About halfway through Hughie, Erie Smith recalls his dead friend, "Hughie was the kind of guy you’d love to listen to, one grand little guy. "
And this production is made of two grand little plays.
Both plays address the themes of self-reflection and regret, but the Broadway-bound double-bill of Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape, explores the lives of two men who are perfect opposites. First, Erie Smith of Hughie, is a fast-talking gambler who drinks away the pain of the recent loss of his friend Hughie, a hotel clerk . The other man , Krapp, is a gloomy average Joe who spends an evening reflecting on the events, or lack thereof, of the past 69 years of his life. Both men are masterfully portrayed by Brian Dennehy, but he shows special ease and brilliance in the Krapp role.
Hughie, written by Eugene O’Neill, is more commercially viable than its counterpart. The 50- minute play is set in a low class hotel lobby, plucked straight out of New York City in the 1940s complete with broken antique lamps, a grandfather clock, and periodic train noises that sound whenever the audience needs a moment to think.
Erie Smith and the new night clerk, played by Joe Grifasi, are wonderfully contrasting characters. After finishing a five-minute monologue, a wild story from his glory days, Smith asks the clerk what he thinks. The clerk’s reply, delivered in pure, understated, earnest is "Yes, I agree with you. "
These moments come often. Erie launches into a lengthy tale about his golden days, and the audience craves the variety and comic relief offered by his counterpart.
For this reason, it’s fitting that Hughie ends just before audience’s emotional palette can be fully quenched. After waiting for a grand emotional climax of self-discovery and maybe even a few tears, my hopes were swiftly dashed by the lowering of the curtain.
And this is exactly the effect the Goodman is going for since Krapp’s Last Tapeis characterized by some degree of discomfort. To really connect with Krapp, who is blatantly dissatisfied with the course of his life, the audience must also harbor a certain level of unease.
Dennehy not only shatters any expectations about his performance, but makes you feel guilty for setting them in the first place. Few other actors can hold their audience in utter rapture for 15 minutes at the beginning of a play with absolutely no dialogue and little body movement. The true allure of Krapp’s Last Tapelies in Dennehy’s silence, even as he performs such menial tasks as opening drawers and eating a banana. For 15 magical moments, Dennehy holds his audience captive in a world where emotions and meanings are best expressed through silence. When Dennehy delivers the first line of the play, he breaks the spell he so artfully crafted. While the show climaxes early, Dennehy simply refuses to lose momentum.
The plot is set in motion as Krapp, on his 69th birthday, readies himself to record a tape of the events of the last year, something he does every birthday. However, before he begins, Krapp listens to a tape he recorded when he was 39. The tape is filled with stories of romance and contentment, a sharp contrast to what Krapp’s life has become 30 years later.
Dennehy is a study in playing with levels of a character, never settling for a simple one-dimensional portrayal of Krapp. He flows from anger, to gloom, to regret, and to simple annoyance seamlessly. Dennehy seizes his audience and demands that they share in these emotions, an experience they will never regret.
A 'Holiday' to remember
A young boy bounds onto the stage in the beginning of Alan Gross' High Holidays.
Wide-eyed and witty, 13-year-old Billy Roman introduces the audience to what appears to be a typical family-friendly comedy set against the backdrop of Billy's upcoming Bar Mitzvah in 1963 suburban Chicago.
Though Billy (Max Zuppa) has a way with words, he appears to struggle with attention issues.
Billy’s mother (Rengin Altay) and father (Keith Kupferer) systematically engage in obscenity-laced screaming matches to communicate their feelings, and it is during these parts that the show’s weaknesses are revealed.
Director Steven Robman relies heavily on his characters’ loud volume and bodily threats to depict tension in the Roman household, leaving his audience yearning for a connection to Nate and Essie Roman that goes beyond their screaming matches at the dinner table.
The potential to develop many complex layers in each of these characters is fantastic. Although this begins to happen toward the end of the show, it really is a shame this potential is not fully explored.
The script drags on at times, with some scenes appearing to be repeats of earlier ones.
But the show does have its moments.
Ian Paul Custer is phenomenal as Billy’s older brother, Bobby, as he balances the fire of college-age liberalism with the vulnerability of being an aspiring folk musician, against his parents’ wishes.
