Lips together, legs apart

The ultimate stage mom gets her turn — and it’s a good one — at Lyric; a doctor rubs women the wrong way in Kitchen Dog’s ‘Vibrator Play’

EVERYBODY FLIRTS | A scientist (Max Hartman, left) treats hysteria in his wife (Martha Harms) and even a man (Austin Tindle) with a medieval dildo in scathing, hilarious ‘The Vibrator Play.’ (Photo by Matt Mrozek)

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

……………………

ON THE BOARDS
IN THE NEXT ROOM at The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. Through Oct. 8. KitchenDogTheater.org
GYPSY at Irving Arts Center, 3333 MacArthur Blvd., Irving. Through Sept. 18. LyricStage.org.

…………………….

The puns for In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, now setting off sparks at The MAC courtesy of Kitchen Dog Theater, practically write themselves: “Stimulating!” “Probing!” “Certain to rub some people the wrong way.” But it’s the less-obvious appeal of the play, and its unexpected and abiding humor, that makes all of those jokes accurate descriptions of a naughty but thoughtful comedy of manners.

Oscar Wilde it ain’t — it is, rather, Sarah Ruhl, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow who’s an acquired taste. Her brand of theatrical realism is difficult to pin down. The full title for this play sounds both ominous and dirty, but, at least in this version, it is neither. In fact, trying to pigeonhole it in any way is a fool’s errand. It’s a proudly feminist screed fulminating against male-dominated society while retaining nuance. It is sui generis: A woman-centric sex farce with lesbian overtones.

In the 1880s, after the Civil War and at the dawn of the age of Edison, women are still hemmed in by Victorian values even as modernity threatens to break them free. For Catherine Givings (Martha Harms), the electrification of her home, quite literally, turns a light on for her. She’s bored with her husband (Max Hartman), a scientist of some kind who becomes known around town for treating women suffering from “hysteria,” a blanket term for any female who seems remotely dissatisfied with her life. How could any girl in her 20s, married to a man in his 40s and living in comparative luxury be anything other than content? Marc Cherry didn’t invest desperate housewives; society did that generations ago.

CLEAR THE DECKS | Rose (Sue Mathys) dominates her kids in ‘Gypsy,’ getting a full-orchestra treatment at Lyric Stage. (Photo courtesy Michael C. Foster)

Dr. Givings’ treatment, discussed with clinical detachment, includes a new-fangled device made possible by electricity: It stimulates the vulva, releasing the “pent up juices” that “congest” the female body and mind.

Basically, he’s masturbating clients while their husbands wait in the next room, happily paying for a service they could perform for free if only they’d open their eyes.

A lot of the humor comes from the disconnect between Givings’ therapies and the ecstatic rapture he induces in his patients, none more dramatically than Mrs. Daldry (Catherine DuBord). A modern doctor would easily diagnose Mrs. Daldry with post-partum depression … at least until noticing that she seems to get her “juices” released better when Givings’ nurse Annie (Kristin McCollom) performs the service by hand.

The play takes its most raucous turn when Dr. Givings is visited by a Leo (Austin Tindle). Male hysterics are rare, the doc notes, though it is more common among Bohemian types. He then proceeds to treat his patient by “massaging the prostate” with a cigar-shaped version of the vibrator, which Leo enjoys more than the supporting cast in a Falcon video.

Such absurdism — can the men truly be so ignorant? — clicks alongside some potent observations about how women are made neurotic by well-intentioned oppression, and about how homosexuality basically among men and women is best dealt with by ignoring it. The style is both scathing and sexy, funny and poignant. Just as Mrs. Daldry explores her incipient lesbianism, she’s arrested in her burgeoning self-awareness by societal norms. (In some ways, not much has changed.)

Comedies about onanism in which people have onstage orgasms may seem like a hard sell, but director Jonathan Taylor makes it all work without digressing into lurid potty humor. He teases well-crafted performances from the entire cast, all of whom combine a modern perspective with a comfort level with the 19th century idiom … which is to say, not all that comfortable. That’s kind of the point.

There has probably never been a better book-musical written for the American musical theater than Gypsy, which Lyric Stage has mounted, as has been its wont in recent seasons, with a full 39-piece orchestra and magnificent sets and costumes (the clothes were actually bought from the recent Broadway revival with Patti LuPone).

