Lyric Stage

The Lyric Stage Serves Up Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts”

If it’s a portrait of urban gentrification or Starbuckization or race relations you’re looking for, Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts (at the Lyric Stage through February 4th) isn’t the play for you. These heady themes hover over the play’s down-and-out Chicago doughnut shop setting like the scent of deep fryer grease, but never quite drop. Shots are fired at the Starbucks across the street, but our ponytailed Deadhead Arthur Przybyszewski (played with great sympathy by Will LeBow) isn’t even that interested in running a business, but only holding onto it so he has a reason to get up in the morning. Racial tensions ensue between Arthur and his new assistant Franco (played by Omar Robinson, who I’m happily sure we’ll be seeing more of), but are little more than literary trivia matches.

The play is dominated by sweeter things; an awkward burgeoning romance between Arthur and local tomboy lady-cop Randy (Karen MacDonald); Arthur and Franco finding in each other the things they lack most, a son and a father; and Arthur finding, in himself, “courage”. This latter plot point is an odd one and is mostly responsible for the drawn-out awkwardness of Superior Donuts‘ second act. Before inheriting the doughnut shop from his immigrant father, Arthur, we find out through a series of dimly lit monologues, was a draft dodger and, later, a failure at his first attempt at love and fatherhood. He’s a man who prefers a session with the herbal contraband he keeps stashed in a cookie tin under the counter to vocal or physical confrontation. Arthur seems to discover (or perhaps re-discover) his manhood (i.e. his ability to love, or at least ask out, a woman, and father, at least surrogately, a son) by starting a fist fight, and winning.

boston lyric stage superior donuts

Beth Gotha, Will LeBow, De'Lon Grant, Karen MacDonald, Steven James DeMarco, Steven Barkhimer (Mark S. Howard)

Who’s Arthur fighting? Gangsters. Franco, who first surprises us with his business acumen, and again with his Finding Forester-like literary talent, surprises us a final time by being in deep with his old bookie Luther (played a little cartoonishly, but with a lot of eccentric charisma by Christopher James Webb). One might presume that Letts is trying to challenge the audience’s racial predispositions with all these curveballs, but it really just becomes a lot to swallow. Most everything in Superior Donuts (including the black trekkie cop and the violence) is there to tug at our heart strings in the play’s warm and comic portrayal of an urban village…one might even say family. A strong, and frankly impressive, cast across the board carries Letts’ light wit and deep inter-character connections flawlessly. Matthew Whiton’s incredibly detailed set provides a sitcom like setting that, by the end of the play, we can’t help but feel attached to just as the characters are.

Urbane Ectoplasms: The Lyric Stage’s “Blithe Spirit”

The Lyric Stage’s current production of Noël Coward’s urbane conflation of the upper-crust and the occult, Blithe Spirit, gives a jolly good shot at the urbane comedy Coward built his reputation (in and outside of the theater) on, and that most of us wish was still a little more prevalent in movies and television, but doesn’t quite bring it home with the perfectly timed wit and William Powell/Rex Harrison speech patterns one would like.

The first act was sluggish, with some slipping accents and decelerated delivery–unfortunate, because urbane comedy, whether it’s Coward or The Thin Man, very much relies on speed. Witticisms should shoot out at us so fast that we hardly have time to get them, rather than hesitate to give us a moment to decipher a British colloquialism or two and channel the humor. Coward’s rhetorical finger snaps have no offbeat. Anne Gottlieb’s Ruth gives us more than enough of the character’s nagging second-wifedry and affected civility and graciousness, but lacks a slight touch that crisp, jaunty, debonair demeanor (that was actually once very liberating for female characters of the stage and screen) that every Coward character needs to be allotted. After all, she’s not a total square. I actually found myself in, what I’d imagine to be Charles’ shoes, wishing she would go on an die already.

Thank God, or the spirit world, for Paula Plum (Elvira), who sweeps in in the second act, garbed in a diaphanous night gown and saves the show. Plum’s swift British English reeks of casual gentility as she (almost literally) floats around the room striking aloof poses. Things pick up all around and this cast of local all stars shines a little brighter. The dialogue and wit accelerate and, anyways, the play is generally a lot funnier once Elvira enters the picture.

Kathy St. George’s Madame Arcati doesn’t quite stand up. In the years since 1945 we’ve been bombarded with parodies of fortune tellers and psychic mediums. St. George of course offers up her own brand of spirited eccentricity and costume designer Charles Schoonmaker has given her an equally effervescent costume of polyester silk robes, cropped pants with elastic ankles, and sparkly purple flats. What were once eccentricities are now clichés and director Spiro Veloudos would’ve been better off to put a new spin on the character, rather than this dilated traditional one. On that note, jokes about drinking too much were pushed much too far. After all, aren’t we supposed to believe this crowd was basically drunk all the time, and clever enough to keep up their wit.

