Upcoming Theatre

Tuesday, 30 January 2018 23:45

Review: Blind Date at Goodman Theatre

Who’d have thought a Cuban-born playwright could endear an auditorium of liberals to Ronald Reagan. Rogelio Martinez’s new play ‘Blind Date’ is a fictionalized account of the very real first meeting between Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (William Dick) and President Ronald Reagan (James D. Farruggio). Robert Falls returns to the Goodman to direct this world premiere.

Billed as a comedy, some will wonder what could be funny about a world on the brink of nuclear war? As it turns out, quite a bit. ‘Blind Date’ is basically a drawing room comedy. Most of the scenes are two-person conversations between the various historic players of the time. Beginning with US Secretary of State George Schultz (Jim Ortlieb) and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (Steve Pickering) all the way up to the fateful meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva.

The narrative structure of this piece is interesting. In some cases, cast members speak their opinions directly to the audience. In other instances, there’s narration by way of British biographer Edmund Morris (Thomas J. Cox). The narration serves the playwright’s thesis that even his own biographer didn’t really understand Reagan. The asides are more often a conveyance for one-liners. Though, they do provide insight into the mindset of the Soviets and Americans in these meetings.

It’s no surprise that Falls has assembled some of Chicago’s foremost actors for this new play. Deanna Dunagan plays Nancy Reagan, in a nearly perfect likeness no less, while Goodman favorite Mary Beth Fisher plays Raisa Gorbachev. The two first ladies share a scene in which almost nothing of consequence is discussed, but the slight backhanded compliments and fuss made over tea bags versus loose leaf underscore how tenuous relations between the super powers were. Each thinking themselves superior in domesticity and political ideology. Scenes featuring Dunagan and Fisher are the most engaging as the dialogue sharpens to a point. What few may consider is how much influence these two women had over their husbands. Despite contradicting opinions, both sides desperately wanted to see an end to the nuclear arms race. A noble idea that has unfortunately taken a wrong turn since the mid-80s.

There’s danger in glorifying Ronald Reagan as an innocuous savior from nuclear war. His optimism regarding the Soviets was certainly helpful but in the end, the Soviet Union collapsed from a failing economy, not Reagan’s pro-Democracy initiatives. And yes, it’s easy to look at Reagan and think, at least he’s not our current president, but let’s not forget the homophobic blind eye his administration turned toward the AIDS crisis, and the lasting effects of the unsuccessful war on drugs.

This play is a lot like an average Oscar-bait movie. You know the type: polished historical drama about a specific section of history, usually starring high profile British actors like Judi Dench. Ones that you know you should see, but probably won’t. It’s okay for a play to be ephemeral. In this case, the global nuclear stakes are so high right now that it’s vital for Americans to understand how serious even the tiniest miscommunication could be. It’s important for Americans to remember what diplomacy looked like. Think of the current president’s impulsive behavior on Twitter. Rogelio Martinez’s play may make you giggle at Reagan’s loveable weirdness, but the gravity of this meeting with Gorbachev in 1986 should frighten us all. These were poor leaders who made a very smart decision. It’s a terrifying shame our current leaders would rather go back in time.

At Goodman Theatre through February 25th. 170 N Dearborn. 312-443-3811

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Performances began January 20th for Blind Date, Rogelio Martinez’s slyly comic, behind-the-scenes glimpse of two of the most powerful world leaders—Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev—directed by Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls. Martinez, “a fresh and funny talent” (Backstage) who “finds new twists on old topics” (Variety), continues his multi-play exploration of the Cold War Era with this Goodman world premiere, which features as characters some of the figures who shaped the political landscapes of the 1980s and beyond. In an era before Twitter, Tinder and 24/7 news, Ronald Reagan (Rob Riley) and Mikhail Gorbachev (William Dick) seek to thaw the seemingly intractable tension between the United States and Soviet Russia. Despite their advisors’ best efforts to keep them on track, a crafty game of one-upmanship ensues, as the world’s two most powerful leaders eschew conventional protocols to discuss pop culture and old movies—while Nancy Reagan (Deanna Dunagan) and Raisa Gorbachev (Mary Beth Fisher ) mirror their husbands’ negotiations in a passive-aggressive tango over tea and fashion choices. Blind Date appears January 20 – February 25, 2018 (opening night is Monday, January 29 at 7pm). Tickets ($20 - $75; subject to change) are available at GoodmanTheatre.org/BlindDate, by phone at 312.443.3800 or at the box office (170 N. Dearborn). JPMorgan Chase is the Major Corporate Sponsor, Goodman Theatre Women’s Board is the Major Production Sponsor and the Chicago Tribune is the Media Partner. Blind Date earned a New Play Award by the Edgerton Foundation. Time Warner is the Lead Supporter of New Play Development for the 2017/2018 season.
 
