Jackie & Me (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

Joey is a ten-year-old with a very special gift: he can travel through time by holding a baseball card and concentrating. Joey’s adventures through time meeting various baseball players are detailed in a series of “Baseball Card Adventures” children’s novels by Dan Gutman, with titles such as Honus & Me (1997), Babe & Me (2000), and Shoeless Joe & Me (2002). Jackie & Me (1999), the second novel in the series, covers Joey traveling back to 1947 in order to meet Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, winning Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in a time when most of the country was still quite segregated. Columbus Children’s Theatre is now presenting Jackie & Me as a play, perfectly timed to be a part of Black History Month.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
So much of the success of the show rests on the shoulders of Colin Grubbs as Joey, the time traveler who begins as a Polish white boy dealing with anger issues and awakens as a black boy in 1947! That little plot twist of changing skin colors reminded me of the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1947), but what better way to illustrate how black people (referred to as “colored” or “negroes” in the play) were treated than to have a red-headed white boy be treated as a black boy by the cast? Mr. Grubbs is in every scene, and all of the action revolves around him; he controls so much of the pacing by how and when he chooses to respond, and his excellent timing is quite startling. A key scene requires Mr. Grubbs to say the “N word,” and he doesn’t take the task lightly; the moment feels genuine because of the way he handles it.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Ken Erney (Flip) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Mr. Grubbs is surrounded by some terrific stage veterans, many playing several roles; these are the kind of people who are so good that they make their younger, less experienced co-stars rise to the occasion. Ken Erney is Flip, the kind sports memorabilia store owner who supplies the rare Jackie Robinson card needed for time travel; Brent Alan Burington plays Branch Rickey, the sharp Dodgers owner who gives Jackie Robinson his chance in the major league; Mitchell Spiro plays a spirited coach and manager, a bundle of nerves and energy akin to Mickey Rooney; Catherine Cryan is Mrs. Herskowitz, the sweet shopkeeper who hands out promotional baseball cards, but she also plays a woman on the street who spits at poor Joey when he forgets to tow the “whites only” line; Jenna Lee Shively is caring but stern as Joey’s mom; and Eric Qualls plays a calm and controlled Jackie Robinson.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Chris Curran, Louis Weiss, and Jack Carson
 
Standouts in the young ensemble include Jacob Cohen as Ant, a fellow batboy from the past who taunts Joey; and Louis Weiss, playing a student and a kid in Brooklyn. Mr. Cohen has to say and do some despicable things to Joey without being so awful that he throws the show off balance; he performs intelligently while also embracing his inner bully. Mr. Weiss doesn’t have a great deal of lines to say, but his expressions throughout the play are quite funny and say more than enough; at any point he can be counted on to be responding with an array of funny facial expressions to what is going on around him.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Mitchell Spiro (Coach), Jack Carson, Collin Grubb (Joey), Devin Lapp, and Jacob Cohen
 
Ray Zupp’s set, complete with ramps and a raised platform behind a baseball diamond on the stage floor, is an excellent setting for the action; it’s one of those sets that is best appreciated from the middle on back in the audience so the full breadth of it can be taken in. Director William Goldsmith is successful in keeping the energy of the cast up between the scenes involving the baseball games, only faltering with the storytelling in a few notable places; a scene between Joey and Ant in the locker room where Joey scares Ant with his revelation about time travel plays out awkwardly, and the first act closing where Joey reads a letter signed by much of the team requesting to be traded rather than play on the field “with a negro” is treated as a throwaway moment without the proper reverence and buildup.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Brent Alan Burington (Eddie Stanky) and Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson)
 