Highlights include some cockney singing by Anna Waldron (Edith), gorgeous nighttime lighting by Scott Clyve, an incredibly smart use of period musical interludes recorded by Leigh Barrett & Jonathan Goldberg, and (although the set is very much out-of-the-catalog) it saves all its tricks for the end show, where it hauntingly erupts with trick shelves, curtains, mantel, pictures, and doors.

As a lover of duration, I’m looking forward to their production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in October (more info on next season).

Blithe Spirit runs through June 6th @ the Lyric Stage Company (140 Clarendon). Tickets run $25 to $50.

Sarah deLima, Richard Snee, Kathy St. George, Anne Gottlieb, and Arthur Waldstein (Mark S. Howard)

Richard Snee, Sarah deLima, Kathy St. George, Anne Gottlieb, and Arthur Waldstein (Mark S. Howard)

The Jazz Singer: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a musical based on the life and songs of Billie Holiday, successfully transports the Lyric Stage audience to an early 1950s jazz club in Philadelphia. The stage is arranged simply, with a piano, microphone, and small table for Billie’s gin. Only Jimmy Parker (Chauncey Moore), Billie’s piano player and fiancé, join Lady Day on the stage.

Billie Holiday (Jacqui Parker) arrives at Emerson’s Bar and grill, the fictional jazz club setting of Lady Day with her face half-veiled in shadows. And then, the amber strobe light hits her face and illuminates her shimmery eye shadow and the black sequins on her cocktail dress. She stands, confident and statuesque, at the microphone in her pearl necklace and fur stole.

Though the surface of the club is constant and solid, the story, the emotional highs and lows, come solely from Lady Day.

And as her honey-coated voice cries out over the piano and fills the small theater, it is easy to picture yourself in a more intimate setting. This feeling is amplified as Billie begins to divulge the stories of her life between songs. She gracefully pours herself another gin and sits at one of the bar tables. She leans forward and welcomes the audience into her world. “I gotta sing the way I feel. I gotta roam around and find the song,” she says, relating how bars refused to pay her when she wouldn’t sing God Bless the Child after her mother’s death.

She shares painful memories with the ease of talking to an old friend. She tells of her days working in a brothel, with her head tilted and smiling at some distant memory. She talks about the Victrola there and learning to sing. She mixes stories of her grandmother’s death and her rape at age 10 in with smiles and stories of her mother.

Jimmy’s character works in the background. He plays a few bars on the piano to tear Billie away from her stories and remind her to sing. He sips his whiskey and occasionally mutters his agreement with Billie; he chuckles as she talks about her parole. He keeps her on track.

The endlessly repeating theme is Billie’s relationship with her mother “The Duchess.” The audience hears of her childhood, moving from place to place, of how her mother earned her nickname, of their days at the cat house, of her mother’s generosity. Here, Billie diverges. Her voice turns sour and pleading as she describes her rock bottom, when she was with her first love Sonny, and they were strung out on heroin and needed help and her mother refused.

“Sonny,” the Duchess used to say, “was blacker on the inside.”

“But he was just a scared little boy, innocent Sonny,” Billie pleads to the audience.

And when words no longer help her, Billie returns to song: “And that’s how it goes, when a woman loves a man.”

It seems that Billie is unable to leave the audience with a negative view of her mother, though. She pauses and nods to Jimmy and begins the much alluded to God Bless the Child. She dedicates the song to her mother, of course, “because I love her still, even if she is dead and told me ‘no.’” She sings with her eyes closed and her hands clasped to the microphone stand, her glass of gin resting on the table, and when the song ends, the lights die and her silhouette fades to blackness.

The pattern repeats as Billie describes her father’s death. The story ends, but Billie has more to express, and so, she starts to sing Somebody’s On My Mind.

These extremes, this wavering, demonstrate all the elements that keep Billie afloat: Jimmy, her music, and drugs. And the three are in a constant battle, it seems. After the stories of her mother and father, Billie starts to sway and tries to exit the stage.

“I need help,” she says to Jimmy. Jimmy encourages her to stay on stage with a few bars of the next song. And though Billie sings Easy Livin’ and her lighthearted demeanor returns, her smile is not as wide.

As the bad feelings return, though, she exits the stage, and returns with her shoulders hunched and her feet bare and clutching a dog, her face buried in its fur. Appropriately, she begins with the song Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness. With her slurring, drunken demeanor she sings, “Ain’t nobody’s business if I go to church on Sunday and cabaret all Monday.”

