Graczyk, Grossberg honored at Roundtable awards gala

The cast of Gallery Players' production of Les Miserables sings One Day More at the Theatre Roundtable's 2016 Awards Night (photos by Jerri Shafer
The Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night featured performances from nominated musicals, including Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables (photos by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

At one point during the Theatre Roundtable’s annual Awards Night on Sunday, a presenter joked that it was just like the Oscars because we’d been there two hours and were only halfway through. He was exaggerating a little, but the show did run quite a bit longer than usual.

At least the weather was cooperative—unlike last year, when an incoming winter storm darkened the usually festive atmosphere. Besides, there were enough high points that most people probably didn’t mind sticking around.

The Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle provided one of the highest points: an appearance by Ed Graczyk. He received the circle’s Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award for, among other things, leading Players Theatre Columbus for many years and writing the groundbreaking play Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades (photos by Jerri Shafer)
Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades

Also honored by the critics were Evolution Theatre Company, Short North Stage, Shadowbox Live and MadLab’s former artistic director, Andy Batt. Before walking off with his citation, Batt delighted the audience by turning the tables on the critics, passing out both praise and pans to the people who’d long been judging his work as an actor and director.

Later—much later—in the evening, critic Michael Grossberg received an honor of his own: the Roundtable’s treasured Harold Award. The group probably chose to present it this year because Grossberg officially retired in 2015 when The Columbus Dispatch’s new owners made dozens of staff cuts. But fortunately for the local theater scene, the Dispatch is still counting on him to lead theater coverage, the only difference being that now he’s doing it as a freelancer.

The evening also included excerpts from 2015 musicals that were nominated for Roundtable awards. For me, the most exciting moment came when Gallery PlayersLes Miserables cast reassembled for a rendition of One Day More. It was a spectacular reminder of just how great that production really was.

For a list of Sunday’s nominees and winners, visit www.theatre-roundtable.org. It includes everything but the citations presented by the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle, which are listed below:

▪ To Evolution Theatre Company and managing artistic director Mark Schwamberger for a lineup of 2015 productions that entertained viewers while fulfilling the troupe’s refocused mission of advancing the understanding of gender issues and exploring gay and lesbian themes.

Andy Batt critiques the critics after accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre
Accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre, Andy Batt takes advantage of the opportunity to critique the critics

▪ To Andy Batt, who stepped down as MadLab’s artistic director at the end of 2015, for leading the troupe through 13 years of growth and development that included its 2012 launch of an annual festival for high school playwrights and its 2010 purchase and renovation of a performance space and gallery that has helped to nurture both the performing and visual arts in Downtown Columbus.

▪ To Short North Stage for making a major commitment to nurturing new musicals in 2015 with its successful world premieres of The Great One, The Last Night of Disco and Krampus: A Yuletide Fable.

▪ To Shadowbox Live for celebrating its 25th anniversary by stretching itself with inventive rock tribute shows and collaborations, both local and international.

Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk
Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk

▪ A Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk, an accomplished director and nationally known playwright, who led Players Theatre Columbus from the 1970s into the early 1990s and wrote Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a pioneering transgender comedy-drama that premiered at Players in 1976, ran on Broadway and became a Robert Altman film in 1982 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016.

Front Street troupe was particularly ambitious in 2015

One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)
One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

By Richard Ades

I try not to play favorites when I’m making out my annual “best of” list, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that one Columbus theater company was a dominant force in 2015. Shadowbox Live had so many great and unique shows that I could just about draw up a separate list devoted solely to the troupe on Front Street.

To some extent, this is no surprise. Shadowbox is by far the biggest and busiest company in town. At any given time, it divides its week up among multiple productions.

In 2015, though, Shadowbox seemed to be trying harder than ever. Not only were several of its variety shows particularly enjoyable, but it launched all-new productions that were like nothing we’d ever seen.

Shadowbox’s ambition didn’t always pay off. After putting everything else on hold for its fall production of The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale turned out to be visually exhilarating but dramatically dull. But Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman was a joyful musical tribute, while the Pink Floyd retrospective Which One’s Pink? had moments of pure genius.

To top the year off, Shadowbox announced plans to purchase its expansive Brewery District venue. It’s a gutsy move, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Stev Guyer and company.

Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza) in this scene from Gallery Players’ production of Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Beyond Shadowbox, my 2015 was highlighted by two wonderful musical productions: Gallery Players’ Les Miserables and Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music. The former was the year’s biggest surprise. I’d previously seen four productions of Les Miz, including two touring shows and the 2012 film version, but I’d never found Jean Valjean’s saga as moving as it was on the Jewish Community Center stage.

On a more modest scale, several of the year’s biggest treats were provided by little Evolution Theatre Company, which staged gay-centered shows that were at once enjoyable and consciousness-raising. Especially rewarding were the WWII musical Yank!, the historical drama The Temperamentals and the Texas-based comedy Sordid Lives.

Also interesting: Wild Women Writing’s On the Edge and Over the Edge, collaborations with Short North Stage that featured short works by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and contemporary American playwright Will Eno.

A few of the other shows were mixed successes for me: I had reservations about the works themselves, but I admired the way they were staged. Warehouse Theatre Company’s This Is Our Youth, Available Light Theatre’s The Christians, MadLab’s Clowntime Is Over and A&B Theatrical’s Devotion all fell into this category.

Outright disappointments? Of course there were some, but maybe the biggest was that I missed many shows that doubtlessly were worthwhile. Often I was too busy or out of town. In the case of one popular show staged in a relatively small space, I simply couldn’t get a ticket. At any rate, it should be remembered that any “best of” list is limited by what that particular critic has or hasn’t seen.

Obviously, 2015’s biggest shock was the unexpected death of Actors’ Theatre artistic director John S. Kuhn in late February. Though it was a great loss to the company and the theater community at large, Actors’ staff and supporters came together to ensure that the outdoor troupe’s summer season went forward as planned. Since then, Actors’ Theatre has named Philip J. Hickman as its new artistic director and announced a promising 2016 season, offering hope that the troupe will continue to build on the gains it made under Kuhn’s leadership.

On that somber but optimistic note, here’s my list of the best productions and performances of 2015:

Best play: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Adrenaline Theatre Company. Director Audrey Rush and her cast brought fire and commitment to Edward Albee’s tale of a monstrously dysfunctional relationship.

Best musical (tie): Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. The former demonstrated that Les Miz still has the power to move us. The latter proved once again that Short North Stage has a way with Sondheim.

A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)
A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)

Best variety show: Sex at the Box, Shadowbox Live. The show’s many highlights included Shadowbox’s funniest skit in years (Funk Daddy Love, starring Brandon Anderson) and perhaps its best cover song ever (Ball and Chain, with Julie Klein expertly channeling Janis Joplin).

Best touring show: Anything Goes, Broadway in Columbus/CAPA. Watching the seagoing musical was like crossing the Atlantic while time-traveling back to the 1930s.

Best new work: Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, Short North Stage. Created by Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist, the musical was a delightfully menacing alternative to A Christmas Carol. Honorable mention: The Great One: A Hockey Musical, Short North Stage.

Best “far out!” moment: Act 2 of Which One’s Pink?, Shadowbox Live. Footage from The Wizard of Oz was combined with live re-enactments of scenes from the film, live performances of music from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon album and interpretive video by CCAD students. Bravo to director Stev Guyer and his talented collaborators.

Best direction (tie): David R. Bahgat, Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and Michael Licata, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Both directors performed miracles with the help of talented casts and crews. Bahgat made the familiar Les Miz as affecting as ever, while Licata brought out every tender, aching moment in Sondheim’s tale of longing and regret.

Best performance, female: Marya Spring, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Spring exuded both worldly confidence and vulnerability as glamorous actress Desiree.

Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Best performance, male: Bill Hafner, Les Miserables, Gallery Players. Hafner sang beautifully while portraying Jean Valjean with just the right combination of nobility and humility.

Best cross-dressing performance: Mark Phillips Schwamberger, Sordid Lives, Evolution Theatre Company. The musical shifted into high gear only after Schwamberger appeared as the pitiable but hilarious “Brother Boy.”

Mythical ogre stalks kids in musical yuletide tale

A scene from Short North Stage's production of Krampus, a Yuletide Tale (photo courtesy of Short North Stage)
Krampus (JJ Parkey, center) terrorizes Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas) while St. Nicholas (Edward Carignan) watches on (photo courtesy of Short North Stage)

By Richard Ades

Christmas, at its essence, is a holiday devoted to hope and redemption.