Set in the world of Vaudeville, it’s the perfect meta-play: A show about show people for show people. Hard-driving stage mom Rose Hovick (Sue Mathys) pushes her daughters into show business as kids: One will eventually become B-movie actress June Havoc; one the legendary ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee. But until then, they were just Shirley Temple wannabes schlubbing around the Orpheum circuit during the last gasps of Vaudeville.

The songs, by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, are classics: “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Small World,” “Some People,” “Rose’s Turn.” Just the names can give a theater queen chills. Still, music director Jay Dias could add a little more tempo to some of the numbers. “All I Need is the Girl” needs to sparkle as lightly as champagne bubbles, and charming as the number is here, it could have more energy.

But who’s gonna complain too much, when you get to hear these gorgeous numbers as they are meant to be, by a stellar cast. Mary McElree makes a convincing transition from mousy Louise to sophisticated seductress Gypsy Rose, and Sara Shelby-Martin steals her scene as Miss Mazeppa. But this is largely Mathys’ show: She’s short but firm, with the low center of gravity shared by all great male movie heavies. Her pipes are powerful but her acting is even better. You believe her mania even as you hold her in contempt. There’s real magic in that.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Weekly Best Bets

Friday 02.11

She works hard for the money
How Kander and Ebb combined fashion, Communism, the Depression and relationships set to music in Lyric’s Flora the Red Menace is beyond us, but we’re curious. Kristin Dausch plays Flora, who juggles her career as an artist against the temptations of her new love Harry. All while trying to earn a buck. You go girl.

DEETS: Irving Arts Center, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd. Through Feb. 26. $18–$29. LyricStage.org.

Saturday 02.12

This Vanity project is worth it
Not to take away from their pop rock brand of music, but if there’s one reason to check out Vanity Theft, it’s because of the one-name bassist Lalaine. She’s says of the band, “We may have vaginas, but we’re not pussies.” Well, said. Now we hope that means they will kill it live, because their rock is pretty major.

DEETS: With Hunter Valentine. Sue Ellen’s, 3014 Throckmorton St. 9 p.m. Caven.com.

Thursday 02.17

Drums along the Winspear
TITAS brings in the famous Kodo drummers for a life-changing experience. The 24 drum masters take the instrument beyond its percussive musicality into a “heart-pounding, earth-shaking experience.” And it’s one night only — meaning don’t miss out.

DEETS: Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Feb. 17. 8 p.m. $19–$75. ATTPAC.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 11, 2011.

—  John Wright

An afternoon with ‘Night of the Hunter’ at Lyric Stage

From creepy book to noirish film to a musical?

If you need to know how a story about an ex-convict murders his wife,  stalks two children who happen to have a whole lotta loot and pretends to be a minster can turn into a musical, we have an answer. Or rather, Lyric Stage does. Stephen Cole and Claibe Richardson have turned the Davis Grubb’s novel into just that. We’re curious how they will pull it off, because there’s  not a whole lotta happy going on in the story. And aren’t musicals all about the happy?

DEETS: Irving Arts Center’s Carpenter Hall, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd. 2:30 p.m. $25–$50. LyricStage.org.

—  Rich Lopez

Spend ‘An Evening With Judy Garland’ tonight in Irving — or Liza in Dallas

Scheduling conflict for days

All right Friends of Dorothy, Liza performs her last show tonight at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerson, but before you head out, did you know about this show? While Liza’s “New York”-ing it in Dallas, the Irving Symphony Orchestra presents “An Evening with Judy Garland” with guest conductor and former Liza musical director Michael Berkowitz. Maybe this will help you decide. Either way, you’ll catch a true diva in action. Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte takes on Judy in her show, so any decision you make is a win-win.

DEETS: Liza Minnelli with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. 8 p.m. $45–$122. DallasSymphony.com. An Evening With Judy Garland at the Irving Arts Center, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd., Irving. Oct 9 at 8 pm. $19–$54. IrvingArtsCenter.com.

—  Rich Lopez

SHOW VS. SHOW • Mother & child reunion

On the same weekend, Dallas gets Liza Minnelli at the DSO and Debbie Gravitte in a Judy Garland  tribute

Call it serendipity, but when Liza Minnelli stops by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra the same weekend as Irving Arts Center’s tribute to Judy Garland, we have to shed a tear. In a very special installment of Show vs. Show, we couldn’t resist pitting “mother” against daughter.

Minnelli is an icon in so many ways. Whether she’s a movie legend based on her Oscar-winning star turn as Sally Bowles in 1972’s Cabaret or as a drag queen go-to with that signature short hair and adorable warbly voice, Minnelli is literally the stuff of legends — hardly the case with many of today’s stars.

