One Slight Hitch by Lewis Black: an analysis for production

Yes, that Lewis Black: “What I find most disturbing about Valentine’s Day is, look, I get that you have to have a holiday of love, but in the height of flu season, it makes no sense.” Black has written a fast-paced, and often light and silly (if not unbalanced) farce that hardly makes a sideways glance at politics or even his characteristic constant affect of cynicism. He slightly breaks the mold of the classic farce in some ways successfully; in others, uncomfortably.

The result may be a funny evening of theatre that will leave the audience thinking, “It was really good, but why did they do THAT thing, or THAT OTHER thing?” There is much of the traditional door slamming and arrivals and departures in the knick of time to avoid calamity. To this, perhaps to lampoon the WASP veneer of the family at its center, Black steps up the vulgarity. This venture into the blue is only voiced by the younger characters but racks up points in all forms of George Carlin’s seven words, with “asshole” and “douchebag” added to the mix. A 14-year-old getting an abortion is mentioned in a comic light. The father is a corporate vice-president. There are 3 injections of fourth-wall-breaking flashback narration that are completely superfluous. Add to this a magical effect whenever the same character puts on her headphones and turns on her Walkman to tune out the world. Finally after a classic set up of the ex-boyfriend showing up on the day of the wedding, prerequisite shenanigans and innuendo, and a carbon copy Beau Jest (James Sherman) twist, the play is brought toward its neat conclusion with a page-long dramatic monologue from another genre.

The play has had a short but successful production history:

Jan 8-25, 2015: Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Roswell, GA

Jan 9-28, 2015: Florida Repertory Theatre / Ft. Myers FL

Jan 16-Feb 1, 2014: Racine Theatre / Racine, WI

Feb 6-14, 2015: John Elliott Theatre / Ontario, Canada
Production requirements are all feasible for most theatrical companies. The cast is 7 (3m, 4f) with an age range from 50s to 17. The play is most convincingly cast as all Caucasian. Five characters are from the same biological family. The only setting is the living room of an upper-class colonial revival in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1981. All action takes place in this one location (with a visible staircase to the second floor and at least 3 doors). Act 1 and 2 are each performed in continuous action. There is much suggested pop music from the period which will require appropriate permissions. Props include wrapped wedding presents and 2 anatomically correct Polynesian fertility statues (one with a breakaway penis).

My recommendations are mixed. The playwright is an American. The story is relatable to a broad audience. The setting is MID-WESTERN!!!!!!! The dialogue is witty but the language will push this play out of consideration for most theatres who might read this blog as guidance. I look forward to reading Mr. Black’s NEXT play.

Available for lending from Northwestern University Library


STOP KISS- Rolling Die Productions/Players Ring

The Player’s Ring Theater in Portsmouth, NH is a black-box theater that produces original work from local playwrights. Whereas the community is 3 times larger than my city, decisively more liberal and affluent many aspects of the community reflect my own MidWest experience. I have placed this play on my reading list.

Caught In The Act


presented by The Players Ring/Rolling Die Productions

directed by Todd Hunter

In 1998, when playwright Diana Son’s STOP KISS first debuted at the Public Theater In New York, the idea of equal rights for the LGBT community was little more than a blip on the social radar.

In 2004, when STOP KISS was first produced at The Players Ring, things were a little better. But not by much.

Due in part to the efforts of artists like Son, it’s evident that while ideas may have changed, there remains a troublesome gap in how both the law and society extends rights and protections to those who identify as not being part of that fabulous fiction we’ve come to regard as “the mainstream”.

In STOP KISS, Son provides a provocative treatise on how sexual and gender roles are regarded, and how much work is left to do to ensure that…

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The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin by Steven Levenson: an analysis for production

Remember when greed was good? Me neither.

Sometimes our personal world disintegrates because of matters outside our control. Then there are those soul-wrenching times when our mantra should convert to “I am Vishnu.” Unfortunately, Tom the title character of Steven Levenson’s The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, never meditates on this reality. The result is a selfish scorched earth campaign that, if it were not for his son’s postscript of reconciliation and redemption, nearly burns the closing curtain.

After reading my second Levenson play in a week, I would not currently recommend a festival dedicated to his work. The scars of the recession are too fresh. For my own sake, my next read must be comedy. Core Values was rife with comic moments and there moments of lightness in …Disappearance…. but alas our Tom destroys those too. Tom has recently left prison after his sentence for a Ponzi scheme that sunk his firm, his friends and his family. He shows up unannounced to seek shelter in another piece of wreckage of own making, his son’s desolate one-bedroom house purchased in the aftermath of divorce. At first, we pity Tom as he tries unsuccessfully to rebuild the life he once knew, first by asking. Then he demands. Then he extorts. The world has moved on without him. We grow to see that Tom was once benign, but has become malignant. The cancer must be excised.

James: Maybe the future was unwritten and anything that came after this came of its own volition and its own accord. Nothing was fated. Nothing was preordained. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to think that was true (p 64).

As in Core Values, the dialogue is realistic, ironic, (sometimes) understated, and powerful. The pace is lively, with the same short scenes and overlapping dialogue cadence. Strong language is used more often than in Core Values with increasing desperation and vitriol as the play and Tom careen toward ruin. All language should be considered in context. Most strong language does not occur until the latter third of the play when stakes are higher. Tom is the mouthpiece for 95 percent of it. If you change his language, your audience might forgive him:

“I could kick your ass (1):” I’m in better physical shape than you are.

