Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Theater review: Love in E Flat at Courtyard Theatre of Plano
Love in E Flat as a play script is no longer funny, but the actors make the most of it.
Rover Dramawerks produces “lost or forgotten works of well-known authors.” That’s true of Love in E Flat (playing at Courtyard Theatre of Plano through July 28). This 1967 play is written by Norman Krasna.
Norman Krasna was a screenwriter, playwright, and film director. He directed films and wrote screenplays and received four Academy Award nominations. Later in life he wrote plays, including Sunday in New York, which Rover played last season, and Love in E Flat. With all that, what most people may recognize is that he wrote the timeless classic movie, White Christmas.
Lisa Devine directed this play and managed a team of vintage designers who could relate to the '60s and who could design a very supportive world for the play.
Rover’s audience included people who could appreciate the pop music from the ‘60s and the look of late ‘60s setting. Lots of toe-tapping and singing was going on. Thank you Rich Frolich for a stroll through an earlier time. Frolich also designed appropriate sound effects for various uses during the play, but pre-show and intermission music was a hootenanny for most of us.
The set design by Rodney Dobbs was a one-piece, two-story apartment in brownstone on the east side of NYC. The lower floor had pink print walls decorated with late '60s tasteful artwork. Furniture seemed accurately period. The upper floor was upstage from the lower floor, with actors completing the illusion that it was actually a second floor above the 1st. The upper apartment was painted green with furnishings and concert posters, like Jim Morrison’s classic headshot, supporting the story that two over-worked under-paid medical interns lived together as bachelors there. This set allowed the action to take place without change, while lighting designed by Jeff Mabray illuminated the active parts of the set. A stairway allowed doorway access between apartments while another stairway allowed them to sneak between the apartments through windows. Overall, it was a nice visual picture that framed the action for the audience.
One problem the set unintentionally created was a tendency for action in one apartment to pull focus from dialog in the other. While this seemed necessary to the script the distance between the floors made it easy to focus on the less important dialog scene.
Properties were believable for the '60s in a real apartment many of us occupied in our poorer early years. Terrie Justus found apartment décor and props the actors could use easily for their active stage business. An old radio important to the plot looked like one my family had in my teens. Telephones used in the apartments were vintage Ma Bell phones. Justus even used real food which supported the humor.
Lindsey Humphries dressed actors in street clothes for ‘67 in a June NYC. Her suit for Mr. Cooper, the bug man, was gangster-like outlandish, fitting his character type. Amy was clothed in a variety of fashionable sets from lingerie to elegant party dress to common house wear. Howard and Mitch wore medical smocks and casual wear.
In this story, a young medical intern, Howard, shares an apartment with his roommate, fellow doctor, Mitch, upstairs from Howard’s girlfriend. Howard and Amy claim an open relationship with no jealousy, yet someone is discovered using new technology to spy on the other and this sets up intrigue, misdirection and misunderstanding - what one expects of a completely open relationship! This also causes feelings of betrayal and a plot is hatched for revenge, with possible pregnancies, marriages to former relationships and possible jail terms. To say more would tell the story but you get the point.
Love in E Flat is intended as melodramatic comedy so it should be judged based on its humorous story telling.
All actors are polished, experienced and have high energy for their roles. They make good choices about who their characters are and then portray them. There are clear arcs to the main characters. This is a dialog comedy with lots of intended laugh lines but it’s also a physical story with demands for keystone-cop type energy and even pratfalls. They do this well and the physical acting helps contribute many humorous moments.
Manuel C. Cruz, who plays Stanley, is a comfortable, comedic actor who delivers lines with good timing and he consistently gets laughs. His lines are more universal so we relate to them better, but his comedic style is natural and easy and that helps. Bea, his wife, is played with an older-sister’s concern and a relish by Sasha Truman-McGonnell. She provides protective reasoning to her sister, Amy. Mr. Cooper, the bug man, is played as an over-the-top quasi-mobster by Matt Stephan. It’s too dramatic at times yet it seems more natural that Cooper might behave like that and I applaud him for sticking with his choice. His costume, especially his too-small hat and the violin case he wields like a weapon, makes his acting visually funny and his speech style emphasizes that.
