Front & Center

Front & Center: April 2016

There is much to be said for a strong production that has many excellent elements, great actors, a good script, excellent design and skilled directors. When you have all that, but one element is off, sadly, it tends to stick out like the proverbial ouchy thumb. And you might say, “Well, they got everything else right.” Yet you would be equally justified to say, “How did this get missed?”

New Jewish Theatre’s production of Old Wicked Songs has a glamorous set by Dunsi Dai that calls up the Old World elegance of Vienna. There is an excellent script by Jon Marans in which he gives us subtle, nuanced characters that require actors who can inhabit these roles with equal subtlety and grace. Certainly, director Tim Ocel has that in one of his actors; Jerry Vogel is having a terrific run playing secretive men—Imagining Madoff, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Shining City and now this. His Mashkan is charming, a trifle sad and tremendously complex, but Vogel pilots the character with aplomb.

Unfortunately there are only two actors in the entire play and the younger man, Will Bonfiglio, plays Stephen Hoffman, a burned out piano prodigy and Jew masquerading as a Protestant. Bonfiglio is not as nuanced, his anger and obnoxiousness come off as his only notes, and we are no closer to understanding him at the end of the two and a half hours than we were in the first scene. Director Ocel has to take responsibility for this, either by not having guided him to a fully realized character or not casting someone who could get there. That said, Vogel’s performance alone is worth the price of admission, and the play certainly fulfills the essence of the script, in which every life requires sadness and joy.

The same could be said of The Rep’s latest offering, Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing, which has tremendous actors and a slick combination of movement, media and music. On the surface, it’s all delightfully intriguing to the audience. It’s when you ask yourself what the author is trying to say that we end up with a bit of a mess. The play is part bio of a great pitcher who might have been the one to break the color barrier, had he been a bit braver; part Greek tragedy, a man brought down by his own flaws, except that he triumphs in the end; and part exploration of racial issues in America.

It looks wonderful, all swirling music and lights and a surreal video of Paige’s fear of ‘whitening’ himself, which was excellent but unsupported in the script. The acting all around was first-rate. I especially liked the two women: Vanessa A. Jones, who played the elegant, learned Mrs. Hopkins, and her daughter Moira, played by Tsilala Brock. They were so delightful I wish they had a scene that could pass the Bechdel test, you know, where women can talk about something other than their men. Mrs. Hopkins also gives Moira some terrible advice on how to get ahead in the world by ‘catching’ a man with money. These women were better than the words they were given to say.

on the marquee
» The Glass Menagerie | April 29–May 15 | Upstream Theater
» The Sound of Music | April 26–May 8 | The Fabulous Fox

Pictured: Jerry Vogel and Will Bonfiglio in Old Wicked Songs
Photo: Eric Woolsey

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