“The Pink Unicorn” – Off The Wall Productions at Carnegie Stage

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If only all gender non-binary kids in conservative small towns had moms like Trisha, the protagonist/narrator of Elise Forier Edie’s 2013 one-woman play, The Pink Unicorn. When Trisha’s daughter, Jo, cuts her hair short and requests to be addressed as “they” instead of “she,” Trisha’s first reaction is not to kick her daughter out of the house or send her to conversion therapy, but to open a web browser and google terms like “genderqueer” and “LGBTQ.” Her second reaction is to seek advice for dealing with this unexpected development from Pastor Dick, the spiritual leader of her church, but when he announces his intention to fight against a decision to allow homosexuals to be ordained within the USA Presbyterian Church, she surprises herself and her community by becoming a local activist for gay rights.

Amy Landis, photo Off the Wall

What ensues is a funny and endearing account of a battle on the frontlines of the culture wars, one that reveals both the breathtaking hypocrisy of religious rhetoric and the hope-inspiring transformations that can be achieved when people have the courage to take a stand at the local level. Indeed, although this play focuses on a mother’s outrage over the local school’s treatment of its genderqueer students, its bigger message about the power of people to effect change through committed activism, even when they represent a minority view in a homogenous community, is one that is all the more urgent in our current political environment.

Trisha is the kind of character it would be all too easy to caricature or patronize, but both Edie’s script and Amy Landis’s beautifully nuanced performance wisely choose to pull us deeply into her point of view instead. Ingrid Sonnichsen directs with a deft comic touch, and has made choices for the setting and context that enhance our feeling of connection with Trisha. Instead of staging the play as a formal presentation, as the script seems to encourage, Sonnichsen invites us into Trisha’s kitchen, where she tells us her story while she folds her laundry and bakes up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Landis is warm and winning as Trisha, roping us in with an endearing southern graciousness, and her chatty friendliness opens us to her perspective.

That’s important, because although we might be tempted to feel smugly superior to Trisha, her journey is one that is only possible because she has the humility to distance herself from such self-righteous certainty, and spending time with her provides a gentle nudge to be skeptical of our own pieties. Paradoxically, the very characteristics that make her a person so alienating to urban progressives – her Christian values and Southern etiquette – are also what make it possible for her to let difference into her personal sphere in a more than superficial way. Quick as she is to stereotype people who don’t conform to cis-gender norms, once her habits of hospitality and charity bring them into her orbit she comes to see past stereotype and love and value them for the people they are. At the same time, her predisposition to sketch the other people in her life with broad caricaturing brushstrokes also complicates our response to her: that is, her tendency to paint mocking and dismissive portraits of gays and lesbians – the very people she is ostensibly trying to defend – provokes cognitive dissonance (in both the character and us).

The play and Landis are both at their funniest when they offer comic insight into the gulf between the ideological right and left. For example, at one point in the narrative Trisha recalls discovering that the ACLU – an organization that she had always been told was doing Satan’s work – was actually dedicated to helping people, like her daughter, who have had their civil rights violated. “Who knew?!?” Landis demands, looking straight at us with deadpan bewilderment. It’s that willingness to step out of her comfort zone and into the unknown that makes Trisha such a model for citizen-activism, and her story such a rich and rewarding journey.

“Falstaff” at Resonance Works

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Resonance Works artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner writes that the mission of the small company she founded here in Pittsburgh four years ago is to “showcase outstanding professional artists from Pittsburgh and beyond.” That’s a mission well-fulfilled this past weekend, which brought together an ensemble of world-class vocal and instrumental musicians to perform Verdi’s Falstaff at the Charity Randall Theater in the Cathedral of Learning.

Benjamin Bloomfield as Falstaff, photo courtesy Resonance Works

The talent showcased in the production included some performers new to Pittsburgh. Baritone Benjamin Bloomfield brought both a suitably large presence and a grand, mellifluous lustre to his interpretation of Falstaff as a longhaired king of the road, and baritone Joshua Jeremiah was a vocal standout among the cast in the role of Ford, the wealthy husband Falstaff seeks to cuckold. Also new to our stages was soprano Natalie Polito, who sang the role of Nanetta with sweetness and clarity. In addition, the production brought back to town (after too long an absence) the gifted tenor Joseph Gaines, who was delightful as the priggish, uptight Dr. Caius, and featured as well a number of artists whose work has electrified Pittsburgh audiences in previous Resonance Works productions, including sopranos Kara Cornell and Amelia D’Arcy and tenor Christopher Lucier.

