Category Archives: Review

Core Values by Steven Levenson: an analysis for production

Several years ago, I played Charlie Cowell in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (set in 1912). I recall introducing myself to Marian Paroo: “Charlie Cowell (dropping sales case accompanied by the strike of a steel pipe from the pit)….ANVIL salesman.” In my character work, it struck me (a thought, not the anvil) that here was a man proud of his profession who sold something that would not need replacement in the span of his lifetime. Charlie Cowell would never see a repeat customer. I’m sure that there are less than 100 anvil dealers in the US today. I’m fairly certain that there are no more traveling anvil salesman. I can’t say I currently know anyone who owns an anvil. No matter how quaint, Pleasantville may yet have a cobbler, but there are no blacksmiths.

Most all industries have a ebb and flow. Many die a slow death. In Core Values by Steven Levenson corporate travel booking is the allegory for the American Dream denied. 4 characters are forced together in a dingy, windowless conference room to go through the motions of a no-budget corporate retreat with the expressed goal of mapping out a future that everyone, audience and characters, knows will be bleak at best.

Nancy: When I started here, we used to have the retreat in Miami. So.

Eliot: Like the city?

Nancy: Yep.

Eliot: What happened?

Nancy: The travel industry imploded.

Eliot: Oh. Cool.

Nancy: Not really.

Eliot: Oh. Right. Not cool. At all. I don’t know why I said that. (Beat) I like your ring. By the way.

The dialogue is realistic, funny, gloomy, ironic, understated, and powerful. Despite the specter of ruin the pace is lively, with several short scenes and overlapping dialogue written in the pace of Mamet or LaBute. Strong language is used only fleetingly: shit as in “oops” (4), fuck a stronger version of “oops” (1), and rape (1) used in the description of a technique to avoid sexual assault. None of these words are used to denigrate another person. On the cover page a note directs “Though the play is divided into two sections, it should be performed without an intermission.” I characteristically follow any scripted direction that I believe to be the playwright’s intent. However, since the play is divided into two days and my audience expects a traditional intermission (and doesn’t know what do with themselves with two of them), I would be inclined to add the intermission despite the textual note.

Steven Levenson’s work has been seen and developed by Roundabout, Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, Atlantic Theater Company, MCC Theater, Ars Nova, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Festival, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His plays are published by Playscripts, Inc. and Dramatists Play Service. A graduate of Brown University and the 2010 Artist in Residence at Ars Nova, Mr. Levenson is currently working on new play commissions for Roundabout, Lincoln Center, and Ars Nova. He is a member of the MCC Playwrights’ Coalition., 2/12/2015 6:38:11 AM. His play The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin will (had) its world premiere Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company in June (2014), 2/12/2015 6:45:38 AM. See that analysis on this blog soon. He is also a writer of several episodes of the TV series Masters of Sex and Vegas, 2/12/2015 4:41:13 PM.


“Anyone who has done time in a corporate environment will recognize the soul-killing atmosphere conjured all too precisely in CORE VALUES.” —NY Times. ”

“…an entertaining piece, with many genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud moments.” — ”

Steven Levenson’s astute new play is a comedy, though a dark one…a well-observed study of a dysfunctional workplace, with hilarious one-liners and sight gags…But it becomes progressively bleaker in its depiction of the characters’ inability to connect.” —NY Post.

Production requirements are reasonable. The cast is 4: 2 male, 2 female. No characters are race-specific. Northeast dialects are nice, but as anyone who has lived in Manhattan knows: Everyone in Manhattan is from somewhere else. There is a single setting, the worn conference room. Costumes are contemporary business casual. Most hand props (and furnishings) can be purchased from a Staples catalog, although some wear is preferable.

My considerations are mixed. The playwright is an American as are the customs of office retreats, brainstorming, trust falls…and bankruptcy. The story reflects the dilemma of many US industries that are desperately reaching for relevance. The humor is broad but not often physical or overt. Strike one: The show is AGAIN set in Manhattan (addresses and companies mentioned in the text can move it nowhere else). The conceit of an office retreat is not new, but the relationships have higher stakes than the last time you saw this routine on “The Office.”Like many plays I review, Core Values and Levenson despite his provenance are unrecognizable to my core audience.

