BWW Review: Curiosity-Baiting New Play THE SIEGEL Brings Fresh Comedy to South Coast Repertory

Something incredibly funny is happening over at Orange County's Tony Award-winning regional theater South Coast Repertory, and it is definitely one of the more pleasant surprises I have sat through this year so far.

Utilizing a sort of amusing, somewhat wacky plot that somehow works in a sustainably fresh, surprisingly plausible, and audaciously charming way, the world premiere production of playwright Michael Mitnick's thoroughly engaging new play THE SIEGEL---continuing at SCR in Costa Mesa through April 23---proves itself quickly to be one of this season's must-see new plays and holds plenty of promise for more future productions to come.

Of course, when you see the cast list before even knowing anything about the play, THE SIEGEL is already proving to be quite a curiosity-baiting production. But if you look past the familiar star-wattage and observe the interesting characters and the absorbing story, you'll discover a witty, entertaining, and even thought-provoking comedy that will have you asking... "are we in a relationship with the right person?"

With very little set-up, the play launches the premise instantaneously: adorkable, rapid-fire speaking photographer Ethan (played with boundless charm by Superstore's Ben Feldman) is seen conversing frantically with an older married couple, Deborah (the glorious Amy Aquino) and Ron (the wonderful Matthew Arkin)---both of whom are wearing stunned, puzzled faces of disbelief. Why? Because Ethan is here unexpectedly to ask "permission" to marry their daughter, Alice (the terrific Mamie Gummer) in "holy agnostic matrimony." Pleading his case like a first-time lawyer in court, he claims rather passionately that he's madly in love with Alice and wants to very much spend the rest of his life with her.

The big problem? Well, for starters, Alice and Ethan broke up two years earlier, with nary a single conversation between them during that entire time. Even more so, Alice is currently in a very serious relationship with a very stable, well-to-do, live-in boyfriend named Nelson (the dashing Dominique Worsley).

Undeterred by that fact, Ethan spends the entirety of the play---sometimes awkwardly, sometimes romantically, but mostly irrationally---trying to win over Alice in a myriad of grand and not-so-grand ways, even though it's clear (or is it?) that Alice is not at all interested in breaking up with Nelson and rekindling a romantic relationship with him. Along the way, secrets are uncovered, old wounds are re-opened, and old habits are revisited. As Ethan tries his best in scene after scene to convince Alice that he belongs with her, the audience is enthralled for what comes next, laughing heartily during the journey.

"You can't close a door that can't close," Ethan argues with no hint of pretense. The guy certainly knows what he wants.

Is Ethan mentally crazy or just... well... truly crazy in love? Without spoiling too much of what happens in this cleverly navigated play (trust me, it's fun to watch unravel), all I can say is that love can be a very powerful point of argument, no matter how far fetch it seems. And sometimes the answers are right there before your very eyes.

Directed with a palpable "taped before a live studio audience" sitcom vibe by Casey Stangl, THE SIEGEL sharply takes advantage of its theater-trained cast of film/TV talent to present its comical story with the same kind of pacing---and current events referencing---you'd find on a soundstage, but with more sophistication and theatrical flair, of course. The rat-tat-tat dialogue is so engagingly spurted out that you genuinely don't want to miss a second of what every character is saying, praying not to miss any of its witty bon mots.

This is perhaps also why the laughter induced by the play felt so naturally communal and yet so strategically guided for maximum enjoyment. Each character never truly plays the "straight" man/woman, but rather, each character gets to spew funny lines and, in some cases, gets to be the "irrational" one aside from Ethan. While the laughter feels awkward at first---mostly because we as an audience are dropped right in without a moment to process the absurdity of the situation---once the silliness takes hold, we completely buy into the play's machinations and enjoy the rest of the ride, which primarily explores the nature of human choice in regards to the fulfillment of love and long-term partnerships. Is everyone truly destined to have "the one" or do we merely settle for what's comfortable at that given moment and make it work as best as we can without the need to explore further? Because of Ethan's re-emergence in everyone's lives, these questions are triggered for everyone involved, resulting in some reflective yet relatable, laugh-out-loud moments.

The play's sitcom-ish presentation is reiterated, too, in the production design, from Michael B. Raiford's scenic design that uses a sensibly-constructed turntable ring that twirls in a new set with different furnishings for every new scene, to Elizabeth Harper's lighting design that creates the right focus, tone, and mood for each situation. The modern-abstract backdrop---painted with ghosts of various people that come in and out of our lives---are periodically painted with window lights. Along with David Kay Mickelsen's contemporary costumes, the play in visual terms feels quite current.

Of course, THE SIEGEL wins over the audience handily thanks to its perfectly-cast stars. You'll rapidly abandon the "what show have I seen him/her in?" game in your head as soon as the play gets going, thanks to the fine performances these five actors provide. To be honest, I can't recall the last time I have ever sat through a play where every single character is genuinely likable (And on a side note, I love the idea that film/TV stars are able to use their hiatuses to jump back into theater roles during their "break").

As Alice's cute, surprisingly forward-thinking parents Deb and Ron, the brilliantly playful Aquino and Arkin make for a spectacularly likable team, volleying snark and sass with wonderful ease. As Ethan's object of obsession, the smart, effortlessly refined, but stubborn Alice (who, by the way, has an interesting back-story so currently top-of-mind, it got a few snickers from the audience), Gummer fashions a complex, self-assured, yet understandably vulnerable character that is able to justify exactly why Ethan (and Nelson) are so smitten and yet so achingly frustrated with her.

Worsley, for his part, paints a fairly likable Nelson, a character who is introduced as a person that lifts his partner up, but then later also straddles his overt confidence with a bit of unraveling insecurity---with often funny results. Swoon-worthy as he is, it's fun seeing a muscle-clad character portrayed as someone that could possibly lose out to a cute nerd. Devon Sorvari, meanwhile, arrives very late into the intermission-less play's tail end, yet makes quite a story-twisting impact as the mysteriously pleasant Jordan.

Finally, as the title character in THE SIEGEL (yes, despite a few blink-and-you'll-miss-it references to Checkhov, the title refers directly to Ethan's last name), Feldman is a winning find in a role that fits him extremely well. Armed with boy-next-door charm, expressive eyes, and convincing speeches, the actor's smile-inducing portrait of Ethan easily makes a very, very good case as to why Alice May want to reconsider the wacky offer. Over-caffeinated yet surprisingly sensical, Feldman doesn't really project an outright crazy wackadoo, but rather just a very well-meaning guy who stumbled onto a life-changing epiphany and wants to pursue it as soon as possible, no matter how irrational it may sound to everyone else around him.

"How can you fault me for being crazy," Ethan posits, "when you're the reason for it?" Sigh.

Feldman has such authentic sincerity delivering that line (among many others) that it is no wonder that the audience, too, roots for Ethan to win Alice back (no offense, of course, to Worsley's Nelson who has plenty of pluses on his column as well). It's hard to have a debate with someone that exudes such natural appeal and charisma.

Winsome through the very end, it is difficult to find much to complain about THE SIEGEL, except perhaps an easier opening landing rather than a rapid smack. I understand the motivation behind it, but for a play that examines whether or not we take the correct paths in life, a bit of a warm-up before the starting pistol would have been a more palatable way in. But, honestly, it's a slight note on an otherwise enjoyable play that is as hilarious as it is poignant.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory. Review also published in OnStage.

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THE SIEGEL continues its final performances at South Coast Repertory through April 23, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.


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