Porcia Bartholomae creates Amy as a young, sexy, beautiful homey type who just wants a normal family life. She runs the gamut from well-adjusted and accepting girlfriend to a deranged hurt animal ready to inflict revenge, and finally to a child-like lover who wants to be with her man. It’s a range of character choices that requires a lot of energy and courage and she pulls it off nicely. Her revenge scenes with her sister Bea are some of the funnier moments in the show. Bravo for this well-timed comedic sister scene.
Joshua Riley makes Howard a normal 28-year old intern - over-worked, over-sexed, under-paid, and trying to control his life with Amy the only way he can afford. And it gets him into trouble. Eventually, when he’s faced with the ultimate question of what’s important, he makes the right decisions. His scenes with Amy seem natural when they are young lovers, but when things get chaotic, they both exaggerate their pathos and it seems a little unnatural. Overall though, the pair works well together.
The paring of Howard and Mitch, however, seems unnatural from the start. Almost every word in their dialog is a screaming and yelling match. There are a couple of light moments as Howard reveals some inner worries but, even though Mitch is Howard’s friend and ally, every exchange seems like rams butting heads. People normally yell and scream when they fight and talk, interrupting, arguing points, but they intersperse quieter, reasoned moments as well.
This theater has great acoustics. I think you could hear mice walk onstage but most of the actors speak extra loud, as if they need to yell to be heard. It reached the back-row as yelling, not projecting, and that was disconcerting. They have wonderfully resonant voices and I could easily hear them in their quieter moments, which were rare. A little more natural voice is possible and would make lines more comfortable to absorb. The effect is that there’s no crescendo, no ebb and flow – it starts loud and stays loud.
Patrick Lynwood Henry who plays Mitch is an enigma to me. His role is a loyal ally of Howard and aid to Howard’s deceit and eventual reconciliation with Amy. He’s a comic foil to Howard’s ever-serious nature and Henry has great energy in this role and delivers a few of the funnier lines. But he is extra precise in his language, laboring to say each word and syllable precisely, like the lines are too precious to slur. Is this an effect of his character’s eccentric personality? It’s hard to tell, but the result is dialog that comes across as forced and unnatural to the point of distraction.
On the other hand, the funniest moments in the play are when Henry secretly listens to conversations downstairs between the young lovers. His visual reactions and expressions are hilarious. Despite dialog delivery, his solo work is worth the admission. However, returning to a design theme, these funny visual antics steal focus from dialog downstairs as Howard and Amy are discovering important issues in their relationship. It’s easy to lose the story downstairs because of the humor upstairs.
Love in E Flat as a play script is no longer funny. The situation is mildly intriguing and the characters could be, and sometimes are, funny on their own, but the ‘67 dialog is historically passé, not shocking in 2012.
There’s a risk when a producer chooses “lost or forgotten works”, especially when the work bases its currency and humor on lost or forgotten cultural attitudes. And especially when the language is outdated because our culture no longer finds the local references relevant. Love in E Flat is not funny because we’ve had decades of young lovers doing more than this story portrays. So the script fails in its dialog.
I found myself thinking, “Okay, this is not a funny script. But I want these actors to succeed and make it funny.” At times they did. Most times they couldn’t resurrect a tired script. And that stings because 1967 was the year I began adulthood and it doesn’t seem that long ago!
I applaud Rover Dramawerks for taking on this project. It’s a nice choice following their success with Sunday in New York, which was an even earlier play, yet it still is relevant to current times. With Love in E Flat, the questions are mildly comical but mostly irrelevant to us.
Love in E Flat is an evening of entertainment and light humor with a nice story. I think everyone on the production team does a valiant effort to revive this old play and you should see it and judge these things for yourself. It’s only one man’s opinion.
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