‘Curious’ and charming comedy in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

If you are around stages long enough, eventually a community theatre will mount “The Curious Savage.” This 1950 gem by popular screenwriter and playwright John Patrick was maybe a little too sentimental for more than a premiere run on Broadway over 70 years ago, but contains a rich variety of themes and subtleties (starting with its title). It is also a gift for a neighborhood playhouse with its single stage set and nearly a dozen fun and interesting characters to perform. Thus, it arrives with Main Street Productions in Westfield.

On a typical day in post-WWII America, we meet people who are intelligent, friendly and a bit eccentric. At The Cloisters, a mental institution, this is the wing of those needing the least supervision. Something is a little off about each of the patients – something that if resolved could lead to their exit. But they take comfort in their present home, and eagerly await a new arrival. Miss Willie (Rachel Pope), the nurse, sends them to their rooms, as head psychiatrist Dr. Emmett (Tom Riddle) brings in Mrs. Ethel P. Savage (Tanya Haas), looking like a normal older woman of the era, carrying a huge teddy bear. She has been committed by her step-children – U.S. Sen. Titus Savage (Steven Marsh), socialite Lily Belle Savage (Jan Boercherding), and Judge Samuel Savage (Ian A. Montgomery) – who claim she has been acting too irrationally since her husband (their father) died. Ethel insisted on becoming (gasp!) an actress, and even worse, wants to take the millions of dollars she inherited and start a foundation to give it away.

After the relatives depart, the inmates (who had been eavesdropping) introduce themselves. Fairy May (Phoebe Aldridge) is gregarious and thoughtful, and constantly embellishing “facts” about her life. Hannibal (Thom Johnson) is a statistician, replaced by a calculating machine, who convinced himself he can play violin. Florence (Jennifer Poynter) dotes on her five-year-old son, the doll she carries in place of the child she lost in infancy. Veteran Jeffrey (Josh Rooks) carries his survivor’s guilt as an invisible (except to him) facial scar, and vaguely remembers he played the piano before the War. Mrs. Paddy (Lisa Warner) an aspiring seascape painter, was once told by her husband to “Shut up!” and she did, never speaking a word except, when emotional, she lists the things she hates – including electricity, which she gave up for Lent.

This wonderful, gentle comedy takes no cheap shots at the disordered. Enterprising methods of exercise, for instance, look silly but contain their own rational intent. While entertaining, we also see how their eccentricities become limiting, demonstrating their need for treatment. Where the “crazy” comes in is when the trio of Savages arrive to attempt to force Ethel to reveal what she has done with the family fortune. As Lily Belle betrays her classlessness, Samuel his whimpering indecision, and Titus his blowhard bluster (Marsh looks like his head will literally explode), the residents appear downright sane.

Haas keeps Ethel endearing, yet sly, charming, and conniving like a “Mame” or “Dolly” character in captivity. Her housemates also work their way into our hearts as they go to great lengths to maintain perpetual happiness. Pope and Riddle show the genuine concern their characters have for everyone’s wellbeing.

Director Nancy Lafferty has done an outstanding job with this American classic. Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 6-9, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. For info and tickets, visit westfieldplayhouse.org.

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.

Rising Stars ‘slay’ in CCP production

By John Lyle Belden

Wendy and I have been at this for some time now, and we can point to several stage veterans who we first saw as shining stars as far back as sixth grade. So, consider the Carmel Community Players Rising Star Production of “A Medley of Murders” an opportunity to see kids on a path towards a lifetime of great roles – on stage, or elsewhere as they take confidence into their careers.

Murder seems a dire subject for middle- and high-schoolers, but this set of three one-acts are all comedy, and while death and destruction are at hand, we’ll leave it a surprise as to how many felonious slayings occur.

The hilarity gets under way in “Death of a Dead Guy” as Charlie Haas plays a cheesy noir-inspired Private Eye bumbling the case and dealing with a daring dame (Ava Button), a droll butler (Owen Yeater), the posh lady of the house (Isabella Bardos), the maid dropping all the china (Camren Davis) and a subtly brilliant turn by Mason Yeater as a surprisingly lively “victim.”

