Life with Barney

After observing more than five years of solid growth in South Florida theater, it has become clear to me that certain venues, mostly by virtue of the skills of their artistic directors, produce dependably excellent work, both in the choice of scripts and actors. The bad news in this is that these companies are few in number; the good news is that we have them at all.

The majority of local acting groups, unfortunately, continue to flounder. They often protest that they must choose between staging tired old chestnuts, filling the seats with folks who might not be around in ten years, or trying new works and risking thin audiences. But my observations lead me to disagree. The issue is not revivals versus new works; the issue is the artistic director's creative inspiration in selecting material that will succeed for one simple reason: because it delivers outstanding entertainment.

In the past, I've mentioned Michael Hall of the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton as one of those wise, gifted directors who makes wonderful choices, and although I did not care much for his latest offering A A.R. Gurney's tedious 1993 work, Later Life A everyone is entitled to a mistake now and again. Hall doesn't make many. Neither does Rafael de Acha of New Theatre in Coral Gables. After eight seasons, I feel I can rely on de Acha's taste, judgment, and skills. During the course of this theater season alone, he has presented several outstanding productions, including Mountain and To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, each a relatively new work that justifiably filled the house.

Now de Acha gives us a gift of Gurney at his peak, with a highly enjoyable production of The Middle Ages. In fact, I can't remember when I've had a more thoroughly uplifting and pleasant night at the theater. When he's good, A.R. Gurney is a master, and in this 1977 piece he deftly blends serious drama, high comedy, and wonderful characterizations to tell an enchanting tale. Though there are a few flaws with New Theatre's rendition, there's so much to recommend it I must do just that. Go see The Middle Ages and you will not regret the decision.

Gurney traces the lives of four characters over a period of time between 1945 and 1979. Charles is a born blue blood whose grandfather founded a very posh and exclusive club in Philadelphia. The club serves as the center of Charles's life and the center of the play, which is set in the inner sanctum of the place, the trophy room. He may be rich, prejudiced, snobbish, and rigid, but Charles manages to retain a warm heart. He truly loves his two sons, Billy and Barney, and cherishes the memory of his dead wife. Billy, who we never see, poses no problem; he's a chip off the old block, destined for success and eventual presidency of the club. Barney, the central character of Gurney's play, is another matter. Wild and eccentric, he grows from being a rowdy teenager to a salacious pornographer, attempting at every turn to disavow his upper-crust roots and shame his father, whom he nevertheless idolizes.

Barney goes to Berkeley, Barney brings black people to swim naked in the club's pool, Barney is bisexual, and worst of all, Barney covets Ellie, a willowy girl who has decided to marry Billy even though she lusts for the wilder brother. Ellie's mother, Myra, has left her Jewish husband in Harrisburg, divorcing him first and then dragging herself and her daughter into this all-WASP club in order to gain upward social mobility. All her wishes are fulfilled when Ellie marries Billy and she ends up snagging old Charles himself.

The play opens in 1979 at Charles's funeral and moves backward in time to reconstruct the lives of Charles, Barney, Myra, and Ellie as they clash, confront, confound, and constantly intrude on each other's lives. As much as Barney wants to trash the world of the club, and as much as the others want to embrace it, all four are caught somewhere in between, tied together through invisible yet invincible bonds. For a play that begins with a family in mourning and explores the life of a dysfunctional son, the story has a happy and plausible ending. What a treat.

As Ellie, April Daras is sensational. She moves with an almost divine grace, and manages to build a complex character out of a frustrated suburban housewife. Bill Yule turns in an equally impressive performance as Charles, keeping that stiff upper lip while allowing a hint of passion and playfulness to sneak out. Sally Levin as mother Myra mugs a bit too much, and sometimes appears to be doing a Lucille Ball impersonation, but the good humor and light touch she brings to the role are endearing nonetheless.

The only serious problem with this cast is Carlos Orizondo in the pivotal and difficult part of Barney. The character must be bold and brash but also real, and Orizondo apparently doesn't have enough experience to tackle such a tough assignment. In the first part, he overacts, and in the second he seems unduly somber. Either way, he's constantly and conspicuously "acting," never at ease enough to evoke an authentic reality. To be fair to Orizondo, Gurney wrote a very tricky part in creating Barney, and only a remarkably talented performer could bring him to life convincingly.

Thanks to a great script by Gurney, thoughtful and fluid direction by de Acha, handsome set design by Robert Butcher, and perfect costumes by Lea Farr, the show does not noticeably suffer from Orizondo's excesses, though you may be tempted to cover one eye to block him out. This is Gurney with laughs, with tears, and with revelatory insights into the human condition. Once again I must applaud New Theatre for adding to their winning streak. In the arts as in anything else, consistent quality counts for more than brief flashes of brilliance.

On the other hand, David Arisco, an artistic director who has been known to complain that he can't fill the Actors' Playhouse and pay the bills with new work, has simply chosen very badly in his selection of Gardner McKay's unpleasant and implausible contemporary thriller, Toyer. On the Sunday matinee I attended, Arisco delivered a speech before the curtain rose. The house was only a quarter full, and he lamented the fact that Funny Girl and similar musty offerings earlier this season did much better. In truth, it has nothing to do with the age of the play. It has to do with the art of play. In the case of Toyer, this is a piece of theater I wouldn't recommend to my worst enemies.

Serial killers rarely succeed on a stage. The wit and humanity necessary for engrossing drama are usually absent from the lives of a Ted Bundy or a Danny Rolling. Sociopaths either have to be camp (Psycho Beach Party), sing a great musical score (Sweeney Todd), or they have to have leaves (Little Shop of Horrors). The predator in Toyer is disgusting -- period. He drugs his women victims, rapes them, and then performs two grisly medical operations on them. First he lobotomizes them, then he severs their spinal cords at the cervical vertebrae, rendering them paralyzed vegetables. Oh what fun.

Why he performs these operations is never made clear. But then, nothing in this melodramatic script makes any sense. The maniac comes to see a female psychiatrist, who coincidentally "treats" all his victims. Why does a psychiatrist treat decerebrated quadriplegics? Who knows? She lets him into her house because she thinks he's gay. He tells her he's the "Toyer," and she glancingly stabs him on the arm with a kitchen knife. But he whines at the sight of blood and claims he was just acting a part, and she makes love to him. Sure.

It gets worse. I don't even think the television networks could come up with a movie of the week that unspools in such a sophomoric fashion. The characters aren't developed, the dialogue is forced and phony, and the plot is obsessed with prefrontal lobes.

Bethany Bohall as the psychiatrist Maude is almost as painful to watch as the play itself. She never exhibits any semblance of honesty. Her fear isn't real, nor is her passion or her intellect -- nada. Tom Wahl, who is a fine actor, is the only joy to behold. He manages to rise above all the improbabilities and silly lines to present a chilling sociopath, which goes to show that you can't keep true talent down.

Arisco's direction neither hurts nor helps, but Michael Thomas Essad's clever and well-constructed set -- an interior space with lots of corners and mirrors for characters to hide but still be seen by the audience A adds to the action. In fact, the idea of using the stage layout to enhance the suspense is a nice touch, and I hope someone writes a better play and tries this trick again.

Actors' Playhouse warns the audience that this is a "mature play" with nudity and sex scenes. They would have been better off telling us it's a rotten play. In his program notes, playwright McKay explains, "It is about our dreadful crimes; not that they happen, that we know about them and turn the page." In the case of the Playhouse, the dreadful crime was knowing about it, and rather than turning the page, putting it on the stage.


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