Available for lending from Illinois State University, Normal, IL


“No Fry for You!” an analysis for production of The Lady’s not for Burning by Fry/Anouilh


Originally published in FaceBook Notes March 2, 2014 at 2:54pm

The Lady’s Not for Burning the 1949 comedy by Christopher Fry and Jean Anouilh (8m, 3f) is a rambunctious and challenging read unleashing some wicked wordplay and thoughtful discourse on the value of living despite its often recurring inanity.  A recommended read from a good friend it fulfilled much of my wish-list: Single set, limited cast, non-Northeast setting (I suppose a small market town in Middle Ages England qualifies), pithy dialogue and cerebral theme.

There are several reasons why I’d love to see this play. First and foremost is its dark humor, so tightly written you would swear that it is a Shakespearean pastoral comedy in the vein of As You Like it:

“Alizon: Pride is one of the deadly sins.

Thomas: And it’s better to go for the lively ones.”


“Jennet: I hear a gay modulating anguish, rather like music.

Nicholas: It’s the chaplain extorting lightness of heart/From the guts of his viol…”


“Skipps:  Peace on Earth and good tall women!”.

Furthermore, the somber subject matter of a dialogue between a soldier who longs to die and a woman accused of witchcraft who would much rather go on living, gives rise to the aforementioned ribaldry while simultaneously invoking genuine existential debate:

“Jennet: I seem to wish to have some importance in the play of time. If not, then sad was my mother’s pain, sad my breath,/ Sad the articulation of my bones,/Sad, sad my alacritous web or nerves,/ Woefully, woefully sad my wondering brain,/ To be shaped and sharpened into such tendrils/ Of anticipation, to feed the swamp of space.”

Moreover, because our audience has been primed by such successful period pieces as A Lion in Winter and even A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I think they would gleefully welcome actors festooned in tunics and tights. The friend who brought the piece to my attention would probably welcome the opportunity to pull the pieces from his closets! Several friends have long suggested that the local theatre attempt a classical work.

However, all possibilities stop here. The language is blank verse throughout. Even the best classically trained actor must be at his/her best to successfully accomplish the text. I lament that Pirates of Penzance was once proposed but failed to make the final cut.  Better yet that we should attempt a piece with which the audience may have more familiarity such as “The Taming of the Shrew” or even “Tartuffe.” Of course the nail in “The Lady’s…” coffin was driven home when I called it up in the Samuel French catalog to find “Licensing available for professional groups only.” Oh well!

Middletown by Will Eno: an analysis for production

Originally published in Facebook Notes August 11, 2014 at 6:37pm. Edited for publishing below:

Middletown is a thoughtful, surrealistic, Zen-like Our Town look at loneliness and longing in the midst of the homogenous small towns and villages dotting the American map which uses beautiful, but simple language spoken by archetypal characters whose corollaries I could easily list from own acquaintances in “MidWest HamletVillageTown, USA:”

“Middletown. Population: stable. Elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street. The side streets are named after trees. Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go.  Crying, by the way, in both directions (p.13).”

The existential thoughts of otherwise faceless residents and tourists magically bleed into the territory of the typical “How are you? Fine. Good. Nice day. Might rain. Bye,” conversations that masquerade as connecting with our fellow man:

“I read articles about identity theft and I actually get a little jealous, you know. “Just take it,” you know. “Good luck, fella (p.29).”

The play has marvelous provenance. Will Eno, the playwright was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Thom Pain (based on nothing). He is a Helen Merrill Playwriting Fellow, an Edward F. Albee Foundation Fellow and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. His play The Open House was the 2014 Obie Award for Playwriting and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. Charles Isherwood, theatre critic for The New York Times, called Eno “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation (2/ 2/2005).”  Middletown earned the prestigious Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play (2010). It has had successful productions in NYC (Vineyard Theatre 11/2010) and Chicago (Steppenwolf, 6/2011), and subsequently at Dobama Theatre of Cleveland Heights, OH, Actors’ Shakespeare Project of Boston, MA, and Northwestern University:


“Middletown” glimmers from start to finish with tart, funny, gorgeous little comments on big things.” Charles Isherwood, New York Times,

“…beautiful and deeply moving.” Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune– Recommended

“…Eno’s characters ponder life’s mysteries while the universe bursts around them.”  Mary Houlihan, Chicago Sun Times – Recommended

