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Chaos without order: Benavides (top) and Parsons in Mother of Invention.

Soul Singers
By James Yeara

My Fair Lady
Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe, directed by Tim Nelson, choreographed by John L. Wescott

Park Playhouse Inc., Washington Park, Albany, through Aug. 17

Twelve years and one Gulf War later, Park Playhouse returns to Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 musical juggernaut My Fair Lady, minus the bombast of the company’s 1991 production and the clunky schmaltziness of previous PPH fare. The current My Fair Lady is simply done, efficiently staged, and brightly sung. At a brisk 2 hours and 37 minutes, it’s the most audience-friendly of PPH productions since 1992’s West Side Story.

The wisest decision and greatest departure from the previous production is the simplifying of the set. Using only five two-story black arches in silhouette—three upstage center and one each downstage left and right—creates an appropriate London rowhouse feel. The airy outlines perfectly serve the musical, as scenes can flow from Covent Garden to Higgins’ study to Ascot Races with a bracing ease of the imagination and a few lines of dialogue. Gone are the lurching, lumbering sets and five-minute set changes that marked PPH’s aesthetic, and in their place are singers and dancers singing and dancing. The shift in focus from set to singer makes all the difference.

The singing is grand during this My Fair Lady, and the staging by longtime musical director Tim Nelson keeps the focus on the songs. If the acting devolves into simply standing, speaking words and moving to the next blocking, it doesn’t interfere with the delights of the songs or the efficient movement during the dance numbers. This risk-free approach does wonders on the lakehouse stage. With an elegant costume design from June P. Wolfe and crisp lighting design from Russel Drapkin, the stagecraft finely supports the performers, a trend to be encouraged here.

This production focuses on the attempts of the aged linguistic curmudgeon Professor Henry Higgins (longtime PPH director and lead Steven Earl-Edwards, reprising his 1991 role) to shape the enunciation of middle-aged flower girl Eliza Doolittle (longtime PPH lead Mary Brazeau, also reprising her 1991 role). He succeeds.

The production unfolds more as a song recital than an acted musical (the accents come and go with the breeze, as does the sound from the body mikes, which fade, boom, snarl, and whine at will), but the songs please. The usual hits with the audience—Alfie Doolittle’s (Michael Hill) “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”—always get an audience applauding. However, songs that usually find an audience moving for refreshments were standouts here: “On the Street Where You Live” by Eliza’s upperclass suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (William Harrison), was cleanly sung and delivered with a straight-on earnestness that served the smitten lover appropriately, and “Show Me,” with a post-ball Eliza robbing the cradle with Freddy, sparkled here. If the acting recalls Higgins’ complaint to Eliza, “I can’t turn your soul on,” the singing, the costumes, the lights, and the simplified set more than make up for it by giving a cheery façade to applaud.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Mother of Invention
By Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, directed by Nicholas Martin

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, July 27

Plato coined the phrase, “Necessity, who is the mother of invention,” in The Republic. Dramatists William Wycherley and Richard Brinsley Sheridan worked variations on it in their rich comedies. Now Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros has appropriated it but has not minted any coin of exceptional value in her strange play.

While invention refers to the creation of something new, it is also being euphemistically used here to mean a lie or the telling of lies. And while the implied mother of this play’s title would seem to be necessity, the actual mother is Miriam Buddwing (Estelle Parsons), an alcoholic and progenitor of lies (or drunken fantasies). Like Old Mother Hubbard, Miriam has a thing for her cupboard, in which she hides while doggedly fetching her bedraggled self a gin. Or vodka.

Another mother, Mary (as in, Blessed Virgin), is mentioned by the Buddwings’ Ecuadorian maid, Serita (the comically animated Lisa Benavides). Such religious iconography is also referenced on the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s clever program art in which a statue of a third “mother,” a nun, is morphed into the neck of a bottle of liquor, which is labeled “Mother of Invention.” Religion, booze, dark places—one takes solace where one finds it, particularly in a household as dysfunctional as the Buddwings’.

The circumstance that creates Miriam’s need concerns her husband, Mitchell (a pallorously eerie André Tremblay), who has long been comatose and dying. His sickbed is a visible intrusion in the small living room of the modest Buddwing house in a New York City suburb, and until he becomes remains he remains a block to Miriam’s vague dreams for a better life. Thus, Miriam has fantasies of euthanizing Mitchell, although (given Parsons’ performance) staying in the closet or sticking her head in the onstage oven might be preferable.

Life is made more complicated by her three children, two of whom seem hasty inventions. Will is a poet who lives in the woods, perpetually wears a backpack and, at least in Matt McGrath’s likable performance, seems to be in a closet of his own. Doug is a cop, in love with his tough-guy image, and of the Sopranos/Sonny Corleone school of histrionics. Gesturing dramatically with his pinkie and forefinger, Adam Rothenberg imbues Doug with some needed humor in his politically incorrect rants, and he does a mean imitation of a toucan.

The best-written role is Sannie, Miriam’s angst-ridden teen, who wants a two-for-one breast enhancement and whose bedroom occupies the entire top floor of the bilevel set designed by Adam Stockhausen (who must charge by the square foot as opposed to necessity, given that the upstairs is barely utilized). An iridescent butterfly with wonderfully expressive eyebrows and petulant posturing that alternates with bursts of animation (as in her description of being a wave), Diane Davis is the sole actor who creates a genuinely believable character of sufficient dimension and delight to engender empathy. On second thought, maybe that second-floor bedroom is necessary: Watching Davis paint her toenails or regard herself in the mirror is inherently more dramatic than much of what is going on downstairs.

Gersten-Vassilaros has a knack for writing some funny lines, but the necessity of cohesive plot and fully fleshed-out characters is met with less invention. The scenes of a family in chaos spin stylistically from realism to absurdism, and the capable director Nicholas Martin has not been able to unify matters into a satisfying experience that exists beyond the disparate collection of laughs.

The author’s comic gifts are more evident in the second and better-written act (I wonder what would result if the play began with Act II), where she is abetted by Bob Dishy, who takes the humorous concept of an insecure lawyer and embellishes it, even though forced with some unbelievable dialogue.

While I am not convinced that this play is entirely necessary or that the entirety of the play is necessary, it will never realize its potential with Estelle Parsons, who daftly dithers about with an annoying voice that resides somewhere between a drone and a whine. With mechanical actions and abrupt, unmotivated transitions, she doesn’t seem physically present. Would that this extended to her voice.

—Ralph Hammann


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