Devotion (A & B Theatricals – Columbus, OH)

 
Exactly how much can you negotiate in a relationship to get your way? When do you end one relationship and start another? How much contact is healthy with an ex? These are just some of the issues dealt with in Bill Cook’s Devotion, a comedy about three people who should probably remain single indefinitely as they don’t seem to comprehend the kind of devotion necessary to sustain a relationship.

In Devotion, Tricia (Beth Josephsen) is a budding artist with a problem: her ex, Alex (Danny Turek), is living in her loft apartment with her and her current boyfriend, James (James Harper). The time is the early ’90s and the area is SoHo in downtown Manhattan, and it’s all about where you are and who you know that can propel your career forward, a belief keenly held by Tricia, Alex (an actor), and James (a videographer). Even after he is forced out, Alex finds a way to keep returning to Tricia and James, creating tension and mistrust while he makes his goal of reuniting with Tricia very apparent.

 

Photo: Bill Cook – Beth Josephsen (Tricia) and Danny Turek (Alex)
 
The emerging star of this production is Danny Turek, perfectly cast as the actor Alex, as he has (to quote “I’m the Greatest Star” from Funny Girl), “Thirty-six expressions, sweet as pie to tough as leather, and that’s six expressions more than all them Barrymores put together.” Mr. Turek has a delightfully rubbery face, reminiscent of a young Jim Carrey. He is quick on his feet and has terrific chemistry with his nemesis, James Harper, another fine, handsome performer. Mr. Harper has the blander role, but he comes to life with his trademark intensity (I saw him in Standing Room Only’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde last month and was frightened) in scenes where he as his character is doing improvised monologues on camera. Beth Josephsen’s Tricia is tough to take in large doses, as the eye-rolling and sighing gets to be a bit much. I saw Ms. Josephsen in Actors’ Theatre of Columbus’s All the Great Books Abridged over the summer where she was delightfully peppy and energetic, a stark contrast to the role she plays here. Tricia is the kind of girl men should stay clear of as, at the end of the day, her devotion is strictly to herself and career.

What I like most about Bill Cook’s writing is the dialogue. Every character has their own voice and motivation, and the plot stands up to analysis and interpretation. For instance, the title Devotion refers not to any of the three characters’ feelings for each other; this is a love story about an apartment! That explains how Tricia is able to get away with being such a harpy with two attractive men fighting over her – it’s a love story about real estate! The writing doesn’t come out and state that explicitly, and it’s quite possible that my take on it isn’t what Mr. Cook intended, but what a joy it is to find writing meaty enough to chew on and discuss.

 

Photo: Bill Cook – Beth Josephsen (Tricia), Danny Turek (Alex), and James Harper (James)
 

Devotion runs around ninety minutes with an intermission, a break that only serves to separate an inferior first act in which a lot of groundwork is laid from a quick and witty second half. Director Pamela Hill doesn’t always seem to know the best way to start and end a scene effectively, and the performers often come off as rather awkward without enough business around their lines at the beginning of scenes. The blackouts are also quite long while people rather slowly move set pieces and props around. This kind of comedy needs a certain pace to work effectively, and it’s very obvious when it is off.

 

Photo: Bill Cook – (left to right) James Harper (James), Beth Josephsen (Tricia), and Danny Turek (Alex)
 
Though it was a bit rough going early on and Beth Josephsen’s shrill characterization of Tricia can be tough to take, Devotion winds up as an enjoyable enough treat. It doesn’t pretend to be more than it is, and there are genuine laughs that arise organically out of the situation (mostly in the second act). I found myself surprised when it ended as the plot had just taken an unexpected left turn, leaving me curious to see what was going to happen next. And then I realized that a variation on that story had already been written nearly fifty years ago by Neil Simon: The Odd Couple.

**/ out of ****

Devotion continues through to November 14th in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://ab-theatrical.com/

The Miser (Actors’ Theatre of Columbus – Columbus, OH)

The Miser by Molière is one of those old plays that has been adapted and translated for hundreds of years since its premiere in Paris in 1668. A comedy of greed, love, and mistaken identity, The Miser has been performed all over the world as its themes are still relevant today in most every culture. Actors’ Theatre of Columbus is currently presenting an adaptation by Miles Malleson of this work in Schiller Park, which I attended last night with hundreds of other people on a rare night with no rain, at least not in downtown Columbus. I was concerned that the play would be too austere and stuffy for my tastes (I’m a steak and mashed potatoes kind of guy, not veal and au gratin potatoes with garnish), but I was surprised at just how funny and upbeat this old warhorse was to an audience of all ages spread about on lawn chairs and blankets.

