Martini Talk: Doris To Darlene & The Seafarer

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There's a lot of imagination and high ambition on stage at Playwrights Horizons these days.  And if Jordan Harrison's Doris To Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine doesn't quite deliver the goods there's still enough in his observations on the creation of music and the power it has to guide our emotions to keep things interesting.

Set simultaneously in three different eras, Harrison presents three musically inclined couples involved, in varying degrees, in risky relationships.  In the 1860's we have composer Richard Wagner (David Chandler) who has bewitched, bothered and bewildered his devoted benefactor, young King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Laura Heisler) with his "Liebestod," the tragic love aria from Tristan and Isolde.  One hundred years later we meet white record producer Vic Watts (Michael Crane), who discovers mixed race black/white singer Doris (de'Adre Aziza), changes her name to Darlene, writes her a hit single based on "Liebestod" and makes her both a star and his wife.  (Kristin Childs supplies girl group pop melodies to Harrison's lyrics.)  Modern day high school music appreciation teacher Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis), a gay man with a passion for opera, unexpectedly finds himself to be a role model for gay student referred to as The Young Man (Tobias Segal) who is fascinated with the songs of the now forgotten Darlene.

While taking spins on set designer Takeshi Kata's turntable, the six main characters in director Les Waters' energetic production (the actors all fill in as bit players in each other's stories) play out short scenes while taking turns narrating through third person commentary about themselves.  It's an interesting device for sure, but one that tends to stagnate the action and takes uptime that might be better used delving deeper into the stories.

The realistic plot concerning Mr. Campani and his student comes off the best, mostly due to the lovely and understated work by Nelis.  Crane is sharp as the music industry dynamo, particularly in a scene where he defends the simplicity of his lyrics, and Aziza sings very well, but their story starts with a bang and then fizzles into weak romantic melodrama.  The grandly obsessive Heisler tries to kick some whimsical spirit into her underwritten role, but she's never convincing as the mad 18-year-old monarch, coming off more like an infatuated 14-year-old lad.

Doris To Darlene may not have the makings of a top 40 smash, but it's worth a try if you're in the mood for an interesting b-side.

I don't know if Conor McPherson was ever a camp counselor, but I bet he'd be great at telling ghost stories by the fire.  In The Seafarer, the Irish playwright who specializes in weaving supernatural tales has got a good one to tell.

It's Christmas Eve in a coastal town so far off that holiday songs played on the radio are overwhelmed by static.  There's also plenty of static between brothers Richard (Jim Norton), who may be a hard drinker but that's not what made him go blind, and Sharky (David Morse), who has a brief bout with sobriety in his attempt to get his life in order.  (Let me just save us all a bit of time by letting you know that everyone in the play is a hard drinker.)  This odd couple has invited a few buddies over for a holiday poker game.  There's the thick-headed Ivan (Conleth Hill), who is up for anything that will keep him away from his wife, Nicky (Sean Mahon), who has been seeing Sharky's ex-wife and Nicky's mysterious and rather dapper friend who goes by the name of Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds).  Although the author, who ably directs this production, has clearly stated in interviews the surprising bit of news that makes the stakes in this particular poker game especially high, I'd rather not be accused of revealing any spoilers.  Let's just say that in this moody tale of men and their personal demons, Sharky's redemption hinges on how the cards are dealt.

Though the plot is rather thin, the writing is sharp and funny and the excellent ensemble is always entertaining as their colorful characters.  Morse is very sympathetic as the loser determined to make good and Hinds counters with a cold matter-of-factness.  Norton plays his scene stealing comic role with underlying nobility, while Hill is a loveable mess.  Mahon may not have as much juice to play with as the others, but he's still a sturdy presence.

Rae Smith's nicely disheveled seaside home shows traces of better days and Neil Austin's lights set uneasy tones beautifully while, at one point, revealing a stunningly star-clustered night sky.

The play may have its slow moments, particularly in its expository first act, but once its course is set The Seafarer settles into a good, solid piece of story-telling.

Michael Dale's Martini Talk appears every Monday and Thursday on BroadwayWorld.com.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  Laura Heisler and David Chandler in Doris To Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine; Bottom:  David Morse and Ciarán Hinds in The Seafarer

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Michael Dale After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.