“…a funny and haunting play that should spark debate and reflection among its audiences for some time after viewing it.” John Olson, Talkin Broadway –  Recommended

“…Middletown is humorously pragmatic and splendidly surreal. It is a singular feast of thought and imagination.” Venus Zarris, Chicago Stage Review – Highly Recommended

“…a provocative and insightful look into the angst of universal loneliness” Tom Williams, ChicagoCritic – Recommended

Production requirements are reasonable. The cast at minimum but flexible, with double-casting is 9: 5w/4m. No characters are race-specific. There are no dialects. There are multiple settings, but only suggestions are necessary. Costumes are contemporary with some uniforms (doctors, orderlies, police officer, mechanic). Running time is 2 hours.

For my list, there are other outstanding positive considerations. The show is NOT necessarily set in the Northeast. The playwright is an American who writes with a distinctly American dialect and cultural identity. The play’s characters demonstrate life circumstances that are identifiable and sympathetic to our core audience. The humor is cerebral, witty, and ironic and not physical or overt.

There are some caveats. Middletown and Will Eno are an unrecognizable title and playwright to our core audience. There is occasional strong language: 2 fuck, 1 shit, not even a “damn” otherwise. Humor is cerebral, witty, and ironic. Yes, I know I repeated that. Spoiler: topics include (minimally) an act of violence in first 15 minutes and suicide

Almost, Maine by John Cariani: an analysis for production

Almost, Maine by John Cariani is a beautiful, poetic, endearing, popular, and very funny show. It is a two-act play with multiple characters and scenes, but only one through-story (prologue, intermission, epilogue). Running time is 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission. As Almost, Maine is currently a hot property, several of your potential patrons may have seen productions around the country. They may also be familiar with the controversy surrounding some high school attempts (later). Both situations may stir interest in ticket sales.

The character breakdown allows versatile casting possibilities from 4 to 19 actors. It is this director’s position that casting 4 people is the most ideal (tops 6). This casting allows a more “Everyman” feel to the show permitting audience members to lose the façade of the actor and place themselves, friends and relatives in the tender situations of the play. If your actor pool is anything like ours, finding 4-6 actors in their 20s-30s that will break their own traditions and deign to do a “non-musical” may be challenging.

Depending on your patronage and proclivities, there are some mild moral controversies. In a witty, beautiful scene 2 “real men” literally “fall” in love with each other. There is no physical contact. In another adorable and pivotal scene, a couple strips off each other’s clothing (snowmobile suits, through several layers, down to long johns) and the implied next step will be extra-marital sexual relations. These were the controversies for high schools. Adult actors should negate any conflicts. BONUS: The script has NO DIRTY WORDS!

The settings should be simple with implied locations on a versatile fixed common playing area. Almost, Maine has many specialty props (see script for complete list). All are easily obtainable: Maine travel brochure, hockey skates, ice skates, snowmobile helmets/jumpsuits, etc. Some odd prop construction pops up: several large red drawstring bags, a broken heart made of slate. The lighting or a transparency must allow for an Aurora Borealis effect (HIGHLY IMPORTANT).

All I ask is: Please….let me direct it first!

Tea and Sympathy: How far have we grown?

Originally published in FaceBook Notes

January 28, 2014 at 12:18pm

I must admit, I typically only spend time reading plays that I think I can submit for performance locally. I read the character list and stop when I find a black character (I believe I have cast the only black person locally, Rent 2015 makes 2). I stop when I see a need for for numerous actors (casting and scheduling six actors is often more than enough of nightmare). I read the set description, and stop when it calls for multiple realistic settings. I especially stop when the tally of words on the “no-no list” exceeds what I perceive as the censors’ line in the sand. I’m not proud, just practical.

Being home bound by the cold, I pulled out my 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre (selected by Clive Barnes, 1969, Crown Publishers, NY). Inside I found a play with a single interior set design, a cast of 11 (on my high side), with no characters of color, and dialogue which may not even contain the word “damn.” Yet I’m still left wondering if this poignant drama might get more than a reading at a coffee shop around here.

Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson was first produced on Broadway in 1953. The play deals with malicious suspicion, culturally sanctioned harassment, and the persistent, pervasive and dubious definition of masculinity that still drives people to commit the first two crimes on this list. Its progression of events, and implied social impact on the life’s of its characters may seem more firmly rooted in the time period of the play in an era that makes a great show of tolerance. The crimes of the heart and mind, however, still linger. As a school social worker I am routinely employed in healing the damage.

Obstacles other than subject matter: Finding a young man locally who looks the part of the 17 1/2 year old protagonist and is also brave enough to take on the role may prove difficult. NOTE: It’s not certain if ANYONE in the play identifies as homosexual! It also calls for 4-5 more prep school boy-actors which might be harder to find around here than at a girls’ boarding school. There is also one implied romantic encounter between a 23 year old woman and the protagonist. Of course we’ve seen adults hop in an out of myriad romantic encounters in an endless steam of bedroom farces. We’ve laughed it up when the stereotypical upstairs neighbor “poof” waltzes into the fray. Oh how we roared when two male actors wrestled into a position of implied sodomy! This play however might reveal how little we’ve really grown in 60 years.

Why Not? August Osage County by Tracy Letts: an analysis for production

Originally Published January 25, 2014 in Facebook Notes:

Please note that I review the plays that I read in light of their artistic merit, but also the probability that they might be successfully mounted in the market where I direct: North Central Illinois community theatre:

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts has brilliant dialogue. With each utterance, myriads of telling character subtleties are unfolded. The tempo, juxtaposition and choices offered in every human transaction are an actor’s and director’s dream. That being said, this tragicomedy (and what family reunion isn’t?) that peels away generations of dysfunction may never see the light of day in a local community theatre production. EVERY vulgar utterance is essential to the discourse unveiling the bitter truths and comic pathos of the play. To cut one word would be dishonorable to the playwright (who has been inspired by his own story) and grand theft to the actors who seek to create truth. Locally, finding the large complement of sixty-somethings and forty-somethings to honorably fill the 13 member ensemble cast would take the chance that most every A-game talent we have in a 60 mile radius would be simultaneously available.

The following has been edited and added 1/27/15: With that, I hesitate to conceive that any local theatre might successfully build and house the 3-story set with as much realistic detail as the play demands.

After further review of my own comments, why NOT? If the surrounding theatres were to bind together as a collective might we not (warnings posted) work together to bring this gem to the stage? With posted caveats, could we not present this piece with our combined talents and run it one weekend per month in ALL participating locations? What a coup THAT would be!

The Last Night of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry: an analysis for production

Originally published on Facebook Notes: July 19, 2014 at 3:01pm

Afred Uhry is best known for his wildly successful Driving Miss Daisy. This comedy (1997 Tony Award for Best Play ) is also set amidst the Jewish upper middle class of Atlanta, GA. The “Ballyhoo” of which they speak is something of a Jewish debutante ball where the German Jews make sure their daughters are in the running for joining the right families. Not only is Ballyhoo imminent but also the opening of the film “Gone with the Wind” and Christmas. The Frietag /Levy family has spent several generations becoming Atlanta gentility, perhaps at the expense of their cultural identity. There is no greater sign of this cultural fracture than the large lighted Christmas tree in the foyer. The central question of the play is, “What is more important who you are or who you appear to be?” The cultural identity themes will resonate with the descendants of Mexicans and Eastern Europeans of the Illinois Valley. Oh… And YES it is very funny. There are serious themes which are mostly dealt with in a very light manner.

Casting should be simple. All actors are Caucasian. The script calls for four actors in their 20s and three people in their mid-to-late 40s. Dialects are gentle Atlanta and Brooklyn Jewish. There is a 20-year-old male with bright red hair (Peachy Weil). This trait is essential and scripted as it is a feature that makes the character obviously “other.”

The creative team will have to up their ante for this show. There are three “sets.” A short scene set taking place in an anteroom of a country club, can be performed in front of the curtain with no props. There are two scenes in a sleeping compartment of the train which would have to be simply done. It would be difficult to hide this set piece during the main action taking place in an upper-middle-class Atlanta home. The time is December 1939 and costumes include business clothes, day clothes, two obviously handmade sweaters, and fancy dress formals. Peachy will probably need to color his hair or get a really, really good wig. A 1939 men’s hairstyle should be relatively short.