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Philadelphia Spotlight: February 2005

Beyond the Super Bowl logo
Catharine Slusar in The Syringa Tree
(Photo © Mark Garvin)
Philadelphia may be buzzing about the show the Eagles put on recently to earn a trip to the Super Bowl, but there are a whole host of other shows going on in the city that also warrant attention. It's a busy February among the area's non-profit theaters and as all weekend matinees in town begin at 2pm, you should be able to catch a bit of theater on Super Bowl Sunday and still get back home in time to watch the Eagles play the New England Patriots in the big game.

For two years we have been watching Neil Simon's young alter-ego Eugene Morris Jerome (the excellent Jesse Bernstein) grow up on stage at the Walnut Street Theatre. First Jerome suffered the travails of adolescence in the Walnut's successful production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Next he was off to boot camp in director Frank Ferrante's first-rate staging of Biloxi Blues. Now the Walnut completes Neil Simon's trilogy with Bernstein returning to play the appealing Jerome in Broadway Bound. In the delightful comedy Eugene is enlisted by his older brother to work as a writer on a popular 1950s TV show. Bound is perhaps the strongest of the three plays, and the production, which plays through March 6, should be a satisfying finale to the Walnut's staging of Simon's trilogy.

The Syringa Tree may only have one role, but it certainly doesn't play that way. Syringa, which was a surprise hit when it appeared Off-Broadway, is the story of two families and one extraordinarily diverse and volatile nation. For the play's Philadelphia premiere, which runs at the Arden Theatre Company through March 6, Catherine Slusar (under the direction of her husband Whit MacLaughlin) will portray all of Syringa's 24 characters, a daunting task even for a performer of Slusar's abilities. However while Slusar may be technically alone on stage, playwright Pamela Gien's words evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of South Africa with such convincing imagery that this most combustible nation is never far from our minds.

Philadelphia has a growing stable of talented young playwrights including Temple University graduate Tracey Scott Wilson, who last year won both the Kesselring Prize for playwriting and the Whiting Award for her play The Story. Celebrating its local premiere at the Philadelphia Theatre Company from February 4-27, the drama concerns a young African-American reporter investigating a murder. It's a great scoop, but is it true? Directed by PTC favorite Maria Mileaf, The Story examines racial prejudice and social politics while simultaneously exploring the sometimes hazy boundaries between fact and fiction, decency and ambition.

Not seen in this region for years, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? appears in a revival from the Luna Theater Company February 4-27. The winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and two Tony Awards, Albee often focuses on how the imaginary can supplant reality, an excellent example of which can be found in Woolf, which includes a child who ranks as one of the most fascinating unseen characters in theater history. An intrepid company whose resume includes both superlative work (their creative staging of Waiting for Godot) and considerable disappointment (the distressing Death and the Maiden) Luna has already shown an ability to penetrate Albee in an interesting revival of The Zoo Story. In Woolf, the long-married George and Martha verbally attack each other with a fervor that borders on abuse, yet there is a cathartic quality to their battling, an optimism that makes Albee's brand of absurdism uniquely American. Puzzling, disturbing and hopeful, Woolf examines the insecurities that fuel a dysfunctional relationship with both wit and considerable insight.

Act II Playhouse's hysterically funny production of The Big Bang is heading to Center City for a run at the Kimmel Center February 11 through March 6. Featuring exceptional performances from Ben Dibble and Tony Braithwaite, Bang is a ridiculous musical about two inept entrepreneurs attempting to find backing for what they describe as "the world's biggest musical." Sensationally silly and immensely entertaining, Dibble and Braithwaite's performances are the stuff of legend. If you couldn't get into Bang's sold-out run at Act II's tiny Ambler playhouse, this is your chance to see two of the most enjoyable pairings in Philadelphia Theater history.

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