Together the orchestra and vocalists rendered Verdi’s complicated music with precision and control, and at times the singers, who sharply enunciated their consonants and tightly rolled their Italianate “r’s,” seemed as much a part of the percussion section of the orchestra as they were characters in the story. I mean that as high praise – the coordination and interweaving of voice and orchestra constituted a primary pleasure of this production. But part of what contributed to our perception of that blending was a pair of awkwardly positioned astroturf-covered boxes, meant to represent hedges, behind which too much of the action was hidden from view, making the production more a pleasure for the ears than for the eyes. Indeed, stage director Stephanie Havey seemed stymied by the challenges presented by Gianni Downs’s ill-conceived scenic design. Aside from a few moments of inventive staging in the second act that captured the commedia dell’arte spirit of the world of the play with comic lazzi and slo-mo tumbling, the staging was generally vague and confusing, with scene changes occuring in the middle of songs, movement patterns that lacked motivation and choreographic specificity, and a space that, in several scenes, seemed simply overcrowded and muddled.

The storytelling was clear nevertheless, thanks to strong acting as well as singing on the part of the entire cast, with particularly lucid and humorous characterizations from Benjamin Robinson and Matthew Scollin as Falstaff’s henchmen, and from Gaines, Jeremiah, and Bloomfield as Caius, Ford, and Falstaff. The production didn’t have to do much to encourage us to see contemporary resonance in Falstaff’s misogyny, mendacity, and moneygrubbing, and the opera’s ending – an astonishingly complex multipart fugue that Verdi wrote to prove his critics wrong – brought down the house with its reminder (one proved all too true in the last couple of days with the chaotic news from Washington) that “Tutto nel mondo è burla” – “All the world is folly.”

“Death of a Salesman” at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre

Maybe it’s because this production was directed by a woman (Mary B. Robinson) – or maybe because it’s just so inescapably “in the air” – but what clings most to the Public’s Death of a Salesman is the overwhelming stench of toxic masculinity. To be sure, Arthur Miller’s play is pretty much the same one you read in high school, the one that would ask you to see Willy and Biff Loman as victims of the social and economic stresses of mid-20th-century American capitalism. But feminist consciousness and our current political moment make it nearly impossible to ignore the extent to which the presumption of white male privilege that was sociological “background” for Miller’s original audience is precisely what creates dysfunction at every level of his character’s lives.

L to R: Alex Mickiewicz, Zach Grenier, Maxwell Eddy. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

I’m pretty confident I was not alone in finding that the play plucked this sensitive nerve. Certainly my sentiment was shared by the group of around ten young (yes, young! at the Public!) women sitting in the row in front of me who gasped audibly when Hap Loman compared the girls he dates to bowling pins: “I just keep knockin’ them over and it doesn’t mean anything.” And because both Goethe and my good friend Chris Rawson tell me to do so, I’m going assume that excavating the toxic effects of “bro culture” was a deliberate choice, one that then helps explain not only the decision to make Willy Loman a character with whom it’s nearly impossible to sympathize, but also Zach Grenier’s interpretation of him as a man in something of an inarticulate, drunken fog, so poisoned by his own imbibement of noxious ideas about masculinity that he’s fallen victim to some kind of brain-addling dementia.

In point of fact, director Robinson doesn’t give us much encouragement to have compassion for any of the men in the play. Hap (Maxwell Eddy) and Biff (Alex Mickiewicz) – two handsome and well-educated white boys – are victims of nothing but their own expectations to entitlement, and it’s hard to ratchet up a lot of pity for either of them as they blithely appropriate what doesn’t belong to them. Hap is a “philandering bum” who sleeps with his coworkers’ girlfriends and wives; Biff steals sporting goods and other merchandise from his employers. These guys had, and then squandered, all the advantages denied to women and minorities of their era, and we’re supposed to nod sympathetically as they whinge about excess parental pressure? On top of that, the success to which the Loman men aspire is all too clearly tied up, both in their minds and in the social world of the play, with a dismissive and objectifying attitude towards women, women who giggle and flirt their way to free stockings and cocktails or who are, like Linda Loman (Kathleen McNenny), silenced and cowed into adoring submission. Indeed, the signs of an abused wife are written all over McNenny’s Linda, particularly in her ardent support of a man who continually lies to her and runs roughshod over her emotionally, and I spent most of the evening fervently hoping that Linda would find some way to escape her abusive marriage other than waiting for Willy to off himself.

