Theatre in Review

Devastation permeates the set and plot of the Northlight Theatre’s Midwest premiere of By the Water – a powerful and moving production, written by Sharyn Rothstein and directed by Cody Estle, about a Staten Island, New York, family dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

 

Marty and Mary Murphy (Francis Guinan and Penny Slusher) fight to save in their storm-ravaged home and campaign to keep their neighborhood together even as their life-long neighbors and friends the Carters (Janet Ulrich Brooks and Patrick Clear) vow to leave and family secrets seep to the surface.

 

“In this play, natural disaster serves as a metaphor for the social and political change that forces generations to confront very real issues about their own lives – lives built on values that have become outmoded,” says Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones. “Sharyn’s sharp sense of humor built on rich character development is sprinkled throughout, and the themes of justice and family values and loyalties emerge full-throated in her dialogue and her surprising plot.”

 

The Murphy’s are magnificently played by Guinan and Slusher, who give impressive performances imbuing the blue-collar couple with authenticity, humor and grit as they struggle to survive not only the brokenness of their community but the underlying betrayals within their family.

 

At the heart of this production is family and the idea that despite the mistakes and disloyalties as exemplified in the tattered relationship of brothers Sal Murphy (Jordan Brown) and Brian Murphy (Joel Reitsma), and the back-and-forth power struggle between Sal and his father Marty, that love and forgiveness can prevail and second chances are possible. Nowhere is this more evident than with Brian, who after a stint in jail, manages to find a second chance at love with Emily (played by Amanda Drinkall).

 

“[By the Water} is about confronting deep-seated personal problems in the face of a generational divide and finding a way to move forward,” Estle notes.

 

Rothstein developed the idea for the play after visiting Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy.

 

“Leaving behind a community, a lifetime of memories, seemed like an enormous leap of faith and an incredibly difficult decision, but the destruction was gut wrenching,” she says. “Yet, in front of one neat, clearly beloved house, a man who looked to be in his sixties was tending his lawn. With his whole neighborhood in ruins, with the majority of his neighbors already gone or figuring out how to leave, here was a man clearly standing firm. The image of him standing there amid so much loss was the genesis of my play.”

 

And that imagery is so indelibly visible in this production, which manages to peel back so many unexpected and complex layers while remaining thoroughly entertaining from its opening moments with the very effective sound effects to its poignant end. What makes this play so touching is not only the dynamic script and incredibly talented cast but the simple yet powerful stage design that evokes loss and pain as well a sense of home and place.

 

The creative team behind By the Water includes: Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), JR Lederie (lighting design), Rachel Laritz (costume design), Lindsay Jones (sound design) and Mara Filler (stage manager).

 

Highly recommended.

 

By the Water is playing at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois, until April 23. Tickets are available at online at northlight.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

"Funnyman", now playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, is a familiar tale about an artist who has reached the end of one phase of his career and has to either adapt to the new environs and trends in entertainment or retire to his old world , hopefully with his dignity intact.

 

George Wendt, lovingly known for his co-starring role as Norm in the hit series, Cheers, plays the lead character of "Chick", a vaudeville star abused as a child and later who was exploited as an adult in order to rehash, and cash in on, his tired old catch phrase "Wowsa! 

 

Chick and his faithful agent, Milt Karp, played with real sympathy and humor by talented SNL alumna, Tim Kazurinsky, now makes Chick his only income by doing clownish Bromo Seltzer TV commercials.  

 

After three years with no offers of theater work, Chick is finally offered a groundbreaking role in a French beatnik production that will bring his gifts to a new young audience and reinvigorate his career indefinitely - if he can pull it off. The flamboyantly gay director, played by Rob Lindley was a real comedic standout and his energy onstage reinvigorated the piece throughout the second act. 

 

For much of the first act we only see that Chick is very depressed and like other funnymen we have known and loved - Robin Williams, John Belushi, Chick is only "funny' in public when he has to be - as a defense mechanism to get others to like him and finally, after hearing his catchphrase, to leave him alone. 

