Phil Horton in The Subject Was Roses(Photo © Catherine Taylor)
Phil Horton in The Subject Was Roses
(Photo © Catherine Taylor)
[Ed. Note: This is the second in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the fifth annual Midtown International Theatre Festival.]

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The Subject Was Roses

Frank D. Gilroy's 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Subject Was Roses is not the most natural fit for the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Although previous festivals featured productions of classic works such as No Exit and Richard III, this year's other entries have all been recently penned scripts, many of which are receiving their world premieres courtesy of the MITF. Still, Roses is a welcome addition.

Gilroy's play is a portrait of family dysfunction set in 1946, as Timmy (Phil Horton) comes home from World War II. He was not a particularly brave soldier; while he followed orders, he claims that the smartest thing he ever did was to not volunteer for anything. Upon his return, he is caught between his overprotective mother Nettie (Diane Shilling) and his withholding father John (Kenneth John McGregor), a successful coffee merchant. Each vies for Timmy's loyalty and affection as their marriage disintegrates.

Horton is terrific, commanding the stage with a boisterous energy. Although Timmy is frequently inebriated during the course of the play, the actor never overplays the drunkenness. McGregor has a rich, deep voice that is well suited to his character but he occasionally swallows some of his words. Shilling, whose quiet vocal tone contrasts sharply with those of the two men, is less compelling than her fellow cast members but still manages to bring out the loneliness and isolation that Nettie feels even when surrounded by her family.

Director John Capo keeps the pacing of the dialogue brisk but the production stumbles during overly long scene changes. Since this is a black-box staging without a fancy set, Capo could have improved the flow greatly if he'd paid less attention to the props and costumes and more to the show's overall momentum. The issues dealt with in The Subject Was Roses -- alcoholism, spousal abuse, and the reintegration of soldiers into society -- are still relevant today, and this production made me wonder why the play is not revived more often.

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Southern Gothic Novel

There's something strange going on in Aberdeen, Mississippi: Three young women have gone missing and a host of shady characters is lurking about the town. In Frank Blocker's multi-character solo show Southern Gothic Novel, the writer/performer pays loving tribute to the genre of pulp fiction, sprinkled with liberal doses of romance, mystery, and humor.

The tale revolves around Viola Haygood, a young teenager who falls in love too easily and treats every small question as if it were a matter of life or death. Blocker's Viola is prone to high-pitched screeching, which gets a bit tiresome after awhile. Fortunately, the writer/performer never rests too long on a single character; he morphs easily from one to the next, giving each a distinct physical and vocal persona. He is especially effective as Viola's mother Donna, whose calm, reasonable tones are a nice respite from her daughter's hysterics.

Blocker is an adept storyteller. Directed by Gabriel Shanks, he repeatedly shifts the perspective on the action to heighten suspense or to establish a certain mood. Blocker also possesses a charming stage presence and exudes a manic energy that keeps the show moving quickly. There are plenty of plot twists and red herrings here, all of that mystery affording Blocker the opportunity to showcase his ample talents and keep the audience entertained.

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Richard Todd Adams, Eric Millegan, and Cindy Marchiondain Insomnia(Photo © Ken Howard)
Richard Todd Adams, Eric Millegan, and Cindy Marchionda
in Insomnia
(Photo © Ken Howard)
Insomnia

Brad can't get to sleep. He keeps obsessing about his unproduced screenplay, his uncommunicative father, an insistent lesbian friend who wants to have his baby, and his nascent relationship with a cute guy he met in a museum. Insomnia, with book, music, and lyrics by Charles Bloom, takes a peek into Brad's life during one sleepless night.

Richard Todd Adams, as Brad, displays a powerhouse of a voice with an ample range. His acting is not as strong as his singing, however, and he often indicates the emotions he is supposedly feeling. Still, you can't fault his stamina as he remains onstage for almost the entire 100-minute, intermissionless show, singing at least part of nearly every song.

