Contemporary American Theater Festival, 2006

This year’s festival includes a pair of memory plays, both of them premieres, Kim Merrill’s Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby and Keith Glover’s Jazzland. Merrill tells of a young woman haunted by a betrayal and death by drowning off the Jersey shore, while Glover riffs on the tensions between jazz and rock and roll. In Jazzland, a young jazz trumpeter, Roderigo, in recovery from an automobile accident, pieces the story of his own life back together as well as that of his father, Ram, an alto saxophonist who, following popular sentiment, began playing rock gigs. Questions of artistic integrity and faithfulness to an idiom are raised, but the play’s high-flying abstractions leave us with characters not fully realized. The most inventive material in the piece, as well as the most successful, is the recreation of the gigs played by Roderigo, Ram, and Ram’s partner Twist. Rather than demand expert musicianship from his actors, Glover gives them spoken-word pieces that they perform over a recorded-music background: the air crackles when Ram (the rich-voiced Joseph Adams) and Miles-like trumpeter Twist (the electric Scott Whitehurst) start trading eights.

Christopher Durang’s student Noah Haidle brings us the published Mr. Marmalade, a twisted comic fantasy told through the eyes of four-year-old Lucy, played by the full-grown Anne Marie Nest. Lucy’s single-parented life is rather grim, so it’s not surprising that her imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade, is as likely to smack her around or take cellphone calls during Tea Party as he is to take her ballroom dancing or cruising to Mexico. Sara Kathryn Bakker steals her scene as Sunflower, imaginary friend or Lucy’s new real-world friend, dweeby Larry (dressed hysterically by Margaret A. McKowen).

CATF veterans Carolyn Swift, Andy Prosky, and Kaci Gober return in the best show of the festival, Richard Dresser’s new Augusta. Dresser’s latest satire of life on the fringes of the corporate world has his signature dangerous bite: imagine chewing on a live electrical cord. Prosky’s middle manager Jimmy is in charge of teams of house cleaners, including the pair formed by just-hanging-on Molly (Swift) and just-getting-started Claire (Gober). Jimmy’s glad-handing smile, so disconnected from the small-minded manipulations going on behind it, is frightening. Swift’s Molly, ever blasted by life, has a posture when she’s being chewed out by Jimmy that looks like she’s being blown through a wind tunnel without Swift moving a muscle. Shaun L. Motley’s clever three-level set serves as the mansion that Claire and Molly clean, several restaurants and hotel rooms, and Jimmy’s office. The set cantilevers beds and divans into empty space, and its half-height floors remind us of the tilted world of Being John Malkovich. At the end of this play, proposed as the first of a trilogy on happiness (?!), after he is hoist by his own petty schemes, Jimmy is philosophical: “In this line of work, you learn to take the bad with the really bad.”

  • Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby, by Kim Merrill, directed by Karen Carpenter
  • Mr. Marmalade, by Noah Haidle, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Jazzland, by Keith Glover, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Augusta, by Richard Dresser, directed by Lucie Tiberghien
  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.

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Ben Brantley catches us up with what’s going on in London theater:

In a season rich with A-list actors giving bright external life to the shadows of the human mind, it is often—more than anything that is actually done or even said—the thought that counts.

Consider, for example, the supremely articulate silence of Michael Gambon, who never utters a word in Atom Egoyan’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Eh Joe at the Duke of York’s Theater, a half-hour production that seems to last both a lifetime and a nanosecond.