The six decades that have transpired since Miller wrote this play open up some other dissonances, as well. For example, the play clearly positions Charley (Randy Kovitz) and his son Bernard’s work ethic as the correct antidote to Willy’s shallow, “it’s all about being liked,” definition of success. Bernard (Shaun Cameron Hall) exemplifies the meritocratic dream: he’s the nerdy and unpopular boy who studies hard, gets good grades, and achieves respect, status, and a rewarding salary as a result. But the nearly unbridgeable expansion of the gap between rich and poor in this country in the last thirty-odd years has surely taught us that Willy was right all along: our system is by no means a meritocracy, and how far you make it up the socioeconomic ladder depends as much on what rung you start on, and who you meet along the way, as on the talent and effort you put into the climb. Viewed in retrospect, the play thus somewhat ironically evokes nostalgia for a time when the Willys of the world could be seen as tragically misguided; instead, he just comes across as a foolish loser.

That impression is underscored by Grenier’s performance in the role. As he staggers slump-shouldered around the stage, roaring and slurring many of his lines unintelligibly, we lose all sight of what might have once made Willy Loman lovable not just to his family but also to the buyers he must, at some point, have charmed. He’s nothing so much as a pathetic sad-sack whose failure to live up to the macho ideal embodied by his brother Ben (Tuck Milligan) – who walked into the jungle at 17 and walked out at 21 as a rich man – has left him spiteful and seething in self-loathing.

And where does that leave poor Linda Loman, at play’s end? Precisely where rampant white male privilege leaves most women, I’d surmise: drained, exhausted, and diminished, looking back on a life she wasted propping up the source of her erasure from the scene as she quietly recedes into the background once again.

“The Ascendants” at Bricolage Production Company

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When was the last time you had that consciousness of yours massaged? Been awhile? Well, the good people at Bricolage have got you covered. Their newest venture – the one-and-only Materfamilias Bathhouse in downtown Pittsburgh – offers a twenty-five minute spa experience that will recharge your mind and spirit.

Materfamilias – a spa that claims a “107 year history as the longest-running bathhouse in Western Pennsylvania” – runs a clean and clockwork-like organization. You ring the bell at your exact appointment time (latecomers are not accommodated) and are greeted by a friendly attendant, clad all in white, who confirms your registration and then reminds you of the spa’s primary rule: patrons must remain silent at all times. You enter the clean, tiled space, where upbeat music and the gurgling of a water fountain immediately put you into a more placid state of mind. You sign a waiver, stow your valuables on a cart, and enter one of the three changing booths, where you remove your shoes and socks and are instructed to don a specially-designed pair of headphones and goggles in preparation for your treatment.

L to R: Andrea Kozai and Michael Brewer. Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage.

The treatment itself – well, I’ve made a promise not to divulge too many of the details, since the methods used are proprietary. In addition, because the treatment is deliberately fashioned to produce an individualized effect on the patron, the spa recommends that you shed yourself of expectations before arriving, so it would clearly be imprudent for me to set any expectations on your part by giving an overly elaborate description of how the spa achieves its effects.

Nonetheless, what I can tell you is that you’ll be gently led on a one-of-a-kind, multisensory journey, one that takes you into the depths of darkness before leading you out again into the light. If your spa experience is anything like mine – and I sincerely hope it will be – you may find that it pulls your mind temporarily out of your body, cleanses it of anxiety, fear, and stress, and leaves you, in the end, feeling mentally detoxified and existentially refreshed.

Appointments are available through the Bricolage website, for a limited time only.

“Wild With Happy” at City Theatre

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Wild With Happy is a seriously funny play. I mean that quite literally: what else could it be, given that it’s a comedy about a man grieving the death of his mother?