Custer can crack a joke, too. When talking with Billy, he quips, “I always thought the suburb names sounded like graveyards. Harwood Heights, Morton Grove.”
Altay and Kupferer fire snide digs and sharp comebacks without missing a beat, often providing unexpected comic relief during even the most serious moments.
During these scenes, it seems that Gross recognizes the need to ease the blow of his characters’ unceasing yelling, but does not fully commit to showing the characters' gentler sides.
Some of Gross’ finest scripting is revealed during these sweet, but rare, low-tension bits. A prime example is during Billy and Bobby’s late-night marijuana session.
The naïve and inexperienced Billy, after trying pot for the first time, remarks to his brother, “I thought you were supposed to get high and stuff.”
Despite the magic of these quiet moments, the show’s climax is right in the thick of its loudest and most powerful argument sequence. This heart-stopping exchange, crafted superbly by fight director Nick Sandys, proves High Holidays to be worth the price of admission.
As Billy explains in his closing monologue: “Let the struggle make you strong.”
A Christmas Carol
Goodman’s Carol keeps a good rhythm
For 32 years, the Goodman Theatre has put on A Christmas Carol for Chicago audiences. So it wouldn't be surprising for theatre-goers to expect the same 'ol, same 'ol onstage this season.
But the theatre's current show delivers some new surprises that might even charm the grouchiest Scrooge among us.
The show is based on Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, and director William Brown stays true to the story and spirit of Dickens’ classic holiday tale. The anti-Christmas Ebenezer Scrooge is tightfisted and unsympathetic to the poor. Scrooge is once again offered the chance to change his ways when he is haunted by four ghosts, each with their own unique personality.
Simply reading Dickens’ paperback is not a sufficient replacement for the childlike magic of this performance. The show is splashed with various updates that keep the pace swift almost throughout and offers the audience treats along the way. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Alex Weisman) bursts onstage when he flies over the set thanks to an invisible harness rigging, merrily flipping around Cirque du Soleil style. He exuberantly invites Scrooge (Larry Yando) to join him, but is answered by a look of old man-like reluctance upon Scrooge's face. A rookie Tiny Tim (John Francis Babbo) will melt even the sourest Scrooge’s heart. Babbo has few lines in the play, but delivers each with such innocence and sincerity that his audience can't take their eyes off him. The stage boasts eye-popping sets that seems to be plucked straight out of a storybook; the topsy-turvy staircase and crooked roof of Scrooge's house look designed by Dr. Seuss himself. Each set is complemented by a creative color scheme that adds to the mood of the scene; Scrooge's house features gray and dreary tones, while the jolly party room at Fred's house is a feast for the eyes of rich colors. Scrooge even treats the audience to a silly jig during a few party scenes, leaving every kid and grown-up in the room giggling.
Yando in particular gives Chicago an exceptional performance. He masters the agitation of a bad-tempered old man, punching lines like, “Christmas dinner? I’ll see you in Hell first.” Yando also portrays a softer, more childlike side of Scrooge, vigorously hugging his bed curtains upon return to his room. These lighthearted moments give the play its true sparkle, including Tiny Tim’s adorable closing line of, you guessed it-- “God bless us, every one!”
Each character offers the audience a chance to fall in love with him or her. From the exuberant, confetti-spewing Ghost of Christmas Present (Penelope Walker) to the graceful and radiant Belle (Jessie Mueller), the show has something for every adult and child.
However, the show is not always completely kid friendly. The second act features a giant Grim Reaper-style Ghost of Christmas Future that might frighten little ones. The Ghost of Jacob Marley is chained and pulled back into Hell, which could upset them too. But the production remains lighthearted. Scrooge keeps the jokes coming when he mocks his kind-hearted assistant, Bob Cratchit (played by the charming Ron Rains), who takes each dig in stride. Each scene is smoothly transitioned into the next one with a mini-medley of Christmas carols sung by the characters, which helps maintain the quick rhythm of the show.
This heartwarming Carol is well worth the price of a ticket, if only to see Babbo and Yando’s wonderful performances. You might have already read the book and seen the movie (and the play), but this production proves the Dickens’ classic is worth experiencing time and time again.
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