Local theatre glows in a frigid February

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Who can recall a more frigid weekend than this past one? But what a comfort on those frost-bit evenings to rush inside a local community theatre for a great show to thaw you out and put the warmth of spring in the air. Residents of both Queens and Brooklyn are fortunate indeed to have community theaters quite active even during these harsh winter weeks.

I was treated to three glowing evenings/afternoons of excellent local theater this past weekend. With at least another weekend for each production still to come, I heartily recommend all three productions to make you feel like June is busting out all over.

On Friday evening I ventured into Brooklyn Heights to catch a production at the Heights Players of Neil Simon’s “Come Blow Your Horn.” A war-horse? Of course. You’ve probably seen the movie with Frank Sinatra, if not productions by local groups. But I have a weakness for this hokey tale of the sassy older brother and the nerdish kid brother who learn from each other and change their outlooks on life by getting to know each other better. And the long scene with their nosy, Yiddish mother who can’t find a pencil to take her son’s telephone message is a testament to the classic build-up of tittering laughter that finally explodes into sidesplitting belly-laughs.

The Heights Players is a well-established group that has been providing nine productions a year for more than 50 years. They are located in their own facility at 26 Willow Place, just off Joralemon Street, in Brooklyn Heights. With productions of “I Remember Mama,” “Heaven Can Wait,” and “My Fair Lady” still to come this year, you may want to check them out. Call 718-237-2752.

On Saturday I was back in my home borough for one of the most splendid productions I have ever seen of a favorite of mine, “I Hate Hamlet,” at the Astoria Performing Arts Center. Susan Scannell’s gem of a theatre company has mounted a true triumph in this luscious little comedy — the tale of a fading, no longer young TV star who takes a chance at performing Hamlet and gets a special lesson in acting and life from none other than the ghost of the legendary John Barrymore.

The cast was well-near perfect with amazing comedic chemistry in the star team of Joe Whelski as Andrew, the fading TV star, and Tom Knutson as Barrymore. Whelski underplayed beautifully at the start, gradually allowing his inner turmoil to come to the surface, both in his lack of achievement in his TV career and his inability to make an “emotional throughline” to his girlfriend.

The audience really cared for this Andrew, his plight made all the more palpable by his body language and his winning responses to Barrymore’s sarcasm. I have never seen this role communicate as much warmth and deep feeling as in this authentic performance.

As Barrymore, Knutson runs the whole gamut, from the pathetic alcoholic to the physical stud (the codpiece episode was about as in-your-face as I have ever seen it) to the grandiose star that Barrymore must have been. His rich, deep voice can dwindle to a hoarse whisper and, a moment later, ignite into a resonating roar with real gusto. The only thing missing, for me, was the physical zest given the part about a year ago in Douglaston’s Theatre á la Carte production. That Barrymore, John Ferry, remains unsurpassed in his portrait of the true narcissist that Barrymore may have been.

The rest of the cast was also a delight. As Deirdre, the virginal girlfriend, Tomoko Otsuka was glowing. Her infectious laugh, her limpid recital of Juliet’s vow to Romeo, and her own touching explanation of her pre-marital chastity were so beautifully drawn that the audience fell in love with her. Indeed the casting of an absolutely gorgeous Asian woman alongside a timid Caucasian boyfriend was a bold and most effective stroke.

As Gary, the tough-as-nails Hollywood TV producer, David Williams was in a class of his own. Brittle, materialistic and very funny, his strength in this role was his utter credibility. All too often this role is turned into a cartoon-like idiot, rather that the laughably sad vision of the state of the arts in this country that the playwright had intended.

Susan Scannell herself took on the role of Lillian, Andrew’s theatrical agent — with a tough exterior and German accent hiding a vulnerable and jaded past. Scannell looked lovely and melted on cue into Barrymore’s arms. A warning to all who attempt foreign accents even in an intimate setting, however, is to pump up the articulation and volume.

Cassandra Kassell was the jolly, quasi-medium, quasi-real estate agent, Felicia, who started the show off with great comic timing and a frothy, ebullient personality. However, her lack of glamour — or should I say glitter, as was so often the case with the real estate agents I dealt with in my Manhattan years — was somewhat questionable. She was truly no match for Theatre á la Carte’s Deborah Bekefi, who portrayed a beguiling Kim Novak-like kind of lost beauty who is stuck showing apartments.

Director John Hurley filled this play with a wealth of insights, requiring his cast to deliver each line with pointed effects. He and his actors seem to have endless resources at their command, both in their monologues and their interactions. And the idea of putting Andrew’s bed dead center at audience level in order to focus on the ultimate direction of the story was ingenious. However, I must admit that Theatre á la Carte, on a much smaller stage, achieved a far more gorgeous sense of art deco and decades past than here.

The Astoria Performing Arts Center is located at 31-30 33rd St. in Astoria. Performances of “I Hate Hamlet” continue this coming weekend on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21 and 22, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 23, at 6 p.m. Call 718-278-5925 for reservations. You will be enchanted.

Over in Forest Hills, Parkside Players is mounting another one of my favorite pieces, “Crimes of the Heart,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by Beth Henley. From a blustery cold, overcast Sunday afternoon, I was transported to the warm, cozy Magrath home in Halzehurst, Miss., by a rather extravagant set, to say the least. To see a small theater group load a full kitchen on stage, with a refrigerator, sink, and range made me sit back in awe. This group really means business!

I have not seen this affective, quietly insane little tale in quite some years and was touched not only by the chemistry of the three sisters but also the well-developed differences in their characters. Melissa Nearman, although a bit too lovely to suggest the fading Lenny Magrath by her appearance, certainly communicated Lenny’s gentle anguish and hopelessness most movingly.

Stephanie Hughes was excellent as the homicidal, suicidal, adulterous and, yet adorably sweet Babe Magrath. Her manner, authentic drawl, and volatility were all right there, making her the most genuine of the sisters. Aimee Hiltz brought a tragic bite to Meg, the tough, alcoholic chanteuse of the family. If I did not feel the pain of her failed career as much as I might have, I certainly felt her self-pity and bitter remorse.

The distaff part of the cast was rounded out by Paula Pulizzi as the love-to-hate cousin Chick. The audience roared when Lenny took a broom to chase her out of the house — a sign that this actress had done her job. Jim Azelvandre as Doc was truly luxury casting, such an enormously rich characterization for such a small role. How easily and beguilingly he conveyed all the self-destruction inherent in this part. Almost the same could be said for Jonathan Park’s Barnette, although often he seemed to be trying too hard when he could have conveyed his deep-rooted pain more effectively without the nervous discomfort.

Jennifer Sherron Stock molded this fine cast into a complete ensemble, allowing each character to emerge as a full human being and yet merge into an interactive whole. Congratulations to her and to all for bringing this difficult piece to a local theatre.

Parkside Players is located at Grace Lutheran Church, 103-15 Union Tpke., Forest Hills.

Additional performances of “Crimes of the Heart” are Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 21, 22, 28 and March 1 at 8 p.m. and one more Sunday, March 23, at 2 p.m. Call 718-497-4922 for reservations.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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