For the most part, that counterintuitive combination of the serious and the funny works quite well, thanks mainly to the work’s playful structure and its ostentatious and outrageous characters. The play opens with a rather sober Gil (Corey Jones), explaining his aversion to religious ceremonies and churches, in a monologue that is suddenly interrupted by a flashback in which he relives the time his mother Adelaide (C. Kelly Wright) brought him back to Sunday services to “get themselves some Jesus” and were greeted (in his memory, at least) by a charismatic, disco-dancing Church Elder (Monteze Freeland) who traumatizes the young “limp-wristed” Gil by knocking Adelaide flat on the floor with the Holy Spirit. The moment, handled with flair by director Reginald Douglas, is technicolor and outsized, and sets the tone for a production that likewise shifts zanily in structure and mood from the earnest to the ridiculous at the drop of a hat.

L to R: Corey Jones, Jason Shavers, and Monteze Freeland (as Mo); photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

Or perhaps I should say at the drop of a shoe, for Gil’s mother was a big believer in magic, fairytales, and the Cinderella promise that if you have faith in your dreams, they really will one day come true, and the play’s main trajectory traces Gil’s journey from cynical, eye-rolling rejection of his mother’s romantic fantasizing to a sweet moment of sentiment straight out of her favorite fairy tale. Along the way, Gil needs to deal with his guilt over not having spent enough time with his “onliest” mother during her final illness, as well as with his despair over the shambles into which both his professional life and his love life have fallen.

Accompanying Gil on that journey are his best friend, the gender-ambiguous makeup artist Mo, and his domineering, tackily-dressed and -bewigged Aunt Glo (played by Freeland and Wright), along with Terry (Jason Shavers), the funeral director Gil manages to seduce while deciding what to do with his mother’s remains. Mo and Glo are the two characters playwright Colman Domingo clearly had the most fun writing, and Freeland and Wright make those characters effervesce. Freeland is wondrously inventive as the sashaying, attitude-ful Mo, a character who appears to be all exuberant surface and no depth – until the poignant, fleeting moment when Freeland lets us see the core of hurt and regret Mo uses all that attitude to cover up. Wright brings Energizer Bunny-like momentum to her personification of Glo, who seems to barely stop talking to take a breath and who gets some of the best gags in the play, including a recurrent water-drinking lazzi that is one of the more impressive bits of physical comedy I’ve seen in some time.

L to R: Corey Jones and C. Kelly Wright (as Aunt Glo); photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

The laughter these two characters provoke helps compensate for the play’s rather spongy plot: at an hour and forty-five minutes, the intermissionless play starts to feel draggy about two-thirds of the way through, and the play’s ending, while utterly irresistible, isn’t fully earned. Moreover, strong as Domingo is in fleshing out his comic characters, Gil and Terry, his two “straight” men, often feel described rather than embodied. For example, at one point Terry tells Gil that he finds him “strange but beautiful”; Jones’s beauty is self-evident, but there’s not much that’s strange about his behavior, especially in comparison to the idiosyncratic Mo. Although I found Jones both believable and compelling in the role of Gil, I wonder if the script might have been better served by an interpretation that leaned in more heavily to the stereotype of the flamboyant gay peacock. That is: Jones’ and Shaver’s “straight men” are perhaps a tad too straight for the world of the play.

The costuming, by Karen Perry, adds its own sly humor to the play’s mix of serious comedy: in particular, Aunt Glo’s repertoire of velour-plus-gold-sneaker combos, her assortment of wigs, and her seemingly bottomless purses and fanny packs become running jokes throughout the play. Tony Ferrieri’s set establishes a fitting cartoonish outlandishness, with a faux marble platform and huge red curtain that glow under black lites; the curtains pull back to reveal a shallow playing space that transforms into the funeral home, Adelaide’s apartment, and a hotel room, while the set also cleverly pops out elements that serve as a park bench or automobiles. Zachary Beattie-Brown’s sound design draws on Motown/disco hits like “Best of My Love” to create an upbeat, toe-tapping soundscape whose tone and lyrics both fit the theme of the play, and Andrew David Ostrowski’s lights masterfully shift the mood and atmosphere from realism to fantasy and back again.

