In a Love Triangle with Art & Religion: My Name is Asher Lev at the Lyric Stage Company

Originally published on

When someone inherits more than one tradition, how can he make them mesh? For many contemporary Jews, this question may arise when parents come from different faiths or different Jewish streams. For the title character of My Name is Asher Lev, the challenge arises when a Hasidic boy turns out to be an artistic prodigy. Religious Jews aren’t meant for the arts, we’re told. To paint requires breaking all manner of mitzvot (religious laws), from the second commandment (you know, the one about graven images) to the rules of modesty and honoring one’s parents. Those last two are particularly troublesome for Asher, whose artistic impulse leads him to paint nudes and eventually crucifixion scenes featuring his parents. To use director Scott Edmiston’s art-world metaphor, Asher must figure out in which frame he will live his life.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: 1776

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
Peter A. Carey and
Eileen Nugent in 1776If the success of 1776 is the treatment of our nation’s heroes as nuanced human beings, then Spiro Veloudos’s season-opening production at the Lyric Stage might be the most successful staging of the show yet. In the Lyric’s intimate house, the audience becomes members of the Second Continental Congress, and the arguments of the colonies become present and relevant. Plus, the small theater allows for unamplified singing, a particular treat when there’s a 20+ voice male chorus involved.

At the center of the show stands John Adams (Peter A. Carey), whose desperate belief in the necessity of independence often overwhelms his knowledge of the workings of diplomacy. Adams is one of the greatest roles in modern theatre, requiring an actor to be at once lovable and “obnoxious and disliked,” carrying much of the show on his shoulders. Carey is utterly engrossing in the part, so believable that at times one almost expects him to collapse from the exhaustion of creating the United States single-handedly.

Of course, this is far from a single-handed job, and he is happily accompanied by a superb acting ensemble. While certainly there are standouts, the entire ensemble is filled with actors who bring to life every delegate, even those who barely speak. Brent Reno, as Lewis Morris of New York, conveys volumes with a pointed look, and John Davin as Delaware’s Caesar Rodney is downright inspirational when he returns to the congress despite impending death from cancer in order to participate in the final vote. Among the more featured delegates are the standouts J. T. Turner as an affable Ben Franklin, and Frank Gayton who brings credibility to Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, humanizing a character that could easily be played as a one-dimensional villain.

The show isn’t entirely made up of men, and unfortunately, if there’s a weak point in this production, it is the women. While both Eileen Nugent as Abigail Adams and Jennifer Ellis as Martha Jefferson are pleasant singers, they do not bring enough presence to their roles to fully inhabit these women or compensate for the relative brevity of their appearances.

Musically, the show is top notch, with a tight seven-piece orchestra under the capable baton of Jonathan Goldberg sounding much fuller than its numbers might suggest. Janie E. Howland’s set manages to squeeze nearly two dozen delegates onto the tiny stage without ever feeling cramped, and Scott Clive’s lighting is invaluable in focusing the action on such a full stage.

I last saw 1776 nearly a decade ago at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway. The stage was huge, the country optimistic, and despite the human foibles of the characters, the show still felt like a celebration of our foundational myths. Today, seeing the show in Boston during election season, while our country and many others throughout the world are at war, 1776 feels much more like a wake-up call. This production reminds us that great men are regular guys, and regular guys can be great men. If only we didn’t need the reminder so often.

Talkin’ Broadway: Talley’s Folly

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Stephen Russell and Marianna Bassham

Is it possible to employ the word “folly” in the title of a play without making a pun? In the case of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, the folly in question is both the foolishness of Sally Talley, who believes her “dark secret” has shut her out of the game of love, and in the slightly more archaic sense, the decaying, riverside gazebo erected by her ancestor that provides the setting for the play. But at least in director Adam Zahler’s production at the Lyric Stage, there’s another folly involved: the darkening of what should be, in the play’s own words, “a waltz.”

The play opens with Matt Friedman (Stephen Russell) addressing the audience directly, with the house lights up driving the point home. We are to see a love story, a dance, he tells us. Russell’s playful portrayal of Matt, teasing the audience and wielding the magic of stagecraft to create the perfect summer night, sets the perfect tone for a love story. As he leads us into the main section of the play, he’s significantly aided in this pursuit by Janie E. Howland’s picturesque set and John Cuff’s subtle, effective lights.

Matt has come to the Talley home in the summer of 1944 to pursue the hand of aging daughter Sally (Marianna Bassham). Their courtship has stalled, in part because Sally’s family will not accept Jewish Matt Friedman as a suitable mate, but in part because Sally is withholding a piece of herself from her beau.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Ears on a Beatle

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Michael Kaye and Steven Barkhimer

Sometimes, plays come along at exactly the right time to strike a resonance with current events, adding an extra layer of meaning to the lives of the characters portrayed on stage. Other plays feel as though the author started with the question “How can I write about situation x?” and never quite come to life beyond their topicality. Unfortunately, Mark St. Germain’s Ears on a Beatle, now enjoying its Boston premiere at the Lyric Stage, falls into the latter category.

The one-act play focuses on two FBI agents, veteran Howard Ballantine (Steven Barkhimer) and newcomer Daniel McClure (Michael Kaye), assigned to keep tabs on John Lennon in the 1970s. Although based in fact – the actual FBI files on Lennon are reproduced both in the lobby and the program book to drive this home – the story of the two agents is entirely St. Germain’s creation, and it shows. The entire first half of the play feels like a series of sketches from a beginners’ playwriting class on exposition. Each scene quickly reveals necessary information about Ballantine’s background or McClure’s increasing entanglements with the people he’s supposedly studying, before moving on to the next scene and the next plot point. One of the simplest rules of writing for the theatre is “show, don’t tell,” yet most of the first half of the play consists of the characters telling each other about things that happened between scenes with other characters we never meet. Still, director Paula Ramsdell keeps the proceedings light, making the most of Barkhimer’s comic timing and deadpan delivery to divert our attention from the plodding plotting.  Continue reading