Thus, it’s not surprising that redemption is at the heart of the granddaddy of all holiday yarns, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. And it’s also at the heart of Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, a musical that’s wrapping up its world-premiere run this weekend at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater.

Another similarity to A Christmas Carol: The road to redemption is a scary one indeed, probably too scary for small children. But for adults and mature youngsters, Krampus is a bracingly original journey.

With music by Nils-Petter Ankarblom (who also leads the three-piece band), and book and lyrics by Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist (who also directs), Krampus feels like an instant classic. The songs are beautiful and varied, and the story is thought-provoking and involving.

The title character (JJ Parkey) is a demon-like figure from Austro-Bavarian folklore who is said to kidnap and punish naughty children during the Christmas season. In this story, he sets his sights on siblings Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas), the offspring of penniless widow Anna Schlecht (Stephanie Prince).

Flora and Bruno aren’t really bad kids—they simply make a bad decision in order to help Anna avoid being evicted by their money-grubbing landlord, Herr Ulrich (Luke Stewart). But this momentary lapse is enough to remove them from the good graces of St. Nicholas (Edward Carignan), the forerunner of our modern Santa Claus.

Contributing to the tale’s charm is the intimate way it’s presented. Viewers sit on the stage of the Garden’s big auditorium, placing them a handful of feet away from Carignan’s storybook-like set. The imaginative costumes (also designed by Carignan) and the dramatic lighting add to the magical atmosphere.

The only production’s only technical shortcoming is that the band occasionally overpowers the vocals. This is mostly a matter of sound mixing, but Prince adds to the problem by singing some of her lines at a nearly inaudible level.

In the two showiest roles, Parkey and Carignan are spectacularly successful. Parkey makes a fearsome but somehow vulnerable Krampus, while Carignan is a surprisingly officious St. Nicholas. (Those of a spiritual bent may read religious significance into the implication that the mythic figures are but two sides of the same coin.) Both actors sing beautifully, but Carignan’s rich voice is put to particularly good use on St. Nick’s introductory solo, On This Night of December Fifth.

Among the human characters, Andrews’s Flora is the most engaging, but all of the cast members display heart and commitment.

Any new work can benefit from a tweak or two, and Krampus could stand to whittle down some of its sappier elements. Otherwise, this new work is just about perfect.

As I said, an instant classic.

Short North Stage will present Krampus, a Yuletide Tale through Dec. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $25, $15 for children. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Waltzing through a tender tale of longing and infidelity

One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)
One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

By Richard Ades

To succeed, a musical production needs basic ingredients such as strong singing, a good band, pretty scenery, etc. If a show has all of these things, it’s probably worth seeing.

But it can be so much more if the director has a feel for the material’s subtleties (assuming there are any) and knows how to communicate them to the cast and crew. Then the musical becomes a transcendent experience.

At Short North Stage, I’ve seen two such productions, both written by Stephen Sondheim: 2013’s Sunday in the Park With George and, now, A Little Night Music. In the current show, a bittersweet reverie on love and regret, director Michael Licata and his cast bring out every knowing chuckle and every tender, aching moment.

Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, the 1973 Tony winner centers on two Swedish households at the turn of the last century.

In one, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Mark A. Harmon) lives with young wife Anne (Jennifer Barnaba) and his son from a previous marriage, seminary student Henrik (JJ Parkey). In the other, Madame Armfeldt (Linda Dorff) cares for granddaughter Fredrika (Maria Delanno) while the girl’s mother, actress Desiree (Marya Spring), is off touring with her latest play.

From the start, it’s apparent that the Egerman household is emotionally unstable. Fredrik loves his girlish wife but is frustrated by her reluctance to take part in marital relations. When Desiree’s touring show arrives in town, he can’t resist going to see the woman with whom he had an affair some 14 years earlier.

This leads to a night of passion that arouses the suspicions of Desiree’s current lover, the pinheaded Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Nick Lingnofski). Being a first-class male chauvinist, he then complains about his mistress’s indiscretion to his long-suffering wife, Charlotte (Kate Lingnofski).