“Goddamn (1):” expletive for emphasis

“Oh my God (2):” I’m surprised and angry

“Fucking life (1):” expletive for emphasis

“Fucking around (1):” speaking flippantly or casually

“Fucked up (2):” made a mess of things

“You haven’t done shit (1):” you haven’t done anything

“Fuck you (2):” I don’t need your money/ I’m insulted

“I don’t need this/your shit (2):” I don’t need/want to hear about problems

“Everybody’s shit (1):” everybody else’s problems

Some production requirements for…Disappearance…. may be daunting. The cast is 5: 3 male, 2 female. No characters are race-specific, but Tom’s immediate family would be more convincing if they were racially homogenous. There are no dialects. There are 5 locations requiring much creativity and very specific set dressing: 2 residential interiors (1 sparse, 1 elegant), a classroom interior, a college exterior, and the inside of a luxury SUV. The play is divided into 18 scenes without a suggested act break. My audiences need the break. My theatres need to sell cheesecake. Running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes (NYTimes). Costumes are contemporary; characters need to convincingly represent varying economic classes from lower to upper middle class. Fee: $100 per performance.

Playwright bio:

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin (had) its world premiere Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company in June 2014.


“…smartly engrossing…unfolding the profound disorientation of people ruined by his decisions.”—Newsday.

“…the electricity in the room is palpable…Levenson’s dialogue is lean, dynamic and flows naturally.” —Time Out NY.

” …lays out a frank picture of an ordinary American family dealing with some clotted yet unhealed wounds of its own.” —TheaterMania.

“Harrowing…riveting theater.” —

My considerations are mixed. The playwright is an American. The story ripped from recent headlines yet accessible to all who had a troubled family member (divorce, financial ruin, drugs, etc.) The dialogue and story are honest and raw (maybe too raw: see language above). It is implied that 2 characters routinely engage in extramarital relations. The setting is a smaller city large enough for Home Depot, Borders, Starbucks and a community college and close enough to a city that would house a financial firm large enough to make national news (but isn’t Portland, OR). It will need a crackerjack production team to execute the scene changes realistically, effectively and smoothly. Like many plays I review, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin and Levenson despite his provenance are unrecognizable to my core audience.

Available for lending from Millikin University, Decatur, IL

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


MyWebTimes: June 24, 2004:

‘SubUrbia’ to be staged at IVCC

“OGLESBY — Students of Performing Arts and Music Organization (SPAMO) and Vs. Productions will present the Eric Bogosian comedy-drama “SubUrbia,” 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday (June 25& 26, 2004) at the Illinois Valley Community College Cultural Centre.

According to information submitted by IVCC, “SubUrbia” zeroes in on today’s youth, depicting the rudderless yearnings and amorphous rage of a lost generation. It is the story of high school friends, lingering in the northwestern industrial town of Burnfield long after graduation, who find themselves lost amid the shuffle of suburban life.

Directed by Dave Roden, the play contains strong adult language and themes. Tickets can be purchased at a discount by IVCC students who show their student identification cards.”

Ten and a half years ago, a group of young actors asked that I direct a student production at a local community college. They had considered a more conservative piece, but elected instead to take a chance and expand their own and their community’s horizons. Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia, a vulgarity ridden, adrenaline infused modern Three Sisters gave birth to my improvisational directing style and filled a LIVE THEATRE with hundreds of paying customers under the age of 25. It took 10 more years for Rent (Stage 212, directed by DJ Haun and starring my production’s Jeff as Roger) to hit local stages and SELL OUT a 4 show weekend run. It can be done.

The core patrons of community theatre are traditionalists. If yours are anything like ours, the typical consumer is female, 60, church-going, politically conservative and blue-collar. Their exposure to theatre is the theatre that your organization presents. Once or twice a year, many may venture (via bus tour) to a larger city to see the one-night-only tour of a recently popular musical. I’m not insulting them; I’m honest. That said, I would never imply that these people are one-dimensional. Our community is filled with veterans of horrible wars, countless financial depressions and recessions, industry boom and bust, corporate poisoning of their environment and their bodies, as well as the joys of (European) cultural diversity, and family and community life. They deserve to be honored for their complexity.

There are also the underserved markets. I have no doubt that many ticket holders for Rent, were the same as the ticket holders for SubUrbia. They were older, but now have jobs, homes and entertainment dollars to spend. Our future audience and our core audience deserve the opportunity to be challenged by rich, fresh content. If we don’t give it to them, they will spend their dollars elsewhere. I’m sure that my 80 year old mother can order Twelve Years a Slave and send it directly to her living room. She will understand it, empathizes with its actors, and be moved by its story. Imagine if we gave her the opportunity to literally share those moments with live actors from her own community in real time in This Is Our Youth, The Open House, or Collected Stories.

Community theatres PUSH THE ENVELOPE! Great theatre was written after 1975. Fad farces and 1950’s musicals are a fun dessert, but let’s not forget the entrée. I call upon all theatres to have one work in their season which was written in the last 10 years, and for it to be performed UNEDITED with a full budget! It need not have a 3-week run or even be part of the season ticket package. It must needs BE THERE. Without innovation we starve as artists and neglect our patrons. Get crackin’!

real theatre for remote venues