The musical ends with a final story: the story of Sonny putting the drugs in Billie’s suitcase, because no one would arrest a star, and Billie showing up to court in a limo and fur coat. In Deep Song, Billie croons, “Lonely grief is haunting me” as the music slowly drowns out her voice and her face returns to shadows.

Lady Day runs from March 26th to April 24th, with evening performances Wednesday through Saturday and matinées on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $25 to $54. Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, 617-585-5678.

“Legacy of Light:” A History Lesson from the Lyric Stage

Karen Zacarias’s Legacy of Light now at the Lyric Stage (through through March 13) stands out as one of the best female-led productions I’ve seen this season. Legacy ambles along in a Julie & Julia fashion: in the 18th century, physicist and feminist historical icon Émilie du Châtelet; in the present, another female physicist named Olivia. Both are at crossroads of motherhood and career. Scenes alternate smoothly and accessibly between the past and the present. Émilie du Châtelet has just found out she’s pregnant with a lover’s–the poet Saint-Lambert’s (Jon Popp)–child. Meanwhile, Olivia, knowing she’s unable to conceive, presses on her husband that it’s time to find a surrogate.

Émilie (Sarah Newhouse), at 42, begins to fear she will die upon childbirth. Her intellectual–and sometimes physical–lover, Voltaire (Diego Arciniegas) diplomatically suggests a centuries-old version of abortion. Émilie says no. Back in New Jersey, Olivia (Susanne Nitter) and her husband Peter, a schoolteacher, hire a surrogate named Millie to carry their child, and soon enough she’s pregnant. Olivia, increasingly absorbed in her work, begins to fear she can’t provide her child with the right kind of motherly care.

Émilie’s and Olivia’s fates and stories, for a moment, are in sync: a baby is coming, and a career still needs attention. Émilie is afraid she won’t finish her life’s work before the baby is born, and Olivia, having discovered a new planet, is regularly late to important doctor’s appointments with Millie. Shared between these two realities are parallels, and the play relies on dual casting to make the parallels work. Four of the play’s six actors have two roles, and the connections of character between timelines are numerous. Susanne Nitter plays Olivia and Émilie’s wet nurse. The slender cruelty is that in both worlds this woman is doomed to nurse another’s child.

The interchanging of timelines and scenes remind the audience that even though one woman’s story has passed on, it can still live on in another. And while the plot stands on a good deal of melodrama (it’s only funny when it’s not dripping with emotion) it is saved by strobing between past and present. The play is physically witty. The set itself allows for snappy dialogue: when talk of Isaac Newton surfaces, players stroll over to a prop apple tree with real apples and toss or eat one. You haven’t seen an apple eaten on stage until you have seen Voltaire eat an apple on stage.

Diego Arciniegas (Voltaire), Sarah Newhouse (Émilie du Châtelet), Jonathan Popp (Saint-Lambert) in Legacy of Light

Diego Arciniegas, Sarah Newhouse, Jonathan Popp

Voltaire delivers soliloquies to the audience that surpass exposition draped in wit, and he becomes a rapturous character to watch. He steals every scene with his Napoleonic strut and deadpan comic expressions. Along with Émilie, he arrives for a short time in present-day New Jersey, on a Capra-esque mission. It surely can be no accident that the most self-aware and fully-realized characters are Émilie and Voltaire. Alone, to the audience, he tells of his deep love for Émilie, how her work was not taken seriously until ten years after her death, and his years in exile. Arciniegas wields comedy as deftly as he does his sword when he fights Saint-Lambert.

It’s important to note that what is not lost in Legacy is what was obscured centuries ago: the important and noteworthy work of Émilie du Châtelet’s that challenged the collective understanding of energy at the time. Émilie, played with a beaming energy by Sarah Newhouse, speaks to the audience and tells her story herself, presenting the audience with a real feminist icon of eighteenth-century France. Parents, take your daughters to see this play.

Lyric Stage Company, as usual, does a lot with little: for being the oldest professional theater company in Boston, they occupy a notably small space, but utilize entrance and exit ramps to further the illusion of theater. One character exits in France in the eighteenth-century, and minutes later, emerges in New Jersey in weekend clothes. Roles are reversed between timelines. What one character deserved in France, he receives in New Jersey, centuries later. Zacarias makes no small effort to connect unrelated events–surely the work of a physicist (this is theater, so we’ll settle for simply a metaphysicist).

But that’s the point–more than bringing to light the mostly forgotten and overlooked legacy of Émilie du Châtelet–that by this illusion, the marriage of fact and fiction uncover delightful connections between the past and present.

Trent England lives in Cambridge where he is finishing his first novel. He can be found online at tengland.com.