Blackbird
If you ask me…

by Tom Holehan

CONTEMPORARY OFF-BROADWAY DRAMAS HIT HARTFORD

Two hot off-Broadway plays are currently getting their Connecticut premieres at two hot Hartford theatres. Lucky are the theatergoers now able to see this pair of gems in our own backyard. "The Scene" by Theresa Rebeck and "Blackbird" by John Harrower are the plays. Hartford Stage and TheaterWorks are the places. What are you waiting for?

"The Scene" introduces us to out-of-work New York actor Charlie (a superb Mathew Arkin) who is married to successful wife, Stella (Henny Russell), a woman born to wear power suits and sport the latest expensive handbag. They are childless and only recently started looking into adopting an Asian child. Into their lives breezes Clea (Christy McIntosh), a free-spirited party girl fresh from Ohio (or is she?), who meets Charlie and his best friend Lewis (Liam Craig) at one of those trendy Manhattan dinner parties and proceeds to turn his life inside out. Theresa Rebeck, who has a marvelous ear for the way these particular Manhattan types would talk, explores issues of marriage, friendship and fame within the confines of a select group of self-absorbed city dwellers. Her entertaining play is about as contemporary as drama gets these days.

Most of "The Scene" is wickedly funny with Clea's vapid observations on life garnering most of the laughs and Lewis' sad-sack, loser-in-love both poignant and hilarious. I also marveled at Ms. Russell's high-strung Stella who comes into her own as a woman very much at odds with her distinct personality. It is Matthew Arkin, however, who is without equal in this excellent company. Playing a down-on-his-luck actor seeking fulfillment wherever he can find it, Arkin's Charlie is never less than sympathetic even when making the most horrendous of choices. By turns touching and pathetic, the actor never lets us forget the humanity of a man who has somehow forgotten what it feels like to be one.

The smart settings and costumes have been designed by Kris Stone and Miranda Hoffman and director Jeremy B. Cohen has staged a breezy, well-paced production which surprises even when you pretty much know where Rebeck's often predictable script is going. "The Scene" is certainly the best offering Hartford Stage has produced since their season-opener of "Our Town" last fall.

Just a few blocks away, Hartford TheaterWorks continues its generally terrific season with David Harrower's astonishing new work, "Blackbird". In this riveting, two-character powerhouse of a play Una and Ray are reunited after a 15 year absence when he was 40 and she was 12. Much blood under the bridge later finds Ray, now called "Peter" and working for some unidentified business, meeting Una in his company's messy staff room. Una is there, apparently, to resolve issues that still linger from their illegal "relationship" when she was barely a teenager. Ray just wants to forget everything and get on with his life. Easier said than done.

The stuff of dozens of Lifetime movies and Oprah sessions, "Blackbird" becomes something much more real and intense under Amy Saltz's measured direction and in the simply amazing performances of Beth Wittig and J. Tucker Smith as Una and Ray. Watch Ms. Wittig's range of emotions and contradictions as she delivers a long, disturbing tale about the last time she saw Ray. Watch Mr. Smith - equally brilliant - as he reacts silently to her story revealing volumes about his character without uttering a single word. Mr. Harrower's drama won London's Olivier Award as the year's best play and you can see why. Not since David Mamet's "Oleanna" (in which "Blackbird" will inevitably be compared) has a theatre piece so galvanized an audience to their seats. Audience members seemed often reluctant to exhale at some points during this 90 minute, intermissionless drama. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Luke Hegel-Cantarella gets everything exactly right in his sterile staff room setting and I admired Mary Jo Dondlinger's blinding fluorescent lighting that added greatly to the intense glare the characters' lives come under. To reveal any of the shocking twists and surprises that occur during "Blackbird" would be a disservice to an outstanding play and production. TheaterWorks has proven, once again, that they are the most adventurous theatre company in Connecticut. Bravo.

"The Scene" continues at Hartford Stage through May 4th. For further information call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org. "Blackbird" is on stage at Hartford TheaterWorks until May 11th. For further information call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford's Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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