October 21, 2013

Durang/Durang: Superb/Superb

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By SEAN DOOLITTLE

This past weekend, student actors at Risley Theatre performed a raucous night of one-act plays in Durang/Durang. The six plays showcased were short enough to be condensed into a two-hour show, but the evening was definitely not short on laughs. The stories behind the collection of short acts, written by Tony-winner Christopher Durang, were mostly drawn from the playwright’s past work on stage. The show was divided into two sections, best described during the introduction: “Act I is theatre parodies. Act II is … not.” Often drifting between the brilliant and ridiculous, Durang/Durang ended up being a very enjoyable, if occasionally uneven, evening for all in attendance.

Anna Brenner ’16, in her directing debut at Cornell, did a fantastic job bringing a sense of coherence and enthusiasm to the production. Brenner, whose playlet, “The Thirty-Minute Waltz,” was a standout and audience favorite at the Schwartz Center’s Ten-Minute Playfest, seems to be quite adept at comedy, both with a pen in hand and in the director’s chair. With many of Cornell’s best and brightest directors graduating this year, it’s a relief to see that the future of Risley Theatre can be trusted in such capable hands.

The evening opened with a monologue from an eccentric yet endearing  theatre-addicted character, Mrs. Sorken, played by Jessi Silverman ’17 in her Risley debut. Mrs. Sorken took the audience on a looping trip through the rants and ravings of an overly enthusiastic theatre fan. Silverman hit the target perfectly in her role, acting fervently and earnestly without ever being irritating. It’s a difficult task to open a play with such a long-winded monologue, but Silverman set the tone for a witty, comical evening and never let it drag.

The second play, “For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls,” a parody of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie enagerie (currently playing on Broadway with Zachary Quinto) had some of the strongest and most impressive performances of the night. After a few tweaks and changes to the original plot, the play tells the story of Amanda Wingvalley (Bianca Di Cocco ’14), an overbearing, aging mother who seeks to live out her dreams through her two sons, Lawrence and Tom. Lawrence (Julian Montijo ’15) is a frail, shy hypochondriac who obsesses over his large collection of glass cocktail stirrers. Tom (Spencer Whale ’14) is a tempestuous and seemingly closeted young man who wants to break away from his family. Lawrence’s safe world is upset when Tom brings home Ginny (Helena de Oliveira ’17), a crass, hard-of-hearing warehouse worker. The entire cast was on point during this act, with each actor displaying exceptional chemistry with the others. Every character was portrayed well, but Montijo absolutely stole his scenes, embodying the character of Lawrence with unique mannerisms and inflection.

The final parody, “A Stye Of The Eye,” borrows from Sam Shepard plays, including A Lie Of The Mind, playing at the Schwartz Center in November. Chock full of symbols, cymbals and a mélange of diverse characters, the play was melodramatic and hard to follow, which was likely Durang’s intent in writing it. The story revolved around Jake (Jake Morrison ’17), a man who shares a body with his other personality, his brother Frankie. Both personalities vie for the love of Beth (Montijo), their recently brain-damaged ex-wife. This play seemed overly concerned with making as many references and theatre in-jokes as possible, many of which fell on deaf ears in the audience. That said, some of the gags were genuinely funny. I mean, when are artichokes stuffed in a pair of tighty-whities not funny?

The first of the original pieces, “Nina In The Morning,” was another mostly enjoyable play in which Durang really began to explore the kind of material he is best at. The play follows Nina (Adrienne Jackson ’14) an aging, promiscuous socialite who relies on her dedicated servant, Foote (Stephen Markham ’16), to care for her precocious children. Jackson played Nina with complexity, combining both comedic elements and subtle emotionality that was a highlight of the act. The rest of the cast gave fun, if somewhat over-the-top performances that kept the act moving along. When the play ended rather unexpectedly, it left the audience wanting more. Generally, this trait would be appreciated, but the play never really felt as fulfilling as many of the others.

The fifth play, “Wanda’s Visit,” was one of the longer plays of the evening. Reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the play deals with a couple, Jim (Whale) and Marsha (Gwen Aviles ’17). Their relationship is shaken up when one of Jim’s past flames, Wanda (Caroline Boldt ’17), drops in on them. The plot seemed somewhat trite, relying too much on rom-com cliches like the old flame testing a marriage or awkward dinner table confrontations. While it did drag on a bit toward the end, the play was kept afloat by an enthusiastic performance from Boldt and a heartfelt emotion from Aviles.

“Business Lunch At The Russian Tea Room,” the final play of Durang’s set, was the most autobiographical. A playwright, also named Chris (Markham), is torn between writing plays for the theatre at the risk of never reaching wild success and selling out writing Hollywood movies and TV shows. This story is told alongside the tale of one of Chris’ prospective movie scripts, concerning a love story between a rabbi (Whale) and a priest (Di Cocco). This play came off as more of an artistic statement by Durang, interspersed with comedy to keep it light. It was a very satisfying end to an occasionally uneven show, and Markham was particularly enjoyable as the exasperated and sarcastic Chris.

Risley’s Durang/Durang was an all around well crafted evening, anchored specifically by some very able direction and enthusiastic performances from each and every cast member. I hope many of the new actors and actresses who debuted at Risley over the weekend keep it up. This one can be chalked up as a success.

Sean Doolittle is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at spd64@cornell.edu.