But she’s also Liza. As in the woman who keeps marrying the non-marrying kind (translation: gay) or the lady who always seems a bit on the nutty end of the ice cream bar, We wonder, “What is up with her?” And we love her just for that.

An Evening With Judy Garland showcases Debbie Gravitte singing signature Garland tunes on the anniversary of Judy’s famous Carnegie Hall show. Don’t expect a Rufus Wainwright type recreation: Gravitte and music director Michael Berkowitz inject their own personalties into the show (see sidebar).

Will Liza’s legendary status trump the weekend, or will Gravitte knock this show out of the park? Choices, choices…

………………….

LizaLiza

…. is a true diva with an Oscar, Tony and an Emmy to her name.

…. married some friends of Dorothy.

…. embarrassingly performed Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” on the Sex and the City 2 soundtrack — which we hope she doesn’t do at this show.

…. was on Larry King recently, expressing sympathy and empathy for Lindsay Lohan’s drug use and alcoholism.

…. had her solo Broadway show, Liza’s At the Palace…!, replacing the musical Legally Blonde.

…. had a small comeback in 1989 by going in a  different musical direction with her album Results, produced by the Pet Shop Boys.

…. hocked her velvet jumpsuits on Home Shopping Network.

…. has embraced her gay icon status, even performing at Pride in Paris last  year.

…. performs with Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. Oct 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. $45–$122. DallasSymphony.com.

……………………………..

Judy (aka Debbie)Judy (aka Debbie)

…. got a miniature Oscar for her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz — ouch. (Gravitte has her own Tony, though, for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway).

…. Was Dorothy. And she married some friends of Dorothy. Apparently a genetic trait.

…. embarrassingly messed up some of the words in her famous Carnegie Hall appearance. Still, “Single Ladies” trumps that.

…. was the Lindsay Lohan of her day. Minus the paparazzi.

…. had her Carnegie show recreated detail for detail by gay singer Rufus Wainwright.

…. had several comebacks including Oscar-nominated performances in A Star is Born and Judgment at Nuremberg

…. had a better idea with that red velvet gown from Meet Me in St. Louis.

…. embraced gay men as husbands but responded to a reporter about her iconic status, “I couldn’t care less. I sing to people.”  Umm, we guess that’s cool.

…. isn’t portrayed by Debbie Gravitte as much as she is celebrated, which Gravitte discusses further below.

— Rich Lopez

……………………………..

Recreating a legend

Michael BerkowitzDebbie Gravitte just found out that her show where she performs Judy Garland songs is the same weekend Liza Minnelli comes to Dallas. The scheduling conflict for friends of Dorothy could have massive repercussions, but it is an easy (and obvious fix).

“There is a perfect way to work it out,” Gravitte says. “See her on Friday and see me on Saturday.”

Gravitte teams up with former Minnelli music director Michael Berkowitz, pictured, for An Evening With Judy Garland at the Irving Arts Center Saturday. The solo show commemorates Garland’s iconic Carnegie Hall concert exactly 50 years ago. But Gravitte assures that she is not doing a Judy impersonation.

“This is a tribute, a celebration of this one incredible night of her life,” she says. “I don’t look anything like her and maybe I sound like her a tiny bit, but it’s not like we are recreating Judy. We want to channel that joyful part of her instead of recalling the tragic.”

With a full orchestra behind her, Gravitte would even venture to say this is more of a concert than a show; Berkowitz agrees. His closeness to Garland’s material is far beyond just his work with Minnelli.

“I was always a fan. I was a friend of Bill LaVorgna, Liza’s drummer before me. Bill and I knew each other for 40 years. I first heard his playing on the Garland Carnegie Hall recording. That alone was worth it to me.”

As for the dueling shows, Berkowitz thinks anyone who gets out to either comes out ahead.

“I didn’t know Liza May was in town this weekend as well,” he says. “It’s going to be a double header of great music and entertainment.”

Gravitte knows the gays are gonna hold her to task, but she’s not daunted. In fact, she even challenges her audience a bit.

“I welcome everyone to come dressed in their best Judy,” she says. “We are gonna do a sing along and I want people to sing every fucking line!”

— Rich Lopez

Irving Arts Center, 3333 N. MacArthur
Blvd., Irving. Oct 9 at 8 p.m. $19–$54.
IrvingArtsCenter.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 8, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Ladies: fair, well or other

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.

—  Kevin Thomas