All the desires, suspicions and resentments that were fomented in Act 1 come to a delicious head in Act 2, when everyone converges at Madame Armfeldt’s estate for a country outing.

It’s hard to find fault with the large cast, except to note that Barnaba’s Anne sometimes fades into the woodwork and that her pretty soprano voice was occasionally overwhelmed by the band on opening night. Really, though, there are no weak links.

Spring exudes worldly confidence as Desiree, which makes her vulnerable rendition of the show’s most memorable tune, Send in the Clowns, all the more devastating. As former lover Fredrik, Harmon offers a deftly sketched portrait of a decent man tottering on a tightrope between obligation and desire.

Parkey, a familiar visitor on the Short North stage, gives one of his best performances yet as Henrik, a young man pulled in opposite directions by his religious ideals and his unspoken love for his 18-year-old stepmother. Another career-topping performance is given by Dorff as Madame Armfeldt, whether she’s tackling Sondheim’s tricky melodies or waxing philosophical about roads not taken.

Several hearty laughs are earned by Nick Lingnofski as the preening, adulterous count, while Kate Lingnofski communicates all of the conflicting emotions felt by his wronged but loving wife, Charlotte. In another important supporting role, Eli Brickey gives a saucy but warmhearted portrayal as Petra, Anne’s maid and confidante, and delivers a rousing rendition of The Miller’s Son, a Celtic-flavored statement of female self-sufficiency.

Meanwhile, young Maria Delanno shows remarkable poise as the wise-beyond-her-years Fredrika—to the extent that she didn’t even flinch when a piano bench collapsed under her on opening night.

Adding to the production’s texture are the varied voices who serve as a sort of musical Greek chorus, as well as the backstage musicians who perform under Lloyd Butler’s direction. Interestingly, nearly all of the songs are written in waltz time, which makes it fitting that the most prominent dance numbers (choreographed by Dionysia Williams) are actual waltzes.

Like the troupe’s 2013 staging of Sunday in the Park With George, the current show is a visual treat thanks to Ray Zupp’s gauze-strewn scenery, Adam Zeek’s ethereal lighting and a colorful array of costumes supervised by Stephanie Keller. But perhaps the most important of the backstage talents is sound designer Michael Mason, who succeeds in making nearly every syllable come through clearly—not an easy feat in the Garden Theater’s cavernous main auditorium.

With A Little Night Music, Short North Stage proves once again that it understands Sondheim. The show is tender, wise, witty and—for devoted fans of the composer/lyricist—completely unmissable.

Short North Stage will present A Little Night Music through Nov. 1 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Up-and-coming playwright is both depressing and hysterical

Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald in The Bully Composition, one of four Will Eno plays featured in Over the Edge (photo by Allan Burkman)
Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald in The Bully Composition, one of four Will Eno plays featured in Over the Edge (photo by Allan Burkman)

By Richard Ades

Back in March, Wild Women Writing presented a collection of pieces about people On the Edge. This month, it’s offering plays about people who’ve gone Over the Edge.

What’s the difference? Rick Gore of Short North Stage (which is co-presenting the production) offered an explanation during a post-performance talkback. He pointed out that the characters in the earlier show often pushed their relationships to the brink of separation but then pulled back, whereas in this show, relationships are more likely to be doomed.

Both shows feature one piece by Samuel Beckett and several short works by another playwright. In On the Edge, the second playwright was Britain’s Harold Pinter; in Over the Edge, it’s contemporary American playwright Will Eno.

Given the contrast between the two shows, could it be that Eno has an even bleaker view of life than Pinter? Maybe so, but he sometimes leavens that bleakness with a sly sense of humor.

This comes out most clearly in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain, in which a man and a woman (John Hawk and Heather Caldwell) are shown recording videos for a dating website. The recording sessions seem to be going on in separate locations, as there’s no connection between the man and the woman. And judging from the way they describe themselves, neither of them is likely to forge a connection with anyone else, either.

Delivered with droll matter-of-factness by Hawk and Caldwell under Katherine Burkman’s direction, their comments are hilariously banal and random. “I’m good at grocery shopping,” the man says, while the woman admits she’s never understood why breaking the sound barrier has to create so much racket. Both are desperate to share their lives with someone, but neither has any idea how to bring that about. Their situations are at once laughable and pitiable.

