Theatre Reviews

“The Realistic Joneses” Presented by New Century Theatre Company

Two couples living quiet lives away from the hurly burley of urban existence meet, have some strained conversations, reveal a few personal facts, and simply muddle through life. That’s it! That’s “The Realistic Joneses” in a nutshell. Charles Isherwood in the New York Times called the New York production “wonderful and weird.” Like oysters, it’s an acquired taste.

You’ll find no flashy denouements, no shockers. It’s just a play about four people trying to communicate, trying to rise above the fears, loneliness, boredom, and mundane realities of everyday life. Playwright Will Eno has crafted a meditation on contemporary existence. The only fireworks are distant and scarcely visible remnants from a celebration that these four characters note only in passing.

The Seattle production of “The Realistic Joneses,” directed by Paul Budraitis, plays out on Andrea Bryn Bush’s fascinating set. The two couples live in the foothills below a mountain town. Here the town is composed of toy houses high above a raw wood wall whose sliding panels delineate the homes of each couple. It’s minimalist yet effective. The set is almost as sparse as the lives playing out on stage, and the lighting by Evan Christian Anderson effectively reinforces mood and locale.

It’s a play about the loneliness and the mundane realities that are part of all of our lives. No matter, we just keep going on, surviving or attempting to. We reach out to others; we bring humor into our lives just as the people in this play do.

Sunam Ellis, Brenda Joyner, Peter Dylan O’Connor, and Evan Whitfield are most effective in capturing the playwright’s message—though life can be made miserable by illness, unhappiness, or meaninglessness, we all go on. We all carry loneliness but most of us continually rise above it.

Playwright Will Eno has been accused of absurdist intellectual humor. If that’s the sort of mind candy that pleases your taste, this is a show you will really enjoy. But if you prefer something a little lighter, take a pass.

Through July 1 at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, (253 906-3348 or www.wearenctc.org).

“Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at Arts West

Let it not be said that Arts West doesn’t take big risks. “Sweeney Todd…” Stephen Sondheim’s blockbuster musical cum opera is a major undertaking (no pun intended). It requires a large cast of outstanding singers supported by gifted musicians, an inventive set, and, above all, superb direction. It’s expensive to produce, and it doesn’t guarantee a packed House. So Arts West took a chance. And we all can be so glad they did! Under the direction of Matthew Wright and Eric Ankrim this production is terrific.

Christopher Mumaw’s spooky, grey set combined with Tristan Roberson’s eerie lighting design, take us directly to 19th C. London where Sweeney Todd, the psychopathic barber, cuts throats as well as hair. He’s been badly used in his past, and revenge is what he’s after. Sadly, he can’t retaliate against the corrupt judge who destroyed his family and ruined his life, so everyone and anyone else is fair game for his deadly knives.

Ben Gonio creates a wonderfully troubled Sweeney. He’s disturbed, moody, determined. There’s no sweetness in this revenge. His is a pathological quest. Assisting him in his foul business is Mrs. Lovitt, his landlady and vendor of meat pies. You can probably guess what meat is used for those pies. Corinna Lapid Munter gives her just the right heartlessness combined with a certain joviality and business-like demeanor.

The entire cast is up to the demands of this, the darkest musical ever written. First produced in 1979, it has been staged in major cities around the world and has been called “one of the signal achievements in musical theatre of the last fifty years.”

Matt Hohensee and Steven Tran get credit for the music in this production. Eerie, mood inducing, it sets just the right tone.

Finally we all have to give attention to the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim who has won more awards than any other contemporary American composer and lyricist. This is by far the darkest of his works. Dark yet mesmerizing. Kudos to Arts West for bringing it in such fine fashion to the Arts West stage.

Extended through July 7, Arts West Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle, 206 938-0339 or www. artswest.org.

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” at ACT

What’s a fella to do? His darling wife’s pregnant. His act as an Elvis impersonator is going nowhere. They need money. Would you believe he finds his fame and fortune as a drag queen? It may sound like an absurd concept, but it makes a dynamite show, and ACT and Director David Bennett seem to have found just the right actors and costumes to make it zing.

Adam Standley as Casey, the failed Elvis interpreter, reluctantly puts on the bra and girdle, slips into the dress and wig and finds a new life for himself when all seems lost. Of course he can’t do it alone. His guide and mentor in this metamorphosis is Miss Tracy Mills played with panache by Seattle’s well-loved Timothy McCuen Piggee. Miss. Tracy is just about as fey as they come. She knows exactly how to move her hips, put on her makeup, and cross her legs. She can lip sync with perfection, and is one sharp individual who knows how to create a success.