With any adaptation there will be changes made for one reason or another; while overall the stage adaptation of Jackie & Me by Steven Dietz (he is credited with the stage script along with the writer of the novel, Dan Gutman) is solid, there were a few changes that didn’t make sense to me. For example, in the play Flip lets Joey borrow his rare Jackie Robinson card for $20; in the novel he lends it to him for free, which makes a heck of a lot more sense. Who would someone charge a little boy to “rent” a baseball card? The aforementioned scene involving several Dodgers signing a petition against Jackie Robinson only to have one of them balk and tear it up has been weakened, and the use of racial slurs has been greatly tamed (most of which is understandable – the “N word” doesn’t need to be shouted all the time to get the point across). Ant calls Joey the “N word” in the novel, but in the play Joey reads a letter that contains the word. It’s an odd shift to have Joey, now a black boy when he appears in 1947, to be the one character that says that word; it changes the impact to have the message soft pedaled in that way. There is a lot more to the novel that wouldn’t have fit into this ninety-minute, two-act play, and I recommend reading it; I just think a few of the changes were unnecessary in the transition from page to stage.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Still, Jackie & Me is that rare children’s show that doesn’t talk down to its young target audience. A serious message about prejudice and fear is mixed in delicately with all of the fun and humor, and yet it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed or too simple. The suggested age of seven and up seems right, though kids aren’t required to enjoy this production. No prior knowledge of baseball is needed either as this is more a human story than anything else.

*** out of ****

Jackie & Me continues through to February 28th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/jackie–me.html

Sleuth (The Carnegie – Covington, KY)

  
I would imagine that a mystery would be one of the more difficult plays to stage effectively as it requires a slight of hand that needs to be sustained for an entire performance, but director Greg Procaccino’s production of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth at The Carnegie seems to defy that hypothesis as it feels effortless and, dare I say it, ebullient? It doesn’t adhere to the tried and true constructs of other thrillers, so perhaps that’s why over forty-five years since its Broadway premiere it remains a classic, in a class all its own.

 

Photo: Mikki Schaffner – (left to right) Rory Sheridan (Miles) and Brent Alan Burington (Andrew)
 
Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth opened on Broadway in the fall of 1970, won the Tony Award for “Best Play,” and ran for three years; it was adapted into a successful 1972 film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and then a rather bumbling 2007 Harold Pinter-scripted remake. The story unfolds at Andrew Wyke’s country home in Wiltshire, where he has invited his wife’s paramour, Milo Tindle, for a visit. Andrew appears to approve of his wife cuckolding him and planning to run off with Milo, and he proposes to the young man a scheme involving some valuable jewelry to help the two start their new life together. Can Andrew be trusted? Is Milo really as naive as he seems? Is it all a game, and if so, whose game is it? There’s no way I’m going to spoil any of that for you, but trust me – it’s worth seeing.

 

Photo: Mikki Schaffner – (left to right) Brent Alan Burington (Andrew) and Rory Sheridan (Milo)
 
Brent Alan Burington plays Andrew looking rather scholarly but behaving with mischievous glee. Mr. Burington always seems to be a few paces ahead of Rory Sheridan as Milo, and that’s as it should be for a time. Mr. Sheridan appears so gangly and simple, his cockney accent light enough to be understood but common enough to separate him from Mr. Burlington in class and stature. I felt so sorry for Mr. Sheridan at first, and then my allegiance changed to Mr. Burington in the second act! I’d seen the 1972 film, but I didn’t remember all of the twists and turns; I was genuinely surprised and delighted at the denouement, as were the audience members around me. Mr. Burington and Mr. Sheridan have fine chemistry, bouncing their lines over the net and returning each other’s serves swiftly and with force.

 

Photo: Mikki Schaffner – Rory Sheridan (Miles)
 
The third star of Sleuth is the grand set designed by Ryan Howell complete with a staircase, large stained glass windows, bookshelves, a hidden safe, a creepy, laughing sailor mannequin… It’s all there and functional. So many props are thrown about that I would hate to be the person responsible for cleaning it all up. If there is one flaw it is that the depth of the set and placement of the furniture (including a large trunk that figures in the first act) block some of the action for the first few rows of the orchestra, so I would avoid trying to be seated too close. The environment at The Carnegie is so intimate anyway that I’m sure even the back of the orchestra or mezzanine would work for this show as there is so much to see and take in.

 

Photo: Mikki Schaffner – (left to right) Brent Alan Burington (Andrew) and Rory Sheridan (Milo)
 
There’s something about loud gunshots that shock me into full attention, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in that regard. There is a warning about the gunshots in the lobby, and they aren’t kidding. It isn’t a gun-heavy show, but rarely have I experienced shooting that looked and sounded so authentic in a theatre. It brought a feeling of real danger to the play, which mixed with the humor and trickery made it quite an onery confection indeed.

