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WIT Geffen Playhouse“Hi! How are you feeling today?”

It’s a chipper opener, more of a greeting than a question, really. But that’s the way Dr. Vivian Bearing begins each of her days as a patient in the cancer unit of a research hospital, the greeting issued by one doctor/nurse/techcian/medical student or another. And that’s the way Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Wit,” opens. With a Cheshire Cat-esque grin, Kathleen Chalfant, as Bearing, aims the greeting/question/accusation directly at the audience. And from that instant on, there’s no place you’d rather be than sitting inside the Geffen Theatre watching this amazing actress in this thrilling production of this wonderful play.

Got more superlatives, anyone?

In “Wit,” Chalfant plays 50-year-old university professor Vivian Bearing, an expert in the work of 17th Century Metaphysical poet John Donne. Dr. Bearing is a steely realist and intellectual who lives for language, and isn’t even at a loss for words when it’s revealed she has advanced Ovarian cancer. “I thought being extremely smart would take care of it—but I see I’ve been found out.” She has virtually no chance of survival, you see. But she agrees to go through aggressive doses of chemotherapy. Although the only thing to be determined is how much treatment can she stand. So the paradox, as she calls it, is that “My treatment imperils my health.” But it’s not that hard, she says, “I just hold still and look cancerous.”

Having fun yet?

What makes “Wit,” and Chalfant’s performance, so extraordinary, is that this isn’t a play about cancer. Indeed, it’s about everything else. About looking inward and outward and through walls. Yes, the setting is (primarily) in a hospital room at a cancer center, but the action is positively expansive. Under the direction of the late Derek Anson Jones (Jones died of complications of AIDS days before the Geffen run opened; this is essentially the award-winning production from New York), “Wit” is just smooth enough, and rough enough, to get you without making you feel manipulated. (“I can’t believe my life has become so corny!” Bearing moans. And we laugh, then cry.) And it’s technically superb. (Kudos to all, particularly the original music and sound by David Van Tieghem.)

Chalfant is joined by some terrific performers—as the down-to-earth and sympathetic nurse, Paula Pizzi is truly super, heartbreaking and sweet and funny; Anne Pitoniak is lovely as Bearing’s mentor, and Walter Charles strong as her ambitious and aggressive doctor—and they’ve landed upon a simple formula which makes this production just about everything it ought to be.

See “Wit,” as if your life depends upon it.

—Nightlife Magazine, February 25, 2000

Reefer Madness

Refer Madness HudsonOkay. Here’s the perfect Christmas gift for the dopehead on your list:  Tickets to “Reefer Madness!” the long-running hit (pun totally intended) by Kevin Murphy & Dan Studney at the Hudson Backstage Theatre.

It’s been a long time in coming, an adaptation of the 1936 “scare film” of the same name. You know, the movie created to frighten off youth from the culture of “marihuana,” which later evolved into a laughable cult classic? Or even if you don’t know, it doesn’t matter. The musical stage version of “Reefer Madness!” really deserves to be a phenomenon unto itself. Put a couple of tix under the tree for your cousin who is still mourning the death of Jerry Garcia. For that neighbor who’s best friends with Woody Harrelson but refuses to let you see her garden. Frankly, this show would also be great for the clean-and-sober 12-stepper on your gift list. Or for your neighbor, your grocer, your butcher, your baker… Man. I’m getting a mean case of the munchies just thinking about it.

Guided by a stern lecturer straight—and I mean not a left-leaning curve anywhere—out of a 1930s high school assembly (a near perfect Harry S. Murphy), “Reefer Madness!” follows the journey of Jimmy Harper, a clean-cut innocent who falls in with depraved fiends at the local reefer den. And once he’s got a taste of the demon weed, believe you me it doesn’t take Jimmy long to give into drug-crazed abandon and end up in H-E- Double Toothpicks! And take his sweetheart of a girlfriend along with him! As Jimmy, Christian Campbell is absolutely wonderful, finding razor-sharp edges and adding dimensions to what could easily be a cut-out, stock figure. And Jolie Jenkins is 100% adorable as his main—but not too hard!—squeeze, Mary Lane.