“Collaborators” at Quantum Theatre

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There’s a diabolically funny moment in the first act of Collaborators: Josef Stalin (played with demonic relish by Martin Giles), having summoned playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (Tony Bingham) to his secret office to work on a play glorifying Stalin’s life, shoos Bulgakov away from the typewriter and starts merrily pounding away at the keys. The moment is funny because we don’t expect a figure like Stalin to find such joy in writing a play; the moment is diabolical because it encourages us to see one of history’s most monstrous autocrats as human, likable, and perhaps even a little bit charming.

Collaborators

L to R: Martin Giles, Tony Bingham, Dana Hardy

That’s a dangerous slippery slope, as the remainder of the play reveals. For Bulgakov, too, is disarmed by the dictator’s enthusiasm for ghostwriting his play, and as his artistic “collaboration” with Stalin develops, he is drawn further and further down that slope into tragic collusion with a political regime he has devoted his entire life and work to resisting.

But first there’s satiric comic hay to be made out of the vicissitudes of working as an artist under the autocratic Soviet regime. It’s 1938, and Bulgakov, a dissident sharing a cramped and cold Moscow apartment with his wife Yelena and three others, has spent a career seeing his work fall in and out of the graces of the Soviet leadership. So large looms Stalin’s power over his psyche that he suffers a recurrent nightmare – staged with glorious Keystone Kops anticness at the start of the show – in which Stalin bursts out of a cupboard, chases him around the stage, and threatens to kill him with his own typewriter. But Stalin doesn’t only wield psychic power over Bulgakov: the secret police also have the authority to shut down his newest play, which they don’t hesitate to use as leverage to coerce Bulgakov into doing their bidding.

That may not sound like a comic premise, but playwright John Hodge offers plenty of laughs through his sharp, ironic dialogue and darkly wry situations. Hodge, a British writer who is best known for writing the screenplay for Trainspotting, seems to have a Russian sense of humor, one that dredges the comical out of the depths of despair, and director Jed Harris stages that comedy with a deft touch, masterfully managing a tonal shift over the course of the play from nimble satire to a laughter that sticks in your throat in the end. The play’s sound design (Joe Pino) and costumes (Susan Tsu) aid in establishing a world that is simultaneously a bit topsy-turvy and high-stakes serious; Narelle Sissons’s set, in which nearly all of the cupboards are bare, provides the versatile space for Harris’s animated staging.

Harris has assembled a top-notch group of actors to flesh out this comedy, including John Shepard, priceless as a lascivious doctor; Jonathan Visser, dolorous as Grigory, a writer whose work has been banned; and Dana Hardy, who centers the play’s emotional heart as Yelena. Martin Giles plays Stalin with a comic abandon that slides eerily into menace at the end of the play, and Ken Bolden’s Vladimir, of the secret police, caroms schizophrenically between merciless intimidator and enthusiastic aesthete. But the center of the play is Bulgakov, and Tony Bingham is brilliant in the role. He manages the tricky feat of making his Bulgakov seem like a real person and yet still rendering him big and broad enough to inhabit the expansive comedy of the play. His sympathetic and subtle portrayal of the character helps us to see how readily anyone – even one of us – could be manipulated into becoming what we hate: his Bulgakov is like the frog in slowly boiling water that doesn’t feel how hot it’s getting until it’s too late.

There’s a warning in Bulgakov’s fate for all of us, especially in light of the creeping, inexorable normalization of not only extreme alt-right ideologies, but also the dismantling of democratic norms, hidden behind a smokescreen of fake news and twittered distractions. Collaborators opened the day after missile strikes against a Syrian airbase magically made the current occupant of the White House – a person who has boasted of sexually abusing women and who misrepresents the truth in seven out of ten statements – appear decisive and “presidential.” The water keeps getting hotter, and it may soon be too late to hop out. That may not be very funny, but, by its end – and in the best of ways – neither is Collaborators.

“What’s Missing” at CorningWorks

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I probably failed to fully comprehend what Corning Works’ new dance work, What’s Missing, is about.

But that’s okay, because – as a disembodied voice repeatedly reminds us, in what is simultaneously a conjuration and conjugation of absence – what you see is imperfect, what they do is imperfect, we are flawed, we will fail to see, we are all wrong, and this performance will fail to resolve.