The other Eno pieces have a similarly downbeat viewpoint, though it’s delivered more straightforwardly.

In The Bully Composition, two people (Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald) set out to re-create a classic photo of soldiers posing between battles during the Spanish-American War. Treating the audience as their models, they urge viewers to imagine they’re in a time and place where life could take a turn for the worse at any moment. The comparison between war and our everyday reality is hard to miss.

In Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured, the title character (David Fawcett) holds a press conference to explain why he failed to lead his team to victory during the past season. “It was a building year,” he starts out, but his defenses eventually crumble—much as his team’s defenses undoubtedly crumbled on the playing field. Before it’s over, he’s revealed way too much about the insecurities that plague every aspect of his life.

The piece has resonance, particularly in a football-obsessed town like Columbus, and is my second-favorite Eno playlet (after Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain). However, Fawcett could give it even more resonance, along with a few more chuckles, if he threw himself into the part a bit more.

Speaking of Columbus, the show’s one Beckett work is called Ohio Impromptu. Its name notwithstanding, it has nothing to do with the Buckeye State except that it was first performed here.

The play features a white-bearded Richard Green reading from an apparently personal essay while an identically bearded Fawcett listens and occasionally raps on the table when he wants Green to stop or repeat something. Basically, it’s a stylish and macabre rumination on death, much like Beckett’s Rockaby from the March show.

Wrapping up the evening is the most unvarnished expression of Eno’s dark outlook, Oh, the Humanity. It begins with a bickering couple (Gerald and a particularly convincing Green) attempting to drive somewhere in a car, which is represented by two chairs. Strangely, they can’t agree on whether they’re going to a funeral or a christening, but this becomes a moot point when the man realizes that they can’t go anywhere because their “car” is—you guessed it—two chairs.

Adding to the piece’s self-conscious theatricality, a third character (Hawk) introduces himself as “The Beauty of Things.” He mostly just observes the couple’s troubles, but at one point he turns to the audience and tells us he knows we expect him to say something reassuring. The line probably would work better if we hadn’t just seen enough Eno to realize that reassurance is not what the playwright is about.

My first take on Eno is that he’s a serious artist who can be hysterically funny when he’s not being annoyingly pretentious. Clearly, though, he’s worth paying attention to, since he’s an up-and-comer who had plays both on and off-Broadway in 2014. Many thanks to Wild Women Writing for giving Columbus a chance to meet him.

Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage will present Over the Edge With Beckett and Eno through May 10 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

One-night stands and recalcitrant cabbies

Nick Lingnofski, Geoffrey Nelson, Colleen Dunne and Stephen Woosley (clockwise from top left) appear in The Collection, one of four works featured in On the Edge (photo by Julia Stonerook)
Nick Lingnofski, Geoffrey Nelson, Colleen Dunne and Stephen Woosley (clockwise from top left) appear in The Collection, one of four works featured in On the Edge (photo by Julia Stonerook)

By Richard Ades

Columbus thespian Katherine Burkman is continuing her love affair with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

Her former group, Women at Play, presented several works by the playwrights when it was active around the turn of the millennium. And now Burkman has made them the focus of a Wild Women Writing show called On the Edge.

Co-presented by Short North Stage, the program consists of an hour-long one-act and two shorter pieces by Pinter, as well as a one-woman play by Beckett. It’s a pleasantly puzzling way to spend an afternoon or evening.

The most rewarding work is the longest, Pinter’s The Collection. The play delves into the power struggle that grows out of an alleged episode of marital infidelity.

James (Stephen Woosley) accuses Bill (Nick Lingnofski) of having a one-night stand with his wife, Stella (Colleen Dunne). Bill denies it ever happened and tries to keep the whole matter from his older lover and benefactor, Harry (Geoffrey Nelson).

Working under Burkman’s direction, the entire cast performs ably. Woosley exudes menace as the accusatory James, while Lingnofski’s Bill responds with oily obfuscation. One of the piece’s joys is seeing Nelson’s Harry finally take charge of the situation after being consigned to the sidelines for much of the running time.

