From con men to salesmen, Dallas theater is full of artifice
ON THE BOARDS
DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS
at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through May 16.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN
at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Through May 16.
As anyone who has ever been to Las Vegas knows, people like to be deluded … and I’m not talking about the magic shows. There’s a reason slot machines are called one-armed bandits, why buffets are cheap and comps plentiful: The casinos are robbing from you and you’re happy to go along.
Theater is sort of the same thing: It’s false, but even though we know that, we fall under its spell.
That’s the case with Uptown Players’ Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, about a pair of con men (Bob Hess, Jimmy Hays Nelson) in the French Riviera who trick rich, naÃ¯ve American women out of their money while giving them a good show.
That’s a good description of this production, too. Cheryl Denson keeps the confectionary appeal at diabetic-inducing levels. After an opening number that feels confused and limp, the story perks along (except during too-long scene changes), with broadly comic set pieces and gloriously fun silliness.
There are many jokes in the script about the play’s own theatricality (local references — including some Bush-bashing — and gags about musical cues), which actually work in its favor. There’s no realism to the cotton-candy color scheme and contrived but entertaining plot, so why pretend it’s something larger than it is? This is a musical comedy where the comedy seems more important than the music: Commedia dell’arte with some showstoppers thrown in.
And showstoppers they are. The strength of the cast’s timing and vocal abilities wows. Catherine Carpenter Cox, playing the main target of the con, moves around with goofy grace, but she can holler out the high notes like a diva.
Hess, with his patrician mien and authentic dignity, is the perfect foil for ugly-American Nelson’s crass vamping. Nelson takes an oddly tuneless "wish" song like "Great Big Stuff" (it lacks a strong melody line) and converts it by simple sweat into a production with comic panache. They’re surrounded by a supporting cast without a false note among them. Being fooled is a pleasure in this company.
The delusions in Death of a Salesman are of a less whimsical variety. Willy Loman (Jeffrey DeMunn) seems to be suffering from early-stage dementia, exacerbated by his failing career. He’s been suicidal, too, kept in check by his wife Linda (Sally Nystuen Vahle) but haunted by the strained relationships with his sons (Matthew Gray, Cedric Neal).
Director Amanda Dehnert has made some peculiar staging decisions, having sets awkwardly pulling into the center while the action continues; leaving the stagehands visible throughout the production; setting most of the action far upstage in the thrust, as if isolating the characters from the audience as well as each other. I get it, but it overdoes the portend of the piece, and it’s as portentous as American theater gets already: Along with Albee’s The Zoo Story, the book Catcher in the Rye and many films noir, Salesman embodied the non-specific post-war angst that didn’t find its full expression until a November day in Dealey Plaza.
DeMunn makes for a convincing, fairly sympathetic Loman, but he’s both seriously upstaged and at his best when he’s sharing scenes with Vahle. If there has ever been a better Linda — and I mean, ever — I am not aware of it. At three hours without much laughter, Salesman can feel oppressive, but when we’re in Vahle’s presence, it’s as if drifting into a world without time. She reinvents the "attention must be paid" speech so naturally, it effectively refocused the play for me. This Great American Tragedy makes much more sense now. That’s some seriously transformative acting. •
[headline of positive review]
It’s hard not to love [title of show], a wildly referential musical about two guys writing a musical for a theater competition. The concept is brilliant, the cast is cheek-pinchingly adorable and the theater-in-the-round production is ideally suited to the intimate nature of the action.
The story follows theater geeks Jeff (Alexander Ross) and Hunter (Chad Peterson) as they face a last-minute deadline to get a new musical into a festival. Without a solid direction, they decide to chronicle the process of writing the musical they’re submitting. Assisted by their talented friends Susan (Marianne Galloway), Heidi (Tricia Ponsford) and accompanist Larry (Terry Dobson), they incorporate every Broadway convention into their show to ensure its ultimate crowd-pleasability. And to everyone’s surprise, the show becomes a hit.
There are dozens of obscure insider jokes to please avid theater fans, but not so many that it alienates those who don’t have a storage bin in their closets filled with Playbills. The musical numbers convey the angst of young adults trying to make their way in the world, as they overcome adversity and self-doubt, all of which is masked with hilarious lyrics and purposefully clichÃ© choreography. Watching Peterson do "jazz hands" for an entire song is achingly funny, as is most of this well-directed production. And any show that seamlessly incorporates vampires, Rice Krispie treats and every failed production in Broadway history into its plot deserves every bit of praise heaped upon it. [title of show] is a [well-chosen adjective] and [enthusiastic recommendation].
Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Through May 23. Theatre3Dallas.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 30, 2010.