The adults get their day — not always in a good way— in 3 new shows
“Getting older isn’t for sissies,” Bette Davis famously opined, and that’s never been more evident on North Texas stages. Three new productions look at middle age — and old age — in ways that both delight and disturb.
Even though it’s been around for 45 years, Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, now at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, has a serious theme about aging that passed me by in my younger days. The three one-act plays, all set in the same New York hotel room, are characterized as comedies, but only in the last — a still-hilarious farce about a middle-aged couple trying to get their daughter out of the bathroom so she can get married downstairs before the crab cakes turn — do the laughs come without much pathos.
The first act (“Visitors from Mamaroneck”) deals with a married couple in their late 40s who have settled into such a bland suburban life, they don’t even seem to realize they haven’t been happy for years. The wife, Karen (Marcia Carroll, CTD’s go-to neurotic for sophisticated urban comedies), is trying to rediscover romance with her businessman hubbie Sam (Dennis Millegan), but he’s too focused on making money and ogling his secretary.
Nothing much gets resolved between them; we grow to dislike Sam, but, as in most relationships, realize neither is blameless. It’s a well acted downer of a play, buoyed by Act 2 (“Visitor from Hollywood”), which parses celebrity culture in still-familiar ways, and of course Act 3 (“Visitors from Forest Hills”), where Sue Loncar and Tom Lenaghen get to simmer on a low heat and let the laughs come.
Director Cynthia Hestand has wisely kept the play set in the ‘60s, and also Noo Yawkered it with heavy accents that conjure the era — perhaps without many laughs at first, but surprising insights.
The laughs come more full-force with The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife at Theatre Arlington. One of playwright Charles Busch’s non-drag plays, it’s also among the smartest, most urbane comedies of the century so far. (Plaza Suite feels very dated; Allergist, now 13 years old, feels as if it was written last week.)
In an Upper West Side apartment, Marjorie (Cindee Mayfield) is having a nervous breakdown. She’s been a housewife her whole life and feels she hasn’t accomplished much. Then she reconnects with a childhood friend, Lee (Brandi Andrade), who gives her a bolt of energy. Only is Lee real or just the middle-aged version of an imaginary friend?
Busch keeps the audience guessing with sharp turns and razor-witted dialogue, moving from comedy to mystery to sex-farce (ménage-a-trois! In Arlington!) with deftness. Director Andy Baldwin has assembled an enviable cast, with Mayfield at her usual high level, Elias Taylorson spot-on as her nebbishy husband, Andrade a sexy tornado and 80-year-old Barbara Bierbrier a hoot as Marjorie’s foul-mouthed mother. Even TA stalwarts were agog at Bob Levallee’s gorgeous set, but in fact, everything about this production comes together. It’s another step along TA’s growth in high-quality theater — their best show yet.
The problems of aging go up a notch in King Lear, Dallas Theater Center’s modern dress version of Shakespeare’s grandest tragedy. An enfeebled king (Brian McEleney) decides to divide his realm between his three daughters, once they pay obeisance to him. Goneril (Christina Vela) and Regan (Angela Brazil) dutifully brown their noses, but Cordelia (Abbey Siegworth) refuses. She gets disowned, and Lear finds that being the ex oficio comes with fewer perks than the chairmanship itself.
As a dissection of the terrors of aging, King Lear feels as relevant as, say the new film Amour. And DTC’s updating of it (especially in Act 1; Act 2 begins to drag) resonates, and some of the moments — especially the blinding of Gloucester, made in some ways more horrific by casting the character as a woman — are brilliantly realized.
Yet the production never fully comes together. The costumes are a disaster — modern dress is fine, but for queens, why are Goneril and Regan clad in such dull cotton-poly blends and ugly shoes? At least the Borscht Belt comedian clothes on The Fool (Stephen Berenson, who plays the role like Nathan Lane) suit the character. The closing has such ‘80s-era let’s-get-ready-to-rumble clothing it began to look like a Planet of the Apes sequel.
But McEleney’s Lear is the major problem. The part is a challenging one for sure: It requires fire, strength, madness, frailty in turn. McEleney nails the frailty, but not the power. His voice, a high-pitched whistle, squeaks when it should shake you. (Most of the shaking is done by a chandelier, which made me think we were switching to The Phantom of the Opera at any moment.) Lear’s tone rarely varies; with his squinty glare and perpetual falsetto, he seems more Mr. Magoo than His Royal Highness. He feels no more tragic than Mitt Romney … and about as likeable.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 1, 2013.