“My interest in the Cold War is, in some ways, my desire to understand who I was before arriving here, and who I became after,” said playwright Rogelio Martinez, who grew up in Cuba not long after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and conducted countless hours of research to develop this production. “This is not speculative fiction, not a ‘what if’ story, the events in the play did occur, but maybe not exactly in the same way as they occur on stage. It’s my job to present a set of characters and let audiences arrive at a conclusion of their own. I hope audiences will leave the theater with some hope and not just hope but agency—they as individuals can do something about today’s problems.”
 
After receiving an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation New Science and Technology Initiative Grant, Martinez wrote When Tang Met Laika, a post-Cold War space exploration play that was subsequently produced by the Denver Center. This inspired him to bring the Cold War itself on stage in a three-play cycle about the time period—Ping Pong, the first play in the trilogy, is about U.S.-China relations during the Nixon administration and was presented at The Public Theater. The second play, Born in East Berlin, tackled the impact a Bruce Springsteen concert had on East Germans just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The play was workshopped at the Atlantic Theater Company and has since been translated into both Hungarian and Romanian. The Goodman production marks the conclusion of the trilogy.
 
Falls’ cast also features Jim Ortlieb as former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz; Steve Pickering as former Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze; and Thomas J. Cox as Reagan biographer Edmund Morris. The ensemble includes Torrey Hanson, Gregory Linington and Michael Milliganand extras David Besky, McKinley Carter, Chris Daley, James D. Farruggio Sam Krey, Joe Lino, Guy Massey, Nathan Simpson, Craig Spidle and Emilio Tirri, who round out the cast as Soviet Citizens, KGB Officers, Politburo Members, White House Staff, Secret Service, American Military Officers, Journalists and others. The Creative Team includes Riccardo Hernandez (Set Designer), Amy Clark (Costume Designer), Aaron Spivey (Lighting Designer) and Richard Woodbury (Sound Designer).
 
Following Blind Date, Falls will direct a new production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (March 10 – April 15, 2018) at the Goodman, and also remount his Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Dallas Opera (April 2018). Most recently, Falls directed the world premiere of Jim McGrath’s Pamplona, starring Stacy Keach as Ernest Hemingway, and a new production of Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya at the Goodman.

 

Published in Upcoming Theatre

As soon as you enter the beautiful set that designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, has created for “Life Sucks", you are tip-toeing through what feels like a real forest of delicately lit white birch trees in the light of early evening in Autumn. 

 

The action then proceeds mostly on the front porch, and dining room/kitchen of a quaint country style house, complete with a small dock and row boat mired in mud, to indicate this is the log cabin style home of someone wealthy enough to live on a lake but not doing well enough any longer to afford a real boat, which turns out to be true.  

 

The seven characters enter the stage with house lights up and immediately break the fourth wall by letting the audience know a few things about the play, it has four acts with one intermission, and asking insightful questions like, "Do you think people in a hundred years will care how hard we worked?" Which immediately reminded me of the old joke, "What's the opposite of a nymphomaniac?" with the punchline, "a workaholic."

 

The next question, for the cast only, has them throwing out an enticing list of their "favorite things" ..."the feel of ice cubes swirling around in a heavy crystal drink glass filled with brandy...and what comes after", "a beautiful sunset over the water" and the adorable, "Kittens!" And once more for emphasis, "KITTENS!" and lest we think this is going to be a saccharine sweet play i.e. "The Sound of Music" - "the feeling of anticipation when you know that you are about to have an orgasm".

 

Ensemble member Andrew White directs deftly with a light hand, keeping the pace of the play moving in an enjoyable way and flowing from act to act naturally, sensually, without the feeling of rushing.

 

So many directors charged with productions that exceed two hours or are under ninety minutes with no intermission seem to be rushing the actor’s monologues and dialogue. In some cases you can imagine them standing offstage tapping their feet saying, "Pick up the pace people!", which can actually ruin the show, but Andrew White does just the opposite, calming the audience into actually receiving the message this play is trying to deliver. 

  

“Life Sucks” is an updated version of the Checkov play "Uncle Vanya" and every single one of the seven characters really holds their own throughout.