*** out of ****

Sleuth continues through to November 22nd in The Carnegie at 1028 Scott Boulevard in Covington, KY (about ninety minutes from Columbus, across from Cincinnati), and more information can be found at http://www.thecarnegie.com/wordpress/theatre/tickets-theater

  


   

The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

It’s important to stand up and be counted; that’s what I took away from The Temperamentals by Jon Marans. That’s the first step – stand up, be counted, and let people know who you are, something people seem to have little trouble doing nowadays with the Internet and so many ways to connect and network. It’s easy to forget how difficult this was in the homogeneous 1950s, where anything that didn’t conform was assumed to be subversive “commie” propaganda and was vilified. Some movements, such as that of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations (founded in 1950) that is the subject of this play, did have Communist roots, mainly because aspects of the ideology were appealing even if they didn’t work in execution. Something different was needed, and it all started with five men who were determined to organize in order to represent the silent “sexual minority.”

From now on when I hear cries from the right wing about the nefarious “gay agenda” I’ll think of this play and the difficulty that the founding members of the Mattachine Society had to get any kind of agenda on the table. “Temperamentals” was the term gay men in the know used for each other, and the only “agenda” they seemed to have at the time was to sneak around for elicit sex and remain closeted. Thank God there were people like Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich, two of the five founding members, who thought otherwise.

Brent Alan Burington plays Harry Hay with gusto and verve. A talented actor with a firm voice that carries, Brent comes off as honest and sincere in a tricky part as he is the engine that keeps the play moving while playing a character that is not always particularly likable. Adam Greenbaum Latek plays his lover, Rudi Gernreich, with a rather thick Viennese accent that varies in intensity (when he says the name Lana Turner, his accent suddenly disappears when her last name is stated) and comes off as a bit too mannered; nevertheless, Adam’s presence grew on me, and his moments of intimacy with Brent feel natural and rather sweet. There is a moment early on when their hands lightly graze each other that is as affectionate and subtle as anything I’ve seen on the stage in some time.

David Allen Vargo as Chuck Rowland is another standout with a commanding stage presence and strong voice. He’s a great foil for Mark Phillips Schwamberger as Bob Hull, Chuck’s former lover and current housemate, and their banter back and forth is humorous and all too genuine as anyone who knows any long term couple – gay or straight – will tell you. Donnie Lockwood plays Dale Jennings (and other small parts, as do David and Mark), and one of his special talents appears to be the ability to sweat on cue. There is a scene where he is on trial and has very little to say but the tension of the moment is conveyed by his perspiration and some very subtle expressions. Donnie is a terrific part of this strong ensemble; he has nice hair too, which has nothing to do with his performance but deserves an honorable mention.

Douglas Whaley’s direction is firm and swift, perhaps even a bit too fast as blackouts at the end of scenes sometimes occur a beat or two too quickly and are jarring. I especially liked how Douglas used the extreme left and right sides of the performance space in his staging for a few key moments. Lighting designer Curtis A. Brown and scenic designer Shane Cinal work well together to evoke different locales with few set pieces and lights, one of my favorites being that of a furtive street corner bathed in a bit of blue light with a single light pole descended from the ceiling. 

While the play begins to falter a bit at the end (Marans doesn’t appear to know how to end it, resulting in an awkward summary of events told by the cast apparently still in character), the attention that is brought to the little known gay rights pioneers presented here is quite timely, especially in light of the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage a few weeks ago. There is even a section of the play where the merits of gay marriage are discussed, but in terms of gay people marrying straight people and how it is dismissed as not being a good idea. To imagine we’ve come this far in sixty-five years is truly remarkable, and how wonderful that this play exists to shed some light on this obscure piece of gay history from the not-so-distant past.

In a way the play reminded me of the situation between Aldonza and Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha; Aldonza only saw herself as a worthless kitchen slut until someone else convinced her that there was more to see. And isn’t that what the Mattachine Society started to do for gay men? Only when some of them stood up did the rest begin to look at themselves and think maybe there’s more than just sneaking into public restrooms and back alleys. I guess if society and people tell you enough that you’re rotten you’ll begin to believe and expect it yourself, but also the reverse is true. It all had to start somewhere.

*** out of ****

The Temperamentals continues through to July 18th in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org/