Young Americans are fascinated by other young Americans struggling and making it in New York City. At times, it feels like every sitcom on television is some variation of this plot. Millennials, more than any generation, are obsessed with the grit and grime behind that fantasy. Girls can afford to rent a living room and a half because of their upper middle class privilege, whereas Friends pleasantly enjoy entire coffee shops and spacious two bedroom apartments. Aziz Ansari sacrifices his acting career to host a reality show, whereas Jerry Seinfeld’s life is so quietly successful I’m not entirely sure he’s ever so much as frowned onscreen. Yadda yadda yadda. The Theatre Factory’s The Goodbye Girl, therefore, appeals to just about everybody. Based on the 70’s film of the same name written by Neil Simon, the musical follows Paula McFadden (Chelsea Bartel), a struggling single mother who is bounced from relationship to relationship by actors eager for a quick thrill. Her career as a dancer on television – the kind of dancer that peps up TV advertisements for dietary supplements – yields similar results. The musical opens with Paula once more on the outs. Her latest ex left unceremoniously in the night and rented out their apartment to fellow actor Elliot Garfield (Nick Mitchell), who is more or less a total jerk. But Paula isn’t alone: Lucy (Amelia Bender), Paula’s wise-beyond-her-years preteen daughter, is a more adult figure than any of Paula’s prior flings. The struggle is real, in other words, and the first act is almost merciless in how few wins it allows Paula. The Theatre Factory’s latest is in some ways a reminder of how much popular perception of struggling in the big city has changed. Being a production of a Neil Simon script it is relentlessly positive, but thanks to the energetic sarcasm of its performers it also feels in line with more contemporary comedy-dramas. However, some subplots that worked as funny goofs in the 1970s play different in the 2010s. Elliot – who we are unsurprised to see develop into Paula’s latest love interest – shows up late in the night to the McFadden’s apartment, makes it clear he can legally evict his newfound roommates at any point, and quickly makes good on his promise that he likes walking around his apartment in the nude. With a young girl around. I can’t entirely blame the source material on my discomfort with the character here. Nick Mitchell doesn’t soften Elliot’s edge so much as sharpens it, and in another play could be framed as a scary dude. Chelsea Bartel’s Paula, meanwhile, is in a perpetual state of emotional exhaustion, but always feels like she’s ready to give the audience a laugh. She’s a very grin-and-bare-it type, but her pain is visible all the same. There is a moment in the second act in which Elliot’s entire career is put at risk during a disastrous performance as a multi-gendered Richard III. We’re meant to be enjoying his misfortune, but even in such a humbling moment The Goodbye Girl seems to be insisting we reframe Elliot as a beleaguered eccentric worth cheering for. I wasn’t sold, and therefore never fully bought into the romance between the two. More believable is Paula’s relationship with Lucy. Amelia Bender performs Lucy with a fun mix of earnest spirit and a touch of early onset irony, making her a perfect fit. Bartel plays Paula like a woman who caught on fire a minute ago and is the last one to realize it. She bleeds imperfection, but we never question her determination to make a good life for Lucy, and as a result have an easy time laughing along. I can’t help but feel The Goodbye Girl is tonally inconsistent. I’ve seen Mitchell before, as an aggrieved survivor in a production of The Birds, and found his ability to be a caring partner one minute and an angry mess the next unsettling in how believable it was. I believe him here, too. I’ve seen Bartel’s work at The Theatre Factory before during a production of Next To Normal, where she played a mother suffering from schizophrenia. I saw it with a friend whose parent was afflicted by a similar condition, and the performance shook her. What I’m saying is, these are good performers, but the tone of the show changes depending who is taking center stage. If it’s Mitchell, it’s the New York City from Girls; if it’s Bartel, it’s the New York City from Friends. The dissonance is only exacerbated by The Goodbye Girl’s musicality, which was uneven during the show’s premier. Mitchell nailed the Richard III fiasco, which is the play’s greatest scene. He really leans into Elliot’s narcissism and his constant, desperate asides to stage hands and ridiculous physicality really sells the moment. Placed next to Bartel’s doe-eyed optimism and bright, dynamic vocals, however, Elliot needs to shift hard towards warmth, or perhaps Paula needs to learn harder into the playful sarcasm from earlier scenes. The Theatre Factory’s The Goodbye Girl can be uplifting, and I found myself wanting to escape into Scott Calhoon’s colorful, Hollywood soundstage-esque set design. True to life, however, the world it’s built around is too erratic to be fantasy. The Goodbye Girl runs at The Theatre Factory in Trafford through September 24. For tickets and more information, click here.