L to R: Beth Corning & Donald Byrd

What’s Missing may, in fact, be the most clear-eyed, and most despairing, artistic response to last year’s election that I’ve seen to date. How do you make meaning in a world of alternative facts and near constant disinformation? Co-choreographers and performers Donald Byrd and Beth Corning’s answer is a kind of resigned anxiety, expressed in hands coming to frantic, fluttering life on their own, in dance sequences that hesitate, stutter, and shrug, and in the fragmentation of the audience’s perception.

The piece is a series of solos and duets structured by the repetition of a thematic movement sequence in which the two performers come together on a white bench, join hands, connect, disconnect, spoon on the floor, and break apart. Each time this sequence is presented, the bench is placed in a different place on the all-white stage, which means that audience members sitting on three sides of the space have a different perspective on the movement each time (and also have a different view than others in the audience). Ushers encourage you to split apart from the person you’ve attended the performance with, the better to be able to compare perspectives after the show. Both of these are ideas that work better in theory than in practice: it wasn’t hard to extrapolate what the movement looked like from another person’s point of view, and if there were small differences in detail from repetition to repetition, my suspicion is that it would have been difficult for most spectators to recall and compare them with their companions in any case. Nonetheless, the bigger question the staging choice begs – the question of how it is that we can all be looking at the same thing and yet seeing it in very different ways – is clearly a politically urgent one, and Corning’s interest in finding a dance metaphor to pose it is a laudable one.

What’s perhaps most striking about this piece, however, is its decision to confront the world of alternative facts with what feels like an anti-response. “This performance will not change anything,” the voice says, robbing art of one of its presumed functions. In its exploration of the contours of the rabbit hole down which we have collectively tumbled, What’s Missing seems to propose that we are in a moment in which art must retreat from meaning in order to make sense of the world.

“The Guard” at City Theatre

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What is the value of a work of art? What is it to the person who views it in a museum? To the person who is charged with its safety and security? And – perhaps most importantly (?) – to the person who made it in the first place?

Those are questions at the heart of Jessica Dickey’s evocative new play The Guard, in which Rembrandt’s painting Aristotle with a Bust of Homer becomes a kind of magic portal that telescopes us back in time, first to Rembrandt’s studio, as he begins work on the painting, and then to Homer, reflecting on the role of poetry in capturing and recording human experience.

L to R: Melinda Helfrich, Andrew May, Stephen James Anthony, and Billy Hepfinger. Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover, Courtesy City Theatre

The receding structure of the play is captured metaphorically in Narelle Sissons’s spare but elegant set, in which frames are nested within frames, and where the action unfolds on what looks like a canvas that has been peeled away from its frame, in a gesture that draws us into the work while simultaneously disconnecting the work from its status as a finished product.

The scenic design pulls us, like the play itself, into a consideration of what a work of art is before it has been framed and hung on a museum wall and made sacred. Museum guard Henry (Andrew May) and his colleague Jonny (Billy Hepfinger) are charged with maintaining a secure and safe environment for the valuable paintings under their care; they have a detailed regimen of inspections and rules, chief among which is the prohibition against touching the art. When a new guard, Dodger (Stephen James Anthony) comes in for his training, he’s itching to have someone touch the famous Rembrandt, both out of a desire to change the way people interact with art and out of an instinct that it might offer them some kind of emotional release or grounding. When he finally convinces Henry and museum visitor Madeline (Melinda Helfrich) to touch the painting with him, the gesture is transformative indeed: they are catapulted into the 17th century and transformed into Rembrandt, his mistress, and his son.

There, not only is the canvas not yet sacred, it’s the object of a good deal of disdain. The contrast between our contemporary reverance for Art-with-a-capital-A and the artist’s rough treatment of the materials of his trade couldn’t be more starkly drawn: Rembrandt despises the work he’s been commissioned to produce and comes close to taking a dump on the canvas.

And yet at both the site of production and the site of reception there is the sense that whether or not one has physical contact with the material object of art, its meaning always remains elusively and maddeningly just out of reach. Rembrandt can’t put his finger on the why of what he does any more than we can; or, as we see in the scene that follows, than Homer could.