Standley, reluctant though he may be to make the transition, turns himself into quite a presentable babe. He sashays with grace in the highest of high heels and wiggles his hips with the best of them. Meanwhile, he’s afraid to tell his pregnant wife exactly what role he plays at the nightspot where his Elvis didn’t quite make it. By the end of the play, she enthusiastically embraces his success.

These actors are indeed awfully good, and their costumes by Pete Rush and wigs by Dennis Milam Bensie are unforgettable. Sixteen wigs in all are used in the show, most of them bouffant masterpieces and in a variety of colors. And costumes! Think sequins and satin; think ruffles, think over the top. And for those of us who aren’t familiar with the underthings that help make the sexual transitions appear real, this show is a learning experience.

Playwright Matthew Lopez has created a delightful confection. ACT has given it a topnotch production.

Through July 2 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org.)

“Busman’s Honeymoon” at Taproot Theatre

Trust Dorothy Sayers to come up with a delectable little murder mystery filled with humor as well as suspense. This one, written in 1937, concerns, of course, Lord Peter Wimsey the indefatigable gentleman detective.

In this confection, Lord Peter is on his honeymoon. He’s just arrived at the English country house he’s bought for his new bride. Mark Lund’s set works nicely to evoke the time period and the place. One can almost smell the slight mustiness that’s a hallmark of many such houses.

Naturally, the thought of solving a mystery is the last thing on Wimsy’s mind! But somehow, mysteries just seem to present themselves to him, and what’s a fellow to do but solve them? So he and his bride, she who writes mysteries, get to it. After conversations with the various assembled retainers and townspeople they learn exactly why the landlord is dead at the bottom of the cellar steps with his head cracked open.

Director Scott Nolte has assembled a fine cast, led by Terry Edward Moore as the wry but so wise Lord Peter. Alyson Scadron Branner is the not so simpering bride. She and Moore play off each other with wit and an obvious delight. Here’s a couple enchanted by their opportunity to start their marriage in collegial sleuthing. And lucky are they to be supported by a first class team of some of Seattle’s finest actors.

The play, itself is a bit dated, but it includes some lovely word play as well as a few surprises. Of course there’s a backstory, the details of which gradually leak out as the stage fills up with the large cast of characters. And you’ll not be surprised to learn that the Wimseys do identify the murderer.

The ending is interesting in that it reveals Lord Wimsey’s distaste for capital punishment, his discomfort at having a role in condemning a man to death. That’s an issue we are still wrestling with here in the United States. The last execution for murder in England occurred in 1964 just before such acts were outlawed.

Through June 24 Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206 781-9705 or taproottheatre.org.)

“Grand Concourse” at Seattle Public Theater

Faith Bennett Russell as Shelly. Photo by John Cornicello

Just as the Grand Concourse in The Bronx began as a magnificent boulevard and is now a distressed ribbon of concrete in a down and out part of that borough, the characters in “Grand Concourse” have fallen into bad times. Directed here by Annie Lareau, the play raises some interesting questions, most importantly, what are the limits of what we can do for others?

Shelley (well played by Faith Bennett Russell) is a nun who wears street clothes and lives a secular life. She runs the soup kitchen (designed by Jenny Littlefield) in which this entire play is situated and has begun to question the worth of her commitment. These doubts are something she talks to God about, limiting her discussions to timed intervals marked off by a microwave acting as an alarm clock.

Helping her is Oscar, the jivey, laid back, can-do Dominican young man who does the heavy lifting and chases away the neighborhood hoodlums. The captivating Tyler Trerise gives him loads of charm. He’s a good natured “Johnny on the spot” who lights up the set whenever he saunters in. Yet Oscar, too, is not without his moral quandary. For him it’s a question of love vs. lust.

Frog, the alcoholic, schizophrenic street person benefitting from the kitchen, helps out whenever he can. His is a complex character. He’s an educated man who hasn’t always been down-and-out, one who appears to be able to control his life but sadly can’t. Corey McDaniel plays him with subtlety.

These three have their little world in reasonable order when Emma (Hannah Ruwe) walks in. She’s sweet; she’s needy; she wants to help; she’s evidently undergoing cancer treatments. They bring her into their tight little circle. Sadly, in many ways she turns out to be the snake in the garden, such as it is. Hers is a role with many dimensions and she does it all well.

The acting here is noteworthy, and the set is effective. Yet the production seemed a bit static, in need of an emotional boost. That said, you will leave pondering the question of what are the limits of compassion?

Through June 11 at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 West Green Lake Dr. N, Seattle, (206) 524-1300 or seattlepublictheatre.org.