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Review - Wife To James Whelan: The Man That Got Away


Though Teresa Deevy was arguably the world's most famous female playwright in 1942, the year she completed her class-conscious romance Wife To James Whelan, the new management of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, which had already produced six of her plays, turned it down. The once-prolific career of the dramatist whose love for theatre began after being diagnosed at age 20 as incurably deaf due to Meniere's disease, skidded to a halt, making her name, at least on this shore, all but forgotten now.

All these circumstances, especially the part about her being all but forgotten, make Wife To James Whelan a natural selection for Artistic Director Jonathan Bank's Mint Theatre Company, those specialists in staging museum-quality productions of fascinatingly obscure works. In a fine and engaging mounting directed by Bank, the play may seem rather quaint on the surface, but it's brimming with undeclared passion and painfully understated emotional conflicts.

In the first of the evening's three acts, James Whelan (Shawn Fagan) is an eager factory worker from Kilbeggan, willing to relocate to Dublin when a promising work opportunity arises. Nan (Janie Brookshire), the girl who has his heart, prefers that he stay home, making light of his uppity ambitions and not making any promises when he asks for her to wait for his return.

Seven years later, he does return as the owner of a fledgling motor service company that quickly grows into a success. Though he offers Nan - now widowed, broke and a mother - a good job, she, out of desperation, tries to take advantage of his kindness and he retaliates without mercy. What makes their relationship interesting is that Fagan pulls off the tricky balance of making Whelan a cocky entrepreneur who does have a soft spot for Nan, but who also wants the woman who wouldn't wait for him to be continually reminded of what she turned down. Brookshire is heartbreaking, playing Nan's cold acceptance of her poor situation as she stresses how the woman won't allow her pride to stand in the way of necessity.

While James Whelan may, in fact, be married to his career, there is no shortage of women in his life. Liv Rooth makes for an appealingly flirty blonde trophy girl who notices his potential as a husband and Rosie Benton is delightful as the gregarious pal with which he can be himself.

Martha Hally's character-enhancing costumes and Nicole Pearce's textured lighting make for effective visuals, particularly on Vicki R. Davis' versatile unit set; a moody mixture of wood, stone and brick, representing the simple, unadorned life that Nan clings to and James yearns to break free from.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Janie Brookshire and Shawn Fagan; Bottom: Shawn Fagan and Rosie Benton.

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It's not shaping up to be a very promising season for alumni of The Carol Burnett Show. Just like the recently closed Viagra Falls, Kenny Solms' It Must Be Him offers a terrific company of comical pros working hard to inject any mirth possible into ninety minutes of tepid material.

Gifted clown Peter Scolari rarely leaves the stage as L.A.-based writer Louie, whose passion for musical theatre (his home has cast albums of Take Me Along, Bajour, Redhead, and Donnybrook! prominently on display) led him to early success penning sketches for television variety shows. Now, in his 50s and struggling to find work, Louie spends nights cuddling with his Emmy Award when he's not trying to explain Kay Thompson references to his latest twenty-something himbo boyfriend, Scott (PatRick Cummings).

His agent and good friend, Russ (John Treacy Egan), wants him to revise the romantic comedy screenplay he's just completed into a gay male love story, thinking he can make it ring truer than the traditional straight version he's trying to sell. While rushing to get the job done before that evening's informal reading, Louie has fantasy visits from his deceased parents (Alice Playten is his nurturing mom and Bob Ari is his gruff dad) and his nerdy first girlfriend (Stephanie D'Abruzzo). Real life interruptions (and some legitimate laughs) are supplied by Liz Torres as his thickly-accented housekeeper, Ana. Skilled at flat, drop-dead comic zingers, Torres feasts on even the most humorless exchanges, such as, "How are you, Ana?" "Illegal."

By the time we get to the reading, Louis has filled his screenplay with much of the unfunny material we've just seen played out, only this time the role based on himself is being read by a bleached-blonde flamer described as "Rip Taylor without the confetti." (Edward Staudenmayer)

Desperate to make the story work, Louie now envisions the piece as a Broadway musical. Composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Ryan Cunningham provide a musical montage highlighted by an witless S&M number ("Kick me in the nuts and call me 'Honey'") featuring Ryan Duncan and Jonathan C. Kaplan as sassy showboys.

Director Daniel Kutner actually does a fine job of pushing the sitcom-style text along at a clipped pace and the talented cast delivers the material so sharply that the evening does have its entertainment value. But without a decent number of big laughs it amounts to little more than being kicked in the nuts without being called "Honey."

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Peter Scolari; Bottom: (above) Peter Scolari and PatRick Cummings (below) Ryan Duncan, Edward Staudenmayer and Jonathan C. Kaplan.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

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