There is something to be said for the succulent, somewhat indulgent wave of hyper-camp that is necessary to successfully execute a musical adapted from seemingly unfitting source material. Musicals like Carrie, Batboy!: The Musical, Heathers and others of that ilk must evoke and maintain a certain degree of precise ludicrousness and poignancy to be enjoyable (or even bearable). The cast and crew responsible for McKeesport Little Theater’s musical adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde—originally conceived by Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden for the stage based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s infamous novella “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”—are certainly aware of the level of camp necessary for reproducing something as absurd as a melodramatically symphonic, at times vaudevillian, reconstruction of a story of the prototype “mad” scientist on his blind quest to reveal humanity’s dichotomous spirit. While on the whole enjoyable and self-reflexive, some of the finer points of the execution could have been strengthened in the staging. Certainly, the musical, as is the case with the book, is heavily dependent on strong individual performances that give life to characters who are intensely caricatured. Director Edward Bostedo clearly took this to heart, making sure characters like Jekyll/Hyde, Spider, Lucy Harris, and the lecherous Minister were illuminated in extraordinarily seedy light. Eric Sciulli, responsible for playing the dangerously transcendentalist titular doctor, is very aware of the dramaturgical task he is beset with—and his impressive vocal range and power helps to give the doctor an air of unbridled passion that makes the familiar character feel unique. Additionally, Randi Walker, portraying the sex worker Lucy Harris (a character that is woefully sublimated in most iterations of the story) is an absolute scene stealer. Having seen Walker in other performances, it was by no means a surprise to be thrilled by her impassioned performance, but she truly did revitalize some of the slower moments of the play. At times, the play would rely too heavily on hackneyed or absurdist performances or quirks rather than character development or cohesion, but a great deal of credit should be given to the ensemble interactions and the expertise of the stage manager, Elizabeth Civello, and director and other crew members for guiding these interactions from behind the scenes. Set designer Edward Bostedo deserves a tremendous amount of credit for capitalizing on a very small, fairly limiting space and creating entire, compelling settings on a macro and micro scale in each scene. Jekyll & Hyde at times falls short of the balance of consistent preposterousness and subtle poignancy that is necessary to keep the play going on all cylinders at all moments. That being said, the actors and crew impressively translate the essence of the source material while adding their distinct flair to the show that captures the audience and highlights their individual talents. The play shows promise for the ongoing caliber for the staggering 57th season of McKeesport Little Theatre. Jekyll & Hyde runs at the McKeesport Little Theater through September 24th. For tickets and more information, click here.
