Strategic Decisions – Philadelphia City Paper

Meghan Malloy as one of Interact’s existential cheerleaders The exit interview.

Interact Theater Company

The exit interview gonna piss off a lot of people. Others will find their happiness there. A few, like me, will feel both ways – which seems to be the intention of playwright William Missouri Downs.

In the frenzied premiere of Seth Rozin’s InterAct theater company, scholar Dick Fig’s dismissal from his university post kicks off a playful, winding adventure that tries to have his philosophical cake and eat it, too. Fig – with, presumably, Downs – is a disciple of Bertolt Brecht, and The exit interview plays with the existentialist idea of ​​”alienation”, in which a piece is sometimes interrupted to remind the audience that none of this is real. The hope is that the temporary snap of reality will take the audience out of feeling the game and start getting them thought about it instead. Thornton Wilder did it skillfully in his Pulitzer winning plays Our city and The skin of our teethmaking people think and To feel.

Downs also fails to do so. His alienation tactics are often clever, ranging from stage titles, sudden songs and commercial breaks to cheerleaders and surprise new script pages; he also throws in a few jokes about the state of America’s regional theater (he needs the money, ha ha). Sets by Roman Tatarowicz unfold in various configurations, sound by Mark Valenzuela shakes the seats, and projections by Janelle Kauffman provide witty commentary.

The barrage of big ideas proves a bit much, however. While it’s cute for cheerleaders to sing the reminder to turn off your phones with “Let’s hear it for existential uncertainty!”, rat-a-tat phrases like “the chaos of the human soul and the emptiness of the Copernican universe” to sail above our heads. Downs treats the audience like a wall to toss ideas against: a few sticks, but most bounce back.

A great cast brings humanity to a script that too often feels like the playwright is showing off. Dan Hodge grounds the piece as the hapless Fig, comically hampered by a toe-to-hip cast; Cheryl Williams is brilliantly goofy as her nemesis Eunice, the God-fearing bureaucrat who administers a hilarious questionnaire to departing staff.

Actors Jennifer MacMillan, Meghan Malloy, David Bardeen and Eric Kramer witness the many set changes and play an impressive array of comedic characters. First MacMillan and Malloy are the hyperactive cheerleaders, then MacMillan becomes Fig’s oboe-loving girlfriend and Malloy his staunchly conservative mother. (A song for her about the pointlessness of prayer is one of those laugh-or-bubble moments.) Kramer excels as a local Fox News reporter hoping a gunman threatening campus will get him some time. national airtime, and Bardeen plays an Irish bishop in the imagination of Fig. They all play more roles in sketches and commercials, sometimes grabbing the “new” script pages with a panic that could be genuine: Downs bounces them off the walls.

I’d like to say it all adds something, but Downs, for all his entertaining intelligence, is not Brecht or Wilder – or Tom Stoppard, whom he also seeks to emulate. The pell-mell becomes tedious midway through the second act, but larger themes emerge as the devout Eunice, at gunpoint, questions her faith. The scene is nicely staged by a skit featuring scientists preaching like religious fanatics and religious fanatics reasoning like scientists.

However, the big question – “What is God’s purpose for you?” – is swept away by an end that deflates the room like a birthday balloon. Like a roller coaster The exit interviewThe crazy ride brings us back to our starting point: a little nauseous, a little out of breath, but no wiser. Maybe that’s the point: it’s too much, so enjoy the ride. Through Nov. 11, $20 to $37, InterAct Theater Company, 2030 Sansom St., 215-568-8077, interacttheatre.org. —Marc Cota

Philadelphia Theater Company

You know how sometimes you think, “Dom Pérignon is very nice — but, really, there’s no such thing as an ice-cold glass of Manischewitz”? Well, here’s a show for those times.

“I was a bad Jew”, admits Abigail Pogrebin at the head of Stars of David. She certainly found a clever way to do penance: the first to come Stars of David the book, Pogrebin’s series of interviews with notable American Jews reflecting on what Judaism means to them. Pogrebin is best known as a producer, so many of her subjects – Dustin Hoffman, Beverly Sills, Norman Lear, et al. – come from show business. It is therefore not surprising that in its next incarnation, Stars of David is reinvented as musical theatre.