That failure, that gap between what we strive to convey and understand and what we can convey and understand, is a quality not just of art, but also of loss and grief. Here, too, the scenic design offers a visual metaphor: with each shift in time and place, another element of the scene design falls or is pulled away. Both Madeline and Henry are dealing with the discombobulations of grief (she over the recent death of her grandmother, he over the imminent demise of his husband, Simon (Raphael Nash Thompson)). Both of them feel themselves to have failed the people they have loved and lost in profound ways. But isn’t it precisely this failure, in the end, that drives the desire to make art and to capture the human experience in some material form?

Tracy Brigden echoes the spare and elegant sensibility of the scenic design in her direction of the play, and she honors the play’s interest in the gulfs that yawn between us, and between us and the works of art we create to try to bridge that gap, by letting the action unfold without attempting to explain or frame what playwright Dickey leaves enigmatic. The excellent cast brings sensitivity and a light touch to their handling of character – May, in particular, captures the hovering disembodiedness that characterizes a person not-coping with caring for a dying loved one with delicate insight. The magic of this play is a quiet one, unfolding in the connections we make between the strivings of the artists whose work has communicated to us across centuries and of the people who find solace, inspiration, and mystery in their work.

“Daddy Long Legs” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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“Jane Eyre meets Beauty and the Beast meets My Fair Lady meets You’ve Got Mail.”

That’s what I imagine the pitch might be for the enjoyably predictable – yet also oddly idiosyncratic – meet-cute plot of the musical Daddy Long Legs.

From Jane Eyre it takes an orphaned and exploited protagonist who uses education and determination to make her way up the social and economic ladder in a patriarchal world; from Beauty and the Beast it takes a heroine who loves books and stories, and whose intelligence and wit bewitch, and eventually reform, a wealthy but socially inept man; from My Fair Lady it takes the theme of a benefactor who takes an interest in educating and transforming an impoverished girl and then falls in love with her; and from You’ve Got Mail it takes the plot contrivance of an epistolary romance in which a woman thinks she is corresponding with a man she has never met, but is actually writing letters to a man she already knows.

L to R: Allan Snyder and Danielle Bowen. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Pubic Theater

Of course, the musical doesn’t really take these plot elements directly from any of those predecessors, since its actual source is the 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, an early twentieth-century novelist you’ve probably never heard of (well – I hadn’t) who was also a suffragist and social activist. Nevertheless, the romcom-mashup plot trajectory’s destination is evident from almost the moment the musical begins – and yet there are plenty of unexpected surprises along the way.

Let’s start with the rather awkward premise of the love story: Jerusha (Danielle Bowen) has been gifted a college education by an anonymous and mysterious benefactor she nicknames “Daddy Long Legs” (because the only glimpse she has of him, a lanky shadow, reminds her of a spider). His gift comes with a few strings attached, among them that she is to write to him regularly of her progress, but never to expect a response, or to know his true identity. Her letters are so lively, charming, and intimate that he begins to take an interest in her, and – because he happens to be  her college roommate’s uncle – he contrives to meet her in person without her knowing who he is. Over the next four years of college she continues to write to “Daddy,” as she calls him, about the details of her life, including her ongoing impressions of the rather attractive Uncle Jervis (Allan Snyder), never realizing that she is in fact corresponding directly with Jervis, who, in turn, uses his power as “Daddy Long Legs” to keep her from spending time with potential romantic rivals.

That’s a pretty creepy setup, and it’s to the musical’s credit that it doesn’t pretend that there’s anything okay about Jervis’s subterfuge. In fact, his distress and guilt over his prolonged failure to reveal his secret is one of the main conflicts of the play: several times he begins to write to Jerusha to explain what’s going on, only to find some flimsy rationalization for his cowardly inability to fess up. Meanwhile, Jerusha is completely oblivious to the fact that she’s even in a romantic comedy at all. In a welcome and refreshing twist on the genre, her focus is on her education and future professional career: she’s spending her time reading voraciously, writing a novel, and becoming politically aware and active, all the while believing that her correspondence is with a man old enough to be her grandfather – which, it’s true, only adds to the weirdness of the play’s inevitable resolution, but at the very least, her achievement of career success (she gets a lucrative publishing contract) goes some way to mitigate the humiliation that she feels – and that we feel, on her behalf – on learning that she has essentially been duped.