>Of course the real fun comes with the lurid personalities inhabiting the dope den. Mae is the jaded reefer hostess with a heart of gold, and Lesli Margherita has a gift for outlandish expressions that is priceless. In the performance reviewed, Rena Strober was a fabulously fluid Sally, the child-bearing Reefer Slut; and Paul Leighton a hoot and a half as Ralph, a college drop-out to die for. And then there’s Robert Torti as the pusher, Jack. With a smile that could melt whatever it is you thought heat-resistant, Torti has got to be the sexiest man on the planet. I tell you, I’d take any package from this guy, onstage or off. Oh, and he can act too. (But did I mention his smile?)

Really, though, I don’t know what’s better—the very clever, truly inspired, genuinely wicked show itself or this particular production, directed by Andy Fickman. It’s a tight, fast-paced evening full of surprises, with a hot live band and a crack group of actor/dancer/singers playing multiple roles. (If Torti’s Jesus Christ, doesn’t make you a believer, nothing will!) John David Paul designed the set using cartoons by Savage Steve Holland, and the comic-book feel (fleshed out by Dick Magnanti’s fun, fun costumes, and a tired bimbo carrying precautionary placards throughout the show) is just super. You don’t even have to inhale to appreciate it.

P.S. There’s a whole slew of “Reefer Madness!” merchandise on sale in the theatre’s lobby, in case anyone’s wondering what Santa should bring me…

—Nightlife Magazine, December 16, 1999

Pathe X

Pathe X Zoo District“I’m confused. I mean, really, really confused.”

Is the above: a) a museum-goer’s reaction to a Salvador Dali painting; b) a line from the latest Zoo District outing at the Lillian Theatre, Richard Zeger’s Dali-esque world premiere, “Pathe X”; c) an audience member’s reaction to said play; or d) all of the above.

The answer, of course, is d).

And in the case of Zeger’s visual feast of a play, the confusion in many cases adds to the enjoyment. Because whatever else “Pathe X” is (or isn’t), it is enjoyable. (Unless you don’t like Dali. If not, stay away. Stay very far away.)

In a nutshell? “Pathe X” tells the story of a playwright (Jon Kellam) who wakes up from a dream into another dream inhabited by a cavalcade of surreal artists and their way–out creations—as well as family members and figures influencing the early 20th Century Surrealist Movement—and embarks upon a weird, weird journey ending up in the mind of Salvador Dali where the playwright finds the seeds of “the perfect play.” Even this convoluted summary doesn’t really do it for this play. It’s sort of like describing a Dali masterpiece as “wavy clocks.”

Director Anthony Sandoval has as much of a sense of comic timing and stylization as he does an eye for design details, so that “Pathe X” is a fabulous melange of 16 gifted actors playing four times as many characters, a trip through a stunning dreamscape created by 11 first-rate designers, with a evocative musical score performed by six live musicians. Quite a feat, even for the ambitious Zoo District.

And beyond my meager space-limitations to properly credit all the talents I should here. The short list? Ben Simonetti, Joe Seely and Patrick Towne as Dalis young and old and fantastical (among other roles), Christine Deaver as American artist and Dali chum Lenora Carrington, Loren Rubin as Freud-in-a-closet, etc., and the rubber-faced Joe Fria, as filmmaker Luis Bunel and a bunch of other motley characters. Plus, every last designer.

Oh, sure, a lot of times “Pathe X” doesn’t really work. Not sure whether the playwright really served himself by trying to impose a somewhat linear, kinda pedestrian plot on the play. (And the playwright/seeker being named Eugene? Irksome.) Shadow puppetry doesn’t fly, the pacing lags in spots, and the moments where “Pathe X” ventures into the political/personal make certain audience members (okay, me) hungry for more historical and biographical details.

But, hey. To quote from a play I recently saw which quoted a certain surrealist painter of Spanish origin, “Don’t be afraid of perfection—you will never attain it!”

—Nightlife Magazine, October 21, 2000

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