Oddly, the piece is performed with American accents even though the dialogue places the action firmly in the UK. But that’s a distraction only when a character lets loose with a Briticism such as “old chap” or “bollocks.”

Also performed in Americanese, though it’s obviously set in London, is Victoria Station. It’s the comic tale of a taxi dispatcher (David Fawcett) who tries to send a maddeningly obtuse driver (Lingnofski) to the titular railway terminal.

Much of the piece resembles a low-key version of the kind of absurd comic sketches Monty Python specialized in. (Substitute “dead parrot” for “Victoria Station” and you’ll see what I mean.) The contrast between Fawcett’s increasingly frustrated dispatcher and Lingnofski’s uncooperative cabbie is good for several chuckles, but the piece’s darker elements might work better if the latter came off as something more than a blissed-out ignoramus.

Burkman herself takes the stage in Rockaby, the show’s one contribution by Beckett. Much like the playwright’s Krapp’s Last Tape, it consists of the interplay between an elderly character and that character’s recorded voice.

The situation, however, is far simpler. Rather than reviewing her life, the old woman is simply trying to lull herself to sleep (or something more permanent) by listening to a series of repetitive recordings. Working under Ken Pearlman’s direction, Burkman delivers a portrayal effectively tinged with exhaustion and regret.

After all the power plays, frustrations and anguish of the previous works, Pinter’s Night ends the program on an entirely different note. Susie Gerald and Fawcett offer a tender enactment of an older couple’s attempt to agree on the details of their first meeting.

It’s a short and unexpectedly sweet conclusion to an engrossing visit with two of the last century’s most celebrated playwrights.

Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage will present On the Edge through March 15 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20. Contact: shortnorthstage.org.

Hollywood agent drops names, spills secrets in one-woman gabfest

Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Do you like to dish? Do you love show business? Are you crazy about Bette Midler?

If you answered “yes” to all three questions, you’ll probably enjoy I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.

Midler starred in the one-woman play on Broadway, and Short North Stage’s production never lets you forget it. If Deb Colvin-Tener’s portrayal doesn’t remind you of the Divine Miss M, you must be suffering from either extreme youth or a serious case of amnesia.

Mengers (1932-2011) fled Nazi Germany as a girl and grew up to be a successful Hollywood agent. John Logan’s script reveals how she did it, then imparts juicy bits of gossip about her famed clients and other Tinseltown bigwigs she scuffled with while promoting those clients.

It leaves us with the feeling that Mengers could be an invaluable friend and a formidable adversary.

In one of her most fascinating stories, she talks about her campaign to persuade a reluctant William Friedkin to hire an obscure actor named Gene Hackman to star in The French Connection (1971). She pursued this partly by blocking the director’s driveway with her Bentley, but mostly by delivering a soundly reasoned explanation of just what Hackman would bring to the role.

When you hear who they were thinking of hiring in his place, you realize just how much we all owe her.

Mengers could be described as a force of nature—except that it would have to be an immobile force of nature. “Exercise has not played a big part in my life,” she announces, and she proves it by spending the entire play lounging on her couch. So averse is she to unnecessary exertion that she calls on an audience member for help when she needs something that’s on the other side of her plush, Michael S. Brewer-designed living room.

Directed by Jonathan Putnam, one of Central Ohio’s leading experts on comedy, Colvin-Tener makes the most of curmudgeonly lines like “I just don’t get the appeal of children.” It would have been nice to see a little more Colvin-Tener mixed in with the Midler-inspired gestures and intonations, but Midler fans won’t mind in the least.

Besides being funny, Colvin-Tener communicates the forced bravado that shows not everything is right with Mengers’s world.

We learn early on that she’s been fired by Barbra Streisand, one of her first and favorite clients, and is expecting the personal call that will make it official. Mengers’s career seems to be in trouble, but she’s determined to tough it out with her usual swagger, fueled by whatever courage she can gain from alcohol and marijuana.

With the Academy Awards presentation less than a week away, this is a particularly appropriate time to catch I’ll Eat You Last. After seeing it, you begin to understand the crucial role Mengers and her colleagues played in shaping the industry it celebrates.

Short North Stage will present I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers through March 1 in the Green Room of the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (no show Feb. 27) and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $25-$30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.