 

Photo: Nick Pershing – (from left to right) Lexi Bright (Marianne), Danny Turek (Cleante), Ted Amore (Harpagon), Andy Falter (Valere), and Elizabeth Harelik (Elise).
 
The play is about a stingy widower, Harpagon (Ted Amore), and his efforts to hide his wealth while also controlling the lives of his children, Elise (Elizabeth Harelik) and Cleante (Danny Turek). He engages a matchmaker, Frosine (MB Griffith), to help set him up with a beautiful young girl in town, Marianne (Lexi Bright), unaware that the young lady and his son Cleante are interested in each other. Harpagon then promises his daughter Elise to Sgr. Anselm (Robert McDannold), a rich old man, though she really wants to marry Valere (Andy Falter), her father’s steward. It’s only a matter of time before Cleante’s servant, LaFleche (David Harewood), discovers where Harpagon has hidden his fortune, and the grouchy father has to decide which means more to him: his children’s happiness or his money. It doesn’t help that some people are not who they appear to be, and everyone’s true identity is revealed in a surprisingly hilarious finale. 

  
Director Pamela Hill has done a marvelous job in keeping the pace brisk (after a slow beginning) and tone very light, the only way this kind of comedy can really work. The outdoor set by Trent Bean is awash in pastels, appropriately bright, and sturdy enough to keep up with all of the action. The raked stage is at an angle that had me a bit worried what with the tables and chairs that figure into the action, but everyone navigated the space like pros. The cast often gets physical with each other, and fight choreographer Angela Barch-Shamell has made sure that every slap and shove looks intense while also being safe for the actors.

 

Photo: Nick Pershing – Danny Turek (Cleante) and Elizabeth Harelik (Elise).
 
The cast is uniformly very good, navigating the tricky dialogue with a minimum of flubs, but a few people deserve special mention; Ted Amore as Harpagon, Danny Turek as Cleante, Lexi Bright as Marianne, and MB Griffith as Frosine. Mr. Amore has a firm voice tailor made for this kind of material, and he is spry and quick to react which helps to keep things moving; Mr. Turek looks right at home prancing about in red with bows and ribbons, a perfect fop with cartoonish expressions just right for his character; Ms. Bright brings a shot of adrenaline when Marianne finally appears in the second act at a point when the plot was beginning to sag a bit; and Ms. Griffith has a smoky voice and demeanor that is very appealing, even if she isn’t quite matching the frenetic level of everyone around her; her Frosine is sly and knowing with a job to do, and she isn’t going anywhere unless she is paid for it. It’s possible that Ms. Griffith may even be miscast as her personality carries in a way that belies the limits of her secondary role; I hope to see more of her in the future.

 

Photo: Nick Pershing – MB Griffith (Frosine), Lexi Bright (Marianne), and Ted Amore (Harpagon)
 
William Bragg’s sound design is quite impressive, with dialogue sounding crisp and quite loud to reach everyone in the large outdoor audience. Aside from a few moments of distortion and microphones cutting in and out, all of the dialogue and music was well amplified and sounded quite full, which can’t be easy to achieve outdoors in a park. Special credit should also be afforded to costume designer Emily Jeu for creating the highly detailed and colorful coats and dresses on display; her designs are especially helpful in differentiating cast members to those in the audience far from the stage, and her color choices cleverly telegraph some of the surprises near the end of the play.

 

Photo: Nick Pershing – Elizabeth Harelik (Elise), Andy Falter (Valere), and Ted Amore (Harpagon).
 
Actors’ Theatre of Columbus presents plays on a “pay what you will” basis with a limited number of reserved seats for sale. Members of the company walk around with baskets for donations at intermission and after the performance, and I was glad to see so many people stepping up to support live free theatre for an audience encompassing every economic level. The park is for everyone, and Actors’ Theatre of Columbus’s mission to bring quality theatre (and I do mean quality) free of charge to everyone who wants to experience it is noble as well as necessary; it can foster an appreciation for the arts for those that may not get to experience it otherwise. With The Miser, if the laughter and thunderous applause from the crowd means anything, they are succeeding.

*** out of ****

The Miser continues through to September 6th in Schiller Park on Jaeger Street in German Village in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.theactorstheatre.org/the-miser.html