 

His grown daughter lives with him after a prolonged absence when she was sent away as child to boarding schools. She presses Chick, Milt, and anyone who knew Chick in the early days and researches the library archives to find out why her father has always been so harsh and unapproachable to her. She also demands to know more about the mystery of how her beautiful showgirl mother suddenly died in a way that no one - least of all Chick - her own father will explain to her.

 

Although 'Funnyman" is billed as a comedy and there are several good laughs in it, the real satisfaction, and finally catharsis, comes to the audience as the underpinnings of the sometimes harsh world of vaudevillian entertainment come to light. 

 

Apparently, Chick was used by his mother and father in what they called a "chaser act", meaning they "chase" the audience out of the theater at the end of the show. The thought being that the audience will be less likely to throw bottles and food at a couple holding a baby!

 

Chick learned as he got older that if he didn't make funny faces at as many as four shows, six days a week, he would not eat. When a four-year-old making funny faces ceased to appease the audience, the family's' routine morphed into what they called a "rough act" where Chick ended up being thrown across the stage for a laugh. 

 

When one day he actually broke his collarbone after being tossed on stage, the stage doctor told his mother that he could not perform for a few weeks until it healed. His mother, whom Chick believes had sadistic tendencies, tells the doctor without flinching or humor, "No, he can go on, we will throw him underhand." 

 

At one point Chick makes the observation that "Nobody takes comics seriously until they do something serious." For that reason this production, which was very satisfying as whole on many levels, reminded me of Michael Keaton's Oscar nominated role in the hit film "Birdman".

 

The audience goes in expecting to see and laugh at the warm, fuzzy, familiar "Norm” from Cheers but leaves feeling they have seen the full dramatic range of what a skilled actor like George Wendt is really capable of when given the right material. 

 

It's a tragic irony reflecting on the seemingly endless well of insecurity that actors experience in general that in Funnyman they also quote the fact that "The hardest thing in the world... is comedy." 

 

Great comic actors like Keaton and Robin Williams have forever been trying to prove that they are as "good" or as "gifted" as their more serious counterparts who tend to receive all of the Oscars and respect, when in reality as a skill, comic timing and comic writing are much, much harder to achieve. Comedic timing is quite simply a much rarer gift to be blessed with in this world, a true prolific comic, or comedian/writer is very, very rare indeed. 

 

Chick's daughter played aptly by Amanda Drinkall finds an old news article about her mother and father performing together and notes that it is quite literally the only photograph of her father truly smiling that exists. Sadly it seems to her that she has never seen that smile on his face in real life - ever.  I don't want to give away this important plot point about the tragedy of his wife's death but it shows that Chick was once a sweet, softie who finally had found happiness with his love, until it was taken away and never returned.  

 

I loved the video touches with "I Love Lucy" and the Bromo commercial reenactment and the references to the golden age of Broadway including all of the agent to artist arguing and pep talking.

 

The set was functionally designed to keep the play moving quickly from scene to scene but I found myself wishing for more color, more definition, more character and less generalized nostalgia in each of the spaces. It felt a little sparse and depressing.

 

I highly recommend seeing this satisfying and ultimately encouraging and heartwarming ensemble type piece about overcoming your greatest fears regarding major transitions in one's life, even if one of your greatest fears, in this case Chick's abusive mother and weak father, are long gone from your life. 

 

The fear of forgiving those events that have crushed you, and moving on to enjoy present life opportunities with your family and friends that are still here and do love you, must be faced and overcome.

 

Funnyman, clearly illustrates that if you cannot roll with the changes, especially in later years, then life itself becomes like Chick's life - a joke which has ceased to make people laugh, a bitterly boring and sad repetition of days without laughter or cheer - which is not a life worth living.

 

Funnyman is being performed at Northlight Theatre through October 18th. For tickets or more show information, visit www.northlight.org.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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