The 27th season of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival at Carnegie Stage continues with a trio of new one-act plays in Program C. The first show is Julie Zaffarano’s Destiny is a Careless Waiter, as presented by R-ACT Productions. The stage is set with two café tables. Flowing red tablecloths drape the tables like melted red wax on the sides of a Chianti bottle. Champagne flutes on each table reinforce this is a destination of romance. Of course, things are not always what they appear. However, the romantic restaurant seems fitting when the show opens with the high-pitched squeals of Bria (Brittany Bara). She shrieks with excitement after discovering a ring atop her dessert. Bria possessively pushes on the ring, not even pausing for her newly betrothed to slip it on, extending her arm and admiring her finger, all while rattling on incessantly. Her new fiancé, Justin (Spencer Whale), looks befuddled, and one suspects he’s just the inert type. It’s an intimate restaurant where tables almost kiss. The couple at the next table reacts to the engagement. The man (Sean, played by Travis Ascione) finds it sweet and tries cajoling his girlfriend (Emily, played by Carley Adams) into the same response. Emily’s nonstop texting and cynical eyeroll indicate she is not impressed by the trite textbook proposal. Beyond that, she casts dubious glances at Bria, clearly finding her overzealous reaction extreme. While it’s a play of couples, the women assume the primary roles, and their costuming establishes them as opposites. Emily is tall and willowy, a brunette with severe bangs who wears a classic little black dress. Adams plays Emily with a resting bitch face when she’s dealing with Sean, but it’s not a one-note default as she warms and softens in other interactions. Bria’s evergreen perkiness is made manifest by a colorful floral skirt and vibrant fuchsia cardigan. Bara’s energetically fresh interpretation of Bria is a pleasure to watch, and Bara flips some cynicism when needed, not limiting herself to an always on mode. It turns out Justin’s confusion is genuine. He had no plans to propose. It’s a madcap rush, reminiscent of a 1930’s screwball comedy, but director Mike Nelson is careful not to speed through the plot twists. The play ends with Justin and Sean making eye contact as they simultaneously shout “Server,” although it sounds more like “Serve her,” advice we learn both men failed to take. Relationship drama, albeit offstage, also forms the cornerstone of the second play, the Actors Civic Theater’s presentation of William Sikorski’s Romeo and Juliet: Epilogue. Director James Critchfield’s set choice is appropriately austere for an interrogation room: a folding table and three chairs. The play opens with Friar Lawrence (Eric Mathews) slumped over the table in his brown habit. There’s immediate juxtaposition. Two modern detectives come into the room, one clutching a donut bag. They start rapid-fire questioning the startled-looking friar. Just when one thinks it’s because he’s a man of God who’s wrestling with being questioned by the police about his role in the dead bodies found in a tomb, he responds in Elizabethan English. Detective Sam Davis (Candice Fisher) bristles offensively at the Elizabethan response. Fisher plays the detective with limited range; Fisher’s two modes are smartass and shrill as she gets in the friar’s face. Detective William Stanley is played by Joel Ambrose who brings more nuance to his performance and pushes beyond stereotypes. However, Stanley is like an American abroad who speaks more slowly and loudly, hoping that will solve the communication gap. Sikorski’s narrative misses the mark and is tied up a bit too abruptly and neatly. Ultimately, the detectives’ forceful abrasiveness seems questionable, but Critchfield doesn’t explore that thread, which is a missed opportunity for relevance given ever-present stories on police brutality. Instead, the two detectives just break into the donuts. Cops will be cops. Domestic drama provides a through line connecting the third and final play, Lezlie Revelle’s The Wrong Brannigan (presented by McKeesport Little Theatre) to its two Program C predecessors. The action unfolds in a living room, lived in but warmly pleasant. A champagne-colored brocade couch behind a green area rug provides the focal point of the room. A chair nestled on each side and a wet bar across the room completes a scene of domestic tranquility. This tranquility is reinforced by the play’s opening as occupant Ronnie Brannigan (Randy Berner) enters the room. Berner perfectly channels a very nice, but immediately forgettable, mid-50s male. He enters the living room with an open book and settles on the couch to read. His tranquility is short-lived as a man ringing the doorbell ever more incessantly breaches Ronnie’s peace. The breach turns out to be of more than just solitude. The man, Bill (Chris Cattell), pulls a gun on the perplexed Ronnie. Ronnie’s wife Jerri (Jane Scutieri Tinker) arrives home to a tense scene as the gun-brandishing Bills faces off with a confused Ronnie who’s wrestling with the tension between spousal loyalty and troubling new revelations. Tinker struggles to make her character believable throughout, leaning towards the comedic easy laugh as an escape valve. Relationship drama continues to escalate when the Brannigan’s college-age daughter, Katie (Kaitlin Cliber) arrives home for the holidays. Her costuming marks her as a girl still trying on identities, dark hair chopped short with blonde tufts and a long burgundy sweater with swinging fringe. The number of secrets and twists unravels at a near-dizzying frenzy. Director Catherine Gallagher fails to still the pacing at critical moments, leaving one feeling a bit like a hapless passenger on a roller coaster ride. While the tone remains comedic, Ronnie clearly surprises himself when he taps into his own dark side a bit, raising questions about the lengths we’ll go to in protecting the ones we love. Program C of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival runs through September 23 at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106. For more details, click here.