Bloom's consistently engaging score seems heavily influenced by the work of such great musical theater composers as William Finn, Stephen Sondheim, and Cole Porter. Highlights include the Porter-esque "An Ordinary Guy," smoothly sung by Brad's love interest, Dan (Christopher Sloan); and the father-son duet "All I Ever Wanted," nicely performed by Adams and Charles Karel as Brad's father, Jack. "Nick's Song" is the comic gem of the show; it features the talented Eric Millegan as Brad's not-yet-conceived son Nick, along with Adams and Cindy Marchionda as Linda.

Allison Bergman's direction is energetic but her choices don't always suit the material. There's one moment that practically cries out for Brad and Dan to kiss but, instead, they merely hug awkwardly. This is not the best way to show the couple's budding romance. The production's main drawback, however, is the musical's book; some conflicts are resolved far too easily while others take such quick turns as to be unbelievable. For example, it's established that Brad and Dan's relationship is in its early stages but, when they meet up later in the show, Dan announces that he's got a job offer in Paris and pressures Brad into making a decision about the two of them. The situation comes across as rushed and overly melodramatic. Bloom's dialogue could also use some work as it lacks the pep and zip needed for a successful musical comedy.

Despite such imperfections, Insomnia demonstrates a lot of potential. Bloom is a composer to watch but, in the future, he might want to consider getting someone else to pen the scripts of his musicals.

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Delilah

Although it's based on a familiar Biblical story, the musical Delilah is an incoherent mess. Featuring book and lyrics by Robin Brownfield and music by Ken Durland, the show quickly loses focus; the order of events is unclear as some scenes seem to be flashbacks. Other scenes depend upon knowledge of offstage occurrences that the show fails to elucidate.

As the title character, Uzo Aduba has a beautiful voice and strong stage presence. However, Carl Dowling as Samson cannot even hold a tune and is completely unconvincing as a hero who supposedly killed 1000 men. Chris Donovan makes a strong initial impression as an enslaved Israelite in the show's opening number but his lackluster acting prevents him from scoring in his meatier role of Ya'ir, Delilah's husband.

Seth Duerr's sloppy direction fails to clarify the action. Particularly incomprehensible is a scene that has Delilah lovestruck in Ya'ir's arms as her best friend, Zuleika (Ann Weisbecker), obliviously informs Delilah of her own engagement to Samson. The reunion with Ya'ir and the meeting with Zuleika should be two different scenes in order to establish Delilah's relationship to both characters; instead, they are smooshed together in a semi-farcical manner that simply doesn't work. The production also attempts to tell the story as a heavy-handed parallel to current political events; there's a lengthy closing speech about terrorism, just in case the audience had missed the not-so-subtle hints earlier in the show.

The almost entirely through-sung score aspires to pop opera status in the tradition of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. Both the music and lyrics are fairly uninspired, although sections of the opening number "Life Is Fine" and Delilah's solo "Killing in the Name of God" show promise. Overall, the show is a pretty dismal affair.

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Michael Mack inHearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues)
Michael Mack in
Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues)
Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues)

In the Bible, there are several accounts of various saints who hear voices and engage in seemingly irrational behavior, such as going forth naked into the wilderness. In his solo show Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues), Michael Mack asks the question, "What's the difference between the lives of the saints and the life of my mother?"

One day, when she was in her late 20s, Mack's mother Anne cut off her hair and proclaimed that she was the Virgin Mary. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was shunted in and out of institutions so often that, according to one anecdote, Mack and his siblings didn't even bother to stop watching TV in order to greet her upon one of her releases from the hospital; it was just part of the family's normal routine.

Mack uses a variety of narrative strategies to tell his tale. Not all of them work. A section of the show performed in the style of Groucho Marx falls flat and another section in which Mack recalls his earliest memories of his mother's illness never quite comes together. Yet the beauty of the writer-performer's language shines through as Mack gives an amazingly detailed account of a visit that he and his father paid to Anne at one of the institutions where she was being treated. Another sequence, "The Gospel of Saint Annie," makes effective use of faux-scriptural wordplay.

Although the subject matter of Hearing Voices is obviously very personal, Mack rarely engages emotionally with either the material or his audience. Oftentimes, his writing is more impressive than his actual performance, which is hampered by long pauses between scenes.

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[For more on the Midtown International Theatre Festival, click here.]