BWW Reviews: Eastbound Theatre Presents BLAME IT ON BECKETT

BWW Reviews: Eastbound Theatre Presents BLAME IT ON BECKETT

Art isn't easy. At least not for the characters in John Morogiello's wickedly funny play, Blame it on Beckett, being presented by Eastbound Theatre in Milford through October 19th. This insider's look into what it takes to work behind the scenes in the theater skewers the business practices and often shady backstage politics of regional houses but has at its heart a genuine love for those who have answered the siren's call to create and present art.

Although set in a regional theater, this play is full of characters you will meet in just about any business setting: the naïve, young, eager newcomer who wants to make a difference; the jaded, cynical veteran who scoffs at the younger person's idealism; the ambitious business manager who's all about 'getting it in writing' and the bottom line; and the creative talent who clutches her overstuffed yet insecure ego so that she floats above it all, passing judgment on the peons whose job it is to bring her vision to fruition.

Yes, they are all here - the big fish in the little pool. Throw in a little office gossip, some backroom maneuvers with a few touches of sexual harassment, witty dialogue, barbed zingers, and pointed revelations about what it takes to get a play produced in a regional theater, and you have all the makings of a theatrical bit of genius sure to entertain and intrigue not only theater lovers, but anyone who has observed or been one of these characters on the corporate ladder.

Under the superb direction of Kevin McNair, Eastbound Theatre's production does an excellent job of taking us inside this roiling microcosm of regional theater. His clear behind-the-scenes vision helps audiences better understand the world behind the stage. It is far from glamorous. The set design by Kevin Pelkey which makes the most out of every inch of the small Eastbound stage, harsh office lighting by Claudia Toth, and well-suited and cleverly utilized props by Ann Baker, Dana Kaplan and Tom Rushen all combine to bring us into the disorderly office space of a time worn, and disenchanted dramaturge.

Barry Hatrick brilliantly plays that dramaturge, Jim. Mr. Hatrick infuses his character with all the world-weary cynicism that one would expect to find in a person who has been at the same job for a bit too long. He's grown tired of wading through endless piles of bad scripts. At the point of no longer reading submitted plays, refusing to answer the phone to avoid dashing the dreams of some hopeful playwright, washing down pills with whatever liquid he can scrounge up in his office and spending his days 'in conference' which is code for taking a nap, he is irascible, sarcastic and worn out, and audiences can easily empathize with his frustration and his fatigue.

Heidi, played by Alisson Wood, invades his quiet little world. She works in the box office, but really wants to be a dramaturge. So Heidi manipulates her way into becoming an unpaid intern in Jim's office. Eager to make an impact in her literary calling, she dives in with all naïveté of an inexperienced college graduate, bound to exasperate someone as worldly as Jim.

Some of the wittiest and sharpest dialogue in the play happens in the interchanges between intern and mentor. Heidi cannot recognize the pearls of wisdom Jim embeds in his insults; he tries to explain how, in his view, Samuel Beckett ruined plays forever with his plotless Waiting for Godot, how even good new plays are not picked up by theaters purporting to promote new works because they have to answer to boards and subscribers who want filled seats and known authors, and even how issue driven plays simply drove out the rich Republican theatergoers in the 60's, giving Democrats an opportunity to feel good about themselves. Heidi dismisses Jim's advice as simply being bitter diatribe against the very profession that she is ready to embrace. They both think that they are in the right and refuse to effectively communicate or learn from each other, with unintentional consequences.

Perfectly cast as the pretty young ingénue, Ms. Wood's portrayal of Heidi is a study in contrast. She adroitly finesses her way into being Jim's intern, and into the good graces of the theater's business manager and resident playwright with the snake-like charm of an Eve Harrington, but she is hopelessly oblivious to unethical business behavior. At times, I wondered how anyone could be so naïve to think it would be a good idea to document everything she thought was wrong with her department, or to discuss that documentation over dinner with the smarmy business manager. But given her youth and her backstory, it is possible that a pretty little rich girl, with all the narcissism and certainty of youth, could rely solely on charm to make her way through the world without any thought of the implications and consequences of her actions. She is a character who could be liked for her idealist pursuit of making a difference in the theater but also reviled for her methods to do so. Either way, she learns a few hard lessons in the end, and I enjoyed witnessing the journey. Well played, Ms. Wood.

Less likeable is the theater's business manager, Mike, played by Qesar Veliu. Mike represents the business side of theater - his concern is filling seats, no matter what it takes to do so. He does not care about art; he just wants to be sure that seats are sold. And each ticket is his ticket out of the small theater into the big time. Mike is pure ambition; his touching backstory of having to work his way up to support himself and his mother does very little to soften his hard edges. He uses Heidi and Jim to get what he wants, and considers their downfalls to be simply collateral damage on his way to the top.

Mr. Veliu's portrayal of Mike did little to make the character more sympathetic. I thought at times that he could have slowed down the delivery of his lines to show a little glimmer of feeling when telling the story of his rise to business manager, and even when he was acting on his slimiest impulses, I did not feel much emotion from him. It made Mike feel a little one dimensional, simply a narcissistic sociopath, driven purely by ambition. That is not to say there were no high points in the performance however. It was certainly interesting to listen to him explain away his trespasses when accused of sexual harassment. In his eyes, he not only did nothing wrong, he relished in his conquest.

The fourth player in this character driven piece is Tina, superbly played by Joan Barere. Tina is an interesting fixture, a successful playwright who is launching a new play. She has little time for the rest of the characters, generally running in just before she has to catch a train, and checking in on Jim's progress on her new work. As portrayed by Ms. Barere, Tina is a real power player who revels in the fact that Jim's, Heidi's and Mike's careers hinge on the success of her play, and she plays them all against each other to the fullest.

Jim suggests she cut a major monologue, and she, like all playwrights in Jim's cynical view, resists change. This monologue becomes the crux of one of the major differences between Jim and Heidi. Heidi believes the monologue should stay, and does not hesitate to flatter and fawn over Tina to convince her to keep it. Tina dangles the chance for advancement for Heidi for her insight in keeping the monologue, playing the power button by unapologetically indicating that the offer comes with lots of strings attached. Here is where Ms. Barere shines, turning on malicious manipulation without the slightest bit of remorse for tempting the young innocent with the promise of success. She lives up to her statement that she's an artist without a soul, but then turns around and delivers the sweetest explanation for why artists work in the theater at all. It is this finely tuned dichotomy of character that makes Ms. Barere's Tina a character that you love to hate.

Thanks to Mr. McNair's skillful direction, all of these diverse characters with their various ambitions and conflicts are melded into a believable, if not dysfunctional, working unit. Combined with a script full of backstage intrigue, saucy and sardonic dialogue, and a resolution of conflict that seems fair to all, the play comes to a very satisfying end. I highly recommend this engaging and entertaining show. Blame it on Beckett runs through October 19th at the Eastbound Theatre. For tickets call 203-882-0969 or visit Milford Arts Council.

Photo: Barry Hatrick and Alisson Wood in Blame it on Beckett. Photo credit: KevinMcNairPhotography

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