In “Cheating Death,” the Reaper (Lilliana Rondinella) comes to collect a soul during a group session in a mental hospital. Needless to say, things get a bit dysfunctional, as Death finds she, too, could benefit from some therapy. The patients, neurotic but clever and good-hearted, are nicely portrayed by Quinn Yeater, Kaavya Jethava, Veronica Rondinella, Camren Davis, Mason Yeater, and especially Kathryn Kirschner.

“Murder at the Art Show” involves nearly the whole company in a fairly complex plot, as Charlie Haas plays an art-hating jerk taking over the gallery from its curator (Jayda Glynn) and resident artist (Joey Brandenburg), so he can tear it down. The make-or-break exhibition features artists of varying renown (Emerson Bobenmoyer, Mason Yeater, Ava Button, Isabella Bardos), a bitter critic (Owen Yeater) and a “discovered” Monet painting. After a chaotic opening that seems to shock Rising Star director Tanya Haas as she tries to stage-manage the mess, an investigator (Quinn Yeater) declares there is evidence of foul play. This story brings out lots of promising performances, including by Morgan Rusbasan, a seventh-grader in her first major role as the keeper of the alleged masterpiece; and Kaavya Jethava, showing great stage presence for a sixth-grader as a competent but mysterious personal assistant.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, June 17-19, at Carmel Friends Church, 651 W. Main St. You don’t have to be a relative or friend of these youths to enjoy this bit of silly fun. They’ll appreciate your support, and we wouldn’t be surprised if, before long, you see some of them on stage again.

Info and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

CCP: Explore ‘Curious Incident’ with unique mind

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Christopher John Francis Boone is 15, a mathematical genius who finds all social and physical interactions terrifying. This is because Christopher is autistic. He lives alone with his father in Swindon, UK, having lost his mother two years earlier.

His love of animals brings him out one night to visit the neighbor’s poodle, Wellington, only to find it killed. Since he’s found kneeling with the dog, he is initially accused of its death. When the responding policeman tries to calm him down, his touch causes Christopher to lash out and be arrested. The misunderstanding is cleared up, but Christopher is left with a warning on his permanent record.

Discovering the murder of a dog is too irrelevant to be investigated, he decides, against his father’s strong wishes, to do it himself. This results in him having to talk to his neighbors, who to him are strangers, but he is determined to overcome his fears and solve this mystery, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” This 2015 Tony-winning play by Simon Stephens, based on the acclaimed novel by Mark Haddon, is on stage at the Cat Theater through March 6, presented by Carmel Community Players. 

While he does eventually find the killer’s identity, the path to that information has Christopher discover a huge family secret and embark on a journey that tests his resolve and the very limits of his abilities.

The staging, like the novel, is from Christopher’s point of view. Director Larry Adams and his crew (assistant Karissa Monson, lighting and video design by Eric Matters, set by David Muse, and sound design by Lori Raffel) excellently deliver the technical aspects of his world with all its abrupt stimuli, cacophonous sounds, and tangled language. 

Being on stage the whole time, the role of Christopher is demanding to start with – add to this a British accent, various physical tics and almost constant movement and it turns into a Herculean challenge. In his first leading role, Noah Ebeyer is spectacular in embodying the part. He never seems to act; we only see the troubled genius trying to make sense of his world, get the answers he feels he deserves, and get to school in time to take his Maths A-Levels exams. Adams agrees with the talk of the performance being award-worthy, marveling at how Ebeyer took naturally to the role. And while the boy he plays may be put off by us strangers, he makes us feel something special for him.

Christopher’s teacher Siobahn (Lori Colcord) provides support and reads to us much of his inner dialogue from a notebook he had kept. Earl Campbell is sharp as his father Ed, struggling to do what’s best for Christopher and learning the hard way the consequences of keeping facts from one whose mind relies on them for his whole life’s structure. Nikki Lynch plays Christopher’s loving but overstressed mother Judy.

The rest of the cast – Tanya Haas, Kelly Keller, Cathie Morgan, Gus Pearcy, Ryan Shelton, Barb Weaver – morphs from one character to another (people as well as inanimate objects) while also voicing Christopher’s self-doubts and thoughts. No actual dogs were killed in the making of this show – including Bob Adams in a touching canine cameo.

Also, you will cheer for a mathematical solution! (Stay through the curtain call.)

The Cat is at 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Find information and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.