 

Eddie Jemison best known for his work from "Ocean's Eleven", "Waitress" and "Hung" is proof that dynamite comes in small packages as he takes on the role of the middle aged, depressed Vanya. 

 

The entire cast sprinkle the play with so many humorous Yiddish slang terms with adorable ease like the term "ferkocta" which means crazy in the head, or Vanya declaring over and over that Ella is his "beshert" and soulmate, meaning a person's destined love or a love that was meant to be, a love of heavenly creation. All the while Vanya’s pathos as his obsession with The Professor's beautiful, young wife Ella grows out of control. This leads to a hysterical attack on The Professors life as he describes in a monologue how vile, disgusting and unnatural it is to him that she (Ella) should be with such an "old man".  

 

The Professor is played perfectly by Jim Ortlieb (Billy Elliot) whose great monologue about how even small signs of aging in a man can ultimately ruin a perfectly good relationship is fantastic. We rarely hear the male point of view on this.

 

The Professor describes while comically, yet realistically, sliding and crawling down the front steps of the cabin in complete exhaustion after a fight with his young wife Ella - how a man sees in the mirror one day. He now sees his soft belly or some new wrinkles or gray hair and feels insecure leading him to take it out on his partner and she in turn becomes more insecure herself - resulting in more fighting and insecurity or his worst fear of all as she "becomes disengaged" from him entirely.

 

Chaon Cross as Ella is excellent as the young Master's Degree student who "married the smartest Professor in the whole college" and is hit on by every middle aged loser in this small town. Cross delivers a great monologue ala - don't hate me because I'm beautiful because my brilliant husband turned out to be an aging, ego-maniacal alcoholic. 

 

Ella asks the audience flat out how many of them want to sleep with her with no strings attached by a show of hands, then asks how many are dying to sleep with someone other than whom they are with - and it is a well delivered, very funny and telling moment for the audience. 

 

Danielle Zuckerman as Sonia seems to be the opposite of Ella. She is The Professors' only daughter and honestly describes how in her family, "It's like everyone is hard-wired to upset everyone else. Like we each have a bunch of buttons on our back that each one of us knows how to push." 

 

Sonia knows she is not beautiful, or even pretty, she knows that her weight and height, glasses and curly hair are never featured in the magazines she reads and Zuckerman gives a great, breath of fresh air feeling to the entire production that it inherently needs. In one scene with Ella she admits to actually "hating" Ella for her beauty and attractiveness to ALL the nearby men and Ella forces her to "slap her right in the face" which Sonia does. After the "enjoyable" catharsis of the slap in the face they pour rum and Cokes together and begin to bond as both stepmother and friends. 

 

Another great scene between Sonia and Dr. Aster, a middle-aged Lothario who wants to change the world - but only talks about it, occurs when Sonia tries to tell the doctor she has a crush on him. When she realizes Dr. Aster is 'in love" with Ella too, she delivers a great monologue after his exit about how she talked with him about "mystical butterflies' when she really wanted to say, "Take me upstairs and f-ck me, f-ck me so well and so hard the whole universe stops to watch ... and the stars stop in their orbits and her whole body finally understands what it is to be truly alive...but instead I talked about mystical butterflies."

 

Ensemble member, Philip R. Smith, best known for his roles in "High Fidelity" and “Since You've Been Gone" is very funny in the role of Dr. Aster, an admitted alcoholic who rambles on about the very real dangers of climate change and other depressing subjects that remind us these characters are living in the present day.

 

Another example of the timeliness and universality of this play is when at one point an audience member is asked what his deepest, darkest fear is and he answered without hesitation, "Donald Trump", which got a huge laugh.

 

Penelope Walker plays "Pickles", a lesbian (who ALSO flirts with Ella). Pickles is a neighbor and friend of Sonia's late mother who wanted to be a real artist but ended up crafting what looked like leg warmers for the birch trees to wear and hand puppets made of yarn. Walker is funny and upbeat as the character whose age we can't quite tell, the free-spirited loser we all love who would never say life sucks even if hers does.

 

At the end of the show, Vanya and the cast break the fourth wall for the last time and confront the entire audience with the question, "Does life suck?" Some people shouted “yes”, or “no”, I shouted “sometimes”. Then Vanya called specifically out to the woman sitting two seats away from me (his wife) and asked her, she poignantly answered, "No it does not suck because life is beautiful – there is even beauty in its pain." I had to agree with her. 

 

Highly recommended.

 

“Life Sucks is being performed at Lookingglass Theatre through November 6th – www.Lookingglasstheatre.org.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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