Warning: Might actually be a play

By John Lyle Belden

They tried to warn us.

Some years ago, New Hampshire teacher Alan Haehnel wrote “15 Reasons Not to Be in a Play” to give our youth something of substance beyond “I don’t wanna!” when asked if they would like to be in a school play. That wasn’t enough, as some kids apparently enjoy being on stage, so Haehnel also wrote “18 More Reasons Not to Be in a Play.” And kids have used it – as a play.

Now the complete edition, Haehnel’s “30 Reasons Not to Be in a Play,” appears in Playscripts archives, and Main Street Productions’ “Rising Star” director Tanya Haas has taken the bait. In a two-hour diversion, which its participants insist is not a play, 19 talented local kids – second grade to senior – present this important (and hilarious) PSA at the Basile Westfield Playhouse.

The brave children recruited to this cause are Harrison Gapinski Coon, Ella Crites, Clayton Crocker, Livy Crocker, Blake Fortier, Dylan Fortier, Sammy Geis, Mia Gordon, Neil Hackman, Isabella Hasseld, Owen Hilger, Anastasia Hobbs, Tatyana Hobbs, Liv Keslin, Annalisa Schuth, Amaya Smith, Mason Yeater, Owen Yeater, and Quinn Yeater. I list them all because they all had lines and moments in the spotlight, and due to repeated family names, I’ll refer to them by their first names from here on.

Neil opens with the most simple reason — just two words — but as adults watching need more context, the list continues. Maybe it’s that certain teacher (Ella) or overbearing relative (Amaya). Mia reveals it could be her cell phone, or an allergy, or her mom (Isabella)’s camera, maybe just someone (Quinn) jumping the “cue.” Perhaps Liv would rather be an auctioneer? Maybe it’s growing up with Sammy, who still wants to play a fairy. Could it be Owen’s dreamy eyes? Or bumping into equally handsome Mason at the cast party? Do we have to bring Neil out again? Amaya has other simple, profound reasons, which she may have to explain.

The most entertaining – if this were indeed a “play” – is the dramatization of The Legend of Mort! (Mort… Mort… Mort…). The story is told by Isabella, with unnecessary color commentary by Owen (Ella, Mia and Amaya providing discipline); Mason as the famous Director Frankenburg; Harrison as the appropriately creepy Gordon; Sammy, Anastasia, and Tatyana as enthralled Actors; Blake, Dylan, and Clayton as the chorus of Echoes (echoes… echoes… echoes…); and Owen as ill-fated Mort, demonstrating that being a slacker and method-acting don’t mix.

Finally, if other reasons don’t suffice, the entire cast comes out, led by Harrison, to explain how a play could end civilization as we know it!

We’re convinced: One of the best reasons to go to a play is “30 Reasons Not to Be in a Play.” Performances are this weekend and Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 7, at 220 N. Union St., Westfield. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

Belfry sets a place for you

By John Lyle Belden

What’s the most important room in the house?

You might answer the kitchen, as that’s where the food is; or the living room, as that’s where the TV is; or, of course, the bathroom for obvious reasons. But the play “The Dining Room,” a comedy by A. R. Gurney, makes a case for this often-overlooked (if you even have it) space that was a stoic witness to change for middle-class America through the 20th century.

In the Belfry Theatre production, occupying the Switch Theatre in Fishers through Jan. 30, seven actors show us 18 scenes through 40 years (1939-79) with one nice but not quite antique table and set of chairs. Though it finally goes on the market in the era of Disco, this house is mostly home to members of a single family. They wouldn’t consider themselves wealthy but are well-off enough to have at least a cook and maid, at least in the early decades.

The fourth wall (French doors, we are told) becomes our window into their lives, as even in the stuffy past, there are youngsters looking towards the new while elders cling to the best of what has been. As the scenes bounce back and forth through the years, parents become grandparents, children become parents, and there’s always something we really shouldn’t talk about at the table.

The ensemble of Mia Gordon, Jennifer J. Kaufmann, Tim Long, Jeff Maess, Tom Riddle, Addie Taylor, and Debbie Underwood splendidly take on what must be a fun acting exercise, inhabiting the various ages and characters – only one is an actual youth, so “child” roles take on extra charm as the older hands truly commit. Under the direction of Diane W. Wilson, the scenes flow easily into each other, sometimes having a person or two from one era sharing the space with oncoming folks from another, making the room, in a way, timeless.

Though real tensions and drama sometimes pop up, this play is mainly a gentle comedy, the kind of feel-good family portrait that we can use about now. Even if we aren’t mid-century WASPs, we can feel a sting of familiarity in dealing with relatives in changing times. And it’s good to find something to laugh about, or at least knowingly smile, in it all.

Find the venue at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D (note there is street construction in the area). Find info and tickets at www.thebelfrytheatre.com.