July's Players of the Week
Much Ado About Nothing's Kristen Johnston is one of Filichia's four Player of the Week choices for July.
You don't have to be a performer to be a Player of the Week; you can be a director, too, which is why I choose Carl Forsman. He directed a Thornton Wilder double-bill that began with my beloved The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. This one-acter is set in the early 20th century; Ma, Pa, Arthur, and Caroline plan to visit daughter Beulah on the biggest trip that the family has yet dared in that new-fangled invention, the automobile. Ma, though, won't let Arthur in the car if he isn't wearing his hat. Luckily, he finds it, and they're on their way. They have to stop as a funeral goes by and Dad takes off his hat out of respect. Arthur mentions a "rest room" and the other family members are aghast that he doesn't use the more rarefied term, "comfort station." Along the way, the family literally stops to smell the flowers (and pick a few, too). When Ma doesn't know the answer to her children's questions, she firmly expects that Pa will. Later, when a decision must be made, Ma tells him, "Pa, you know best." Yeah, those were simpler times. Bless Wilder -- and Forsman -- for reminding us of them.
Though Forsman had another Wilder on hand, he didn't opt for the expected intermission but just plowed ahead with Pullman Car Hiawatha. This one also involves travel, but by train. Here, we meet a hypochondriac, a mentally unstable patient on his way to an asylum, and someone who's worried about his hot water bottle. Everyone on the train is terribly irritable, even though this was long before cell phones invaded railroad compartments. One of them turns out to not be overreacting to her plight, and the ending of the piece is a powerful surprise. Both plays underline the theme of Wilder's much more famous Our Town: that we should treasure "ordinary" days. But there's nothing ordinary in the way that Forsman directs. He always does sensitive and exemplary work with his Keen Company, whose mission is to "produce sincere plays" that are "generous in spirit." Nevertheless, he'll be helming that notorious play about Boston's Cardinal Law (who looked the other way as his priests molested boys) for a run in October. Nothing wrong with an artist stretching himself, right?
July's second Player of the Week is Kristen Johnston as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Johnston is this generation's Eve Arden -- though, in the scene where she tries to overhear how Benedick loves her and crowded two grape stompers in a vat, she winds up looking a bit like Lucy Ricardo while she was in there with them. Before that, she's wonderfully resolute in explaining why no man can possibly reach her standards and funny in her matter-of-fact quip that she won't marry because "Adam's sons are my brethren, and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred." She's nifty in the look she gives Benedick when she sees through his ruse at the ball. (That doesn't happen much in Shakespeare, does it? People in the Bard's plays never seem to be able to recognize anyone wearing a mask.)
Maybe Benedick can't endure Beatrice's tongue, but I sure can savor Johnston's. Yet I was also impressed by her acting when she suddenly turns vulnerable when explaining herself to Don Pedro and, later, when she meekly apologizes, "I was born to speak all mirth and no matter." My favorite moment occurrs immediately after Benedick decides that he loves her and spots her on a balcony. As he extolls how "fair" she is, Johnston lopes and clops down the stairs in a most ungainly fashion. Her steps are sure-footed, and so is her performance.
July's third Player of the Week is a player who'd only been with his show for a week when I saw it, but you never would have known it. Hearing that Roger Bart was taking over for Chris Kattan as Xanthias in The Frogs, I figured I'd better make other plans for the night of July 21, when critics were scheduled to attend the show. Certainly the production would have to postpone to give Bart enough time, no? Well, in fact, no. When I attended on that date, I was astonished at how well prepared Bart was. I'll grant you that he may have had a leg up on the show by knowing the opening number in advance. After all, by this time in our lives, which of us doesn't know "Invocation" from either Putting It Together or the Frogs CD that was released three years ago? (Connoisseurs who have in their possession the demo of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that Sondheim made 43 years ago know it from there, too: It used to be the opening number of that show.) But aside from "Invocation," Bart had a great deal of material to learn in a hurry.
With his porcupine hair and squinty eyes, Bart looked as if he'd just got out of bed. But wouldn't your eyes be squinty if you hadn't slept -- and there's no reason to believe, given his command of the material, that he slept a wink after he signed on. Granted, there's a long stretch in the second act when Xanthias is off-stage, but I'm sure he wasn't sleeping then, either. No doubt he was memorizing his role and going over his blocking.
Bart may have taken the role of a slave but he proved he was a master of comedy and the patter song. He showed expert comic timing when he waited j-u-s-t long enough before asking Lane, "By Frogs, you don't mean the French, do you?" How well he maneuvered around a circle of dancers while pulling a sack much bigger than the one Santa must lug when he's starting out on Christmas Eve! By his own admission, his role is that of a second banana; still, Bart made the best last-minute save since Liza Minnelli came in to rescue Chicago. I may be reading something into Nathan Lane's super-sincere delivery when he tells Bart "Thanks for going with me on this journey" and "You were born to play this part." But, on second thought, I bet I'm not.
July's fourth player of the week is in After the Fall. Peter Krause? No. Carla Gugino? Well, she's terrific playing the Marilyn Monroe figure in Arthur Miller's life, but I'd instead like to mention Mark Nelson as Lou. Part of this is a sentimental choice, for I first saw Nelson in 1978 as a harried defendant in an Off-Off-Broadway production of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, a play about the '50s blacklist. Now, 26 long years later, he's still here -- and, ironically enough, again playing a harried man who's being persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Oh, at first he tries to put an uncaring laugh in his speech as his world begins turning upside down, but just the way he jumps when he hears his wife coming into the room shows that he's frightened for his life -- especially when he runs to her as if he were a tot running to his mother. His eyes constantly dart around as if to express that he expects something horrible to come from each of the four corners of a room. His mouth is a grim line of anger, his fingers constantly rub each other in nervousness, all in support of Miller's eventual plan for this character: suicide.
I will admit that, given the comparative brevity of Nelson's role, I worried that I should have chosen Gugino as Player of the Week. But when I got to work the day after seeing the show, my editor said, "Have you seen After the Fall? Do you know who I liked in it? The guy who played the one hounded by the blacklist." She's got good taste.