The more than 60 interviews are condensed into a series of songs and scenes, skillfully performed by an ensemble of three women and two men. Most take on multiple roles, with the exception of Nancy Balbirer, who brings a certain “talking like old friends” charm to her unique persona, the very Pogrebin-like narrator. Stars is a hybrid – not a conventional book exhibition, but with more topical unity than a review. It’s cleverly designed, expertly executed and, as you can imagine, loaded with happiness and tears.

Happiness works better. Those who know writer Charles Busch primarily as a masterful drag performer and camp playwright will be delighted by his ear for Upper West Side patois here. Stars’ the songs come from an assortment of high-end composers and lyricists — Duncan Sheik, Sheldon Harnick, William Finn, Marvin Hamlisch — but they get along surprisingly well. Three of the comic book issues, in particular, are pure gold: “Smart People,” a portrait of Aaron Sorkin; “Just Be Who You Are,” a tribute to Fran Drescher that Donna Viviano knocks out of the park; and “Horrible Seders,” a funny mini-biography by Tony Kushner.

Alas, the tears in Stars are pretty treats, mostly represented by a few boring, bittersweet ballads. The series’ short, punchy style isn’t suited for deep exploration, so it’s up to Pogrebin’s character to ruminate on bigger life issues. That’s not always a good thing. Frankly, as we see here, it is not very interesting.

It was clear from a few awkward moments on opening night that Stars is still in development, but for the most part, this world premiere production at PTC is all you could ask for. Among the cast, my favorites were Joanna Glushak and Brad Oscar – comedic actors/singers who don’t miss a trick – but everyone is good. The scenography – sets by Beowul Borritt, projections by Jason Thompson and lights by Howell Binkley – is superb. Director Gordon Greenberg keeps things running like a well-oiled machine.

Ultimately, Stars does not innovate, and demographically speaking, is a very close exploration of a huge problem. But it’s enjoyable and beautifully staged, and will be self-recommended to some audiences. (The opening night crowd went crazy about it — and at the risk of profiling, I’m going to step out onto a branch and guess I wasn’t surrounded by theater-going Mennonites.) Through Nov. 18, $51 to $79, Suzanne Roberts Theater, 480 S. Broad St., 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org. —David Anthony Fox

Gas and Electric Arts

No one liked Gas & Electric Arts’ unique physical theater style in between trains or Anna Bella

William Thomas Cain

Kittson O’Neill as model/photographer Lee Miller in Behind the Eye.

Eema would expect from them a simple biographical piece of historical figures. One would expect a surreal memoir piece like behind the eyeCarson Kreitzer’s exploration of photographer/model Lee Miller (1907-1977), an incisive choice by director Lisa Jo Epstein.

Kittson O’Neill embodies this dynamic free spirit, party girl and dissatisfied subject (“I’m so sick of pictures of my boobs,” she complains) until photography (and a fiery affair with Man Ray) opens her eyes. The play covers many events and drops many names, but through O’Neill’s unfettered performance we overcome the highs of his loves and fame, the lows of his WWII combat photography and alcoholism, and the all-too-contemporary problems of a woman living boldly in a man’s world.

Kreitzer’s script keeps Miller connected to the audience, confronting us with a challenge: “So you think you’ve got it all ready for me?” The ingredients for bonding psychology emerge from her troubled childhood, but the playwright, director and actress are all determined to resist easy answers.

Epstein’s production is visually compelling, starting with Simon Harding’s near-naked scene punctuated by containers of Miller’s canned artwork (discovered by his son long after his death). Lighting by Shelley Rodriguez is boldly colored and original music by Melissa Dunphy completes the dreamlike tone of the room.

A committed ensemble creates detailed characters, sometimes sharing confessions and ideas directly with the audience: Allen Radway (Man Ray, second husband Roland Penrose), Charlotte Northeast (aging writer Colette), James Stover (Antony, the son of Miller) and Robb Hutter (first husband Aziz, Picasso) become a whirlwind of personalities around an extraordinary, but almost forgotten woman. Through Nov. 18, $16 to $25, Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St., 215-407-0556, gasandelectricarts.org. —Marc Cota

About Debra D. Johnson

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