Ladies: fair, well or other

Posted on 16 Sep 2010 at 6:55pm

Lyric brilliantly does Shaw; KDT feels ‘Betrayal;’ Echo wants us to get ‘Well’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

LOVERLY  |  Kimberly Whalen and J. Brent Alford give soaring performances in Lyric Stage’s masterful version of ‘My Fair Lady,’ with a 38-piece orchestra.
LOVERLY | Kimberly Whalen and J. Brent Alford give soaring performances in Lyric Stage’s masterful version of ‘My Fair Lady,’ with a 38-piece orchestra.

ON THE BOARDS
MY FAIR LADY at the Irving Arts Center, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd., Irving. Through Sunday.

BETRAYAL at the MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. Through Oct. 10.
WELL at the Bathhouse Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive. Through Sept. 25.

The opening overture to My Fair Lady was, to every gay boy with a turntable between 1956 and about 1986, the soundtrack that began the coming out process. Hearing the clipped joy of “You Did It,” followed by the romantic strains of “On The Street Where You Live” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” while staring at the Al Hirschfeld drawing on the LP, started many a musical theater queen’s career.

And I’m sorry, but modern musical productions, with their synthesizers and five-piece combos, just can’t compare to hearing a full 38 musician orchestra in a pit recreate what opening night must have been like in the heyday of Broadway.

I know this for a fact, because Lyric Stage has tackled My Fair Lady like no one anywhere has, probably in a generation. A painted curtain; a dancing and singing ensemble well into double-digits. And actors who really know what they’re doing. The cost is so prohibitive that even with arts grant checks in hand, it can run only two weekends; this is the second; and you must see it.

The familiar tale of ‘enry ‘iggins (J. Brent Alford, all but channeling the ghost of Rex Harrison) who turns common guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle (Kimberly Whalen, who should have a few Tony Awards by now if talent had anything to do with it) is perhaps the best musical ever. It’s about two gay men (Higgins and Pickering — what, no one told you?) who play dress-up with a teenager who becomes their living doll.

CHEATERS  |  A romantic triangle gets its post-mortem in Nobel Prizewinner Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ at Kitchen Dog. (Photo by Matt Mrozek)
CHEATERS | A romantic triangle gets its post-mortem in Nobel Prizewinner Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ at Kitchen Dog. (Photo by Matt Mrozek)

There’s no real romance — barely even a kiss. The closest it comes to big production numbers are the sidewalk busking of Cockneys, led by Alfie (Sonny Franks, who’s electrifying). The costumes are frivolous and extravagant, the scene changes numerous and necessary. It shouldn’t work at all. And it works completely.

Director-choreographer Len Pfluger doesn’t fuss much with the original, down to the exquisitely dressed “Ascot Gavotte” number — a high point of Act 1 in which none of the stars appear. You simply don’t find a musical so led by plot more than personality, by character more than conceit, anymore. The Carpenter Performance Hall transmogrifies from a stage to a time machine before our eyes: We’re back when Broadway shaped pop culture. Half a century later, My Fair Lady is again the can’t-miss production of the year.

The first act of My Fair Lady is longer than the entirety of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, now at Kitchen Dog Theater; it doesn’t feel that way. Pinter plays tend to be so… so… Pinteresque: Long pauses, awkward silences, not too much humor.

And there’s the plotting, often labyrinthine, moody and obscure. But when it clicks — even if just for moments — it can be exhilarating. This production has too few of those moments.

Betrayal is one of Pinter’s most celebrated plays, telling the story of a romantic triangle in reverse chronological order: We start with the adulterers (Leah Spillman, Max Hartman) after their affair has ended and work our way back to its inception.

The conceit sounds gimmicky, but it’s actually quite astute. We all experience relationships, especially failed ones, retrospectively. “How did we get here?” we ask. What signs did I miss?” It’s the post-mortem we all want to do with clarity.

Only it’s Pinter, so clarity is a secondary, even tertiary concern. What is the bigger betrayal: cheating on your husband or on your lover with your husband? Or is it really the men (Hartman and Cameron Cobb), best friends, who are cheating on each other with a woman? (Pinter often deals in the subtext of repressed homosexuality.) Can you consent to be being betrayed, or is tacit betrayal called something else entirely — like “life?”

This production, directed by Tina Parker, raised these questions but, like Bryan Wofford’s expressionistic set, doesn’t answer them or even come close. Without much energy to sustain it, it gets its dramatic oomph from tension. And I just didn’t feel much. Passive-aggression is infuriating in real life; it’s not much better on stage.

If I correctly interpreted the message to Well, presented by Echo Theatre at the Bathhouse Cultural Center — and there’s a good chance I didn’t — it’s that lesbianism cures allergies. Yeah, I probably got that wrong.

This quasi-autobiographical tale is about how playwright and actress Lisa Kron (Kristin McCollum) grew up in a family, and a community, where sickness was presumed. It’s not quite hypochondria, but it’s not healthy, either. Lisa herself was intensely studied for severe allergies, which (and the play never makes this clear) may have been all in her head, planted there by her mother Ann (Sylvia Luedtke).

Well is more akin to performance art than play; it interacts with the audience directly, but preciously so (when things go wrong, they are meant to seem like they are going wrong in real time, even though they are scripted). It’s part and parcel with a whole slew of po-mo theater pieces, including The Road to Qatar! and [title of show], where the shows are about the making of themselves. It’s a funhouse mirror room that has begun to wear thin.

This show is a little too loosey-goosey (and, at 90 minutes, too long), though the performances by McCollum, Luedtke and Molly Milligan as uber-sick patient Joy are engaging. I might like to see it on a double-bill with Sick; we could choose a winner and the other would close the next night. That would be Darwinian theater at its finest.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

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