It also helps that director Ted Pappas and actor Allan Snyder make clear, through the staging and character interpretation, that Jervis is not a mean and deceptive man, but rather a fearful and socially awkward one; the play makes him grovel quite a bit for Jerusha’s forgiveness and also gives her ample opportunity to lay out for him, and for us, all of the ways he has betrayed her trust. The humiliation goes both ways, in other words, and when the inevitable resolution occurs, we have at the very least seen all of the damage laid bare.

You may have noticed that I’ve only mentioned two characters, which is another unusual thing about this musical: there are no others. Snyder and Bowen – both of whom are on stage and singing nearly non-stop for almost two and a half hours – are excellent, as is the production overall. Snyder’s voice is a pleasant tenor that handsomely suits the character of Jervis, and he brings a fine comic sensibility to the role. Bowen has an gloriously easy, silvery voice that effortlessly floats above the three-piece orchestra, and she is utterly winning as the plucky, intelligent Jerusha. Michael Schweikardt’s two-level set ingeniously secrets props and costumes in benches and cupboards so that Pappas can keep the action moving seamlessly forward even as the action shifts from an orphanage to a college to a farm to a several other locales. 1912 was a lovely era for clothes (think Alice Paul and the suffragettes) and costume designer Gabriel Berry replicates the era beautifully, with some particularly fun hats for Jerusha.

The fact that there are only two characters means that the book and lyrics can spend a lot more time exploring their thoughts and feelings and giving them more psychological and emotional complexity than you’d normally expect from a musical comedy. That, along with Jerusha’s pointed refusal to let her ambitions be limited by her gender, may be what most lifts the work above the romcom conventions it so pleasurably weaves together, and what allows it, in the end, to pay something of an homage to novelist Jean Webster’s first-wave feminism.

What’s on: February

Dearest readers, February’s a short, busy month here in the ‘Burgh, and many worthy performances will happen that I’ll either not be able to catch, because of other commitments, or not get to write about. And some I will write about, but perhaps not right away. Here’s what’s on my radar screen:

This week, Hiawatha Project opens the new play JH: Mechanics of a Legend at the August Wilson center. The play, which situates the legend of John Henry within a cyclical repetition of the institutional mechanics of slavery, is written and directed by Anya Martin, and developed by its talented, local cast (which includes Monteze Freeland as John Henry and Delana Flowers as Polly Ann).  JH is an inventive weaving-together of history, myth, movement, and song. Opening night is February 9; you can find tickets and more information here.

This weekend is also the only weekend this month you can catch The Pink Unicorn at Off the Wall productions in Carnegie – a new play by Elise Forier Edie about a Christian conservative widow coming to terms with the news that her teenager is genderqueer. Directed by Ingrid Sonnichsen, this one-woman show features the formidable Amy Landis as the mother. Opens Thursday, plays through Sunday.

I won’t be catching that because my weekend will be taken up with the Bach Choir’s performance of Randall Thompson’s Requiem, a piece you’ve probably never heard of but will be ever-so-grateful to come to know. The Requiem is a one-hour, dual-choir, complex and gorgeous a cappella piece; playing at the downtown First Presbyterian Church on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Also opening this month is Alumni Theatre Company’s original production “A World Without Us,” a show that highlights the rich contribution young urban artists can and do make to their community. The show runs February 17-18 at Peirce Studio, and more information on that is at the Alumni Theatre Company website.

A few shows are up and running: in addition to The Royale, which I posted about yesterday and which you really shouldn’t miss, there’s Woody’s Order at the Pittsburgh REP (a one woman show, by Ann Talman, about her relationship with her disabled brother Woody) and Twelfth Night at the Public.

Lastly – but certainly not leastly! – you should be making plans now to come on over to my stomping grounds here at CMU to catch the run of Ragtime, directed by Tome Cousins, and featuring the musical theater students of the School of Drama – opens February 23, running for two weekends. We also have an adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II opening on February 22 and running for one weekend. (I don’t review our shows, but I don’t mind using this blog to let you all know what’s happening here!)