character traits to keep herself out of the play and her characters primary. Sophia Garder makes a personal triumph out of Toby Stempel, the sad, damaged wife of Herb. She has the quiet moments of the play and she sounds her own trumpet deep within them, just enough brass to hold the center of attention but not so much triple-tongue technique that she steals a scene from Malloy as her husband.
Shawn J. Davis and Matt Malloy are Charles and Herb. I find it hard to talk about one and not the other here. Davis makes nervousness into a one-act play but Malloy makes the word manic solid and whole and expressive. While Davis defines his Charles through facial expressions and subtle body language that seems to keep him permanently immobile yet flexible and loose, Malloy uses his right hand and his face and his chest to create a bi-polar person whose incessant babble is nothing short of explosively brilliant. Malloy can make chatter into cacophony for one voice. Davis takes the half sentence to new heights of expressivity. Both men have such specific syndromes that when they both speak simultaneously late in the play it is as though that single man was being created in front of us; their individual traits disappear for a moment and a new personality emerges.
Playing Mark Van Doren, Charles’ father, and a few insubstantial others, is Oldcastle regular Carleton Carpenter. Without him the final scene, the play’s announced "coda," would be sad, but with him on a bench with Davis playing his son there is that transcendent miracle that the theater can provide: a scene so real and so human that the impulse to reach out and embrace both men is almost irresistible. In the film on this subject Mark did not emerge as a very subtle, warm or human creature, but in the hands of the Abba-Dabba-Honeymoon actor the elder Van Doren is as close as we can come to the perfect man, the combination creature.
Kenneth Mooney’s set and costumes work well for the play and most of Keith Chapman’s moody lighting does also. Eric Peterson has provided a delicate coda of his own to his eighteen year residency in this theater (this is reportedly his final production there) and it’s not one to miss.
Night and Her Stars plays at the Bennington Center for the Arts, Route 9 at Gypsy Lane in Bennington, Vermont through October 9. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-0564.