Theatre Review: ‘Superior Donuts’ by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

To start its 2019/2020 season, Shea’s 710 Theatre has partnered with Road Less Traveled Productions to present “Superior Donuts”, a show from acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts (of “August: Osage County” fame) that tackles topical sociopolitical issues like race and gentrification, but more importantly, spotlights a friendship between an aging hippie who’s stuck in his ways, and a young black man desperately trying to bring him into the 21st century. 

. . .funny and touching. . .

“Superior Donuts” tells the story of Arthur Przybyszewski (Steve Jakiel), the owner of the decrepit donut shop from whence the play gets its name; it’s a staple of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, which has been in Arthur’s family for 60+ years. Finding himself in need of a new assistant, Arthur hires Franco (Jake Hayes) a young college-aged African-American man who, as we come to learn, is desperately in-need of a job in order to continue supporting his mother, and to pay off steep gambling debt to a local bookie.  With the donut shop struggling financially, Franco makes suggestions for improvement and modernization to the often-reluctant Arthur, who punctuates the story with regular monologues about his daughter, ex-wife, and past as a draft-dodging hippie.

Jakiel and Hayes absolutely shine in the leading roles of Arthur and Franco, with Jakiel masterfully playing the grumpy curmudgeon who is surprisingly educated and open-minded, and Hayes playing the enterprising young Franco who has a gift for writing. The chemistry between these two actors is organic and palpable, one that either comes naturally or was honed through hours and hours of intense rehearsal (or both). Regardless, it’s completely magnetic and is the foundation of this production. 

Rounding out the cast are a handful of smaller supporting roles, all of which add color and context to the setting of “Superior Donuts.” Most notable are Max Tarasov (John Profeta), the flamboyant Russian owner of the DVD shop next door, Lady Boyle (Tina Rausa), the bag lady who frequents the shop, and Officer Randy Osteen (Lisa Vitrano), the neighborhood cop with a sweet spot for Arthur. 

Even though it’s only 10 years old, it’s striking how remarkably well “Superior Donuts” has aged. Our culture is awash with well-intentioned plays and films that attempt to heavy-handedly address important racial themes, and end up coming across as a little too “white savior-y” (one need look no further that 2018’s Oscar-winning “Green Book” for a prime example). Tracy Letts had the foresight to not lead “Superior Donuts” down that road; there are no white saviors, and at the end of the show’s two acts our main characters haven’t tidily solved racism. “Superior Donuts” gently explores themes of class and, yes, sometimes race (there’s an impactful moment where Arthur actually concedes that he probably harbors some implicit racism), but it’s mainly about two new friends who learn to challenge and protect each other.

I listened to a podcast recently in which the hosts were discussing the film “The Shawshank Redemption”, and they described it as “not so much a prison movie as a romance movie about two best friends.” At the time it struck me as a curious description, but upon further reflection I realized that it was absolutely spot-on. Fans of “Shawshank” know that prison is certainly the backdrop, but the movie is really about the deep, meaningful friendship that unfolds between Andy and Red over the course of their years behind bars together. The podcasters were making the point that this storytelling format is more common with romance movies than in prison thrillers, and it occurs to me that “Superior Donuts” could be summarized the same way; “a romance movie about two best friends.” Sure, “Superior Donuts” flirts with issues like race, gentrification, and even the protest movements of the 1960’s, but the real thematic weight lies with the friendship that develops and grows between Arthur and Franco during the course of the play, and how that friendship becomes a saving grace in both of their lives. To Arthur, Franco becomes an adopted son of sorts, someone to encourage and protect, but also to help pull him and his shop into the 21st century. 

“Superior Donuts” is a funny and touching production, and a thoughtful collaboration between two of Buffalo’s finest theatre institutions. It’s also an important play to revisit, given the cultural and political backdrop of 2019. 

“Superior Donuts” is playing at Shea’s 710 Theatre until October 27th. For tickets and more information, click here

Theatre Review: ‘The Undeniable Sound Of Right Now’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

Those of us of a certain age still sigh when we remember going to the Belle Star out in Colden. Or Central Park Grill. Or the original Tralf on Main Street.  These were places where live music was king, but it was the atmosphere, the company, the whole gestalt of it all that made it more than just a destination with a great sound. That’s the essence of Hank’s, the dive bar with live music in “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” on stage at Road Less Traveled Productions.

. . . ends RLTP’s season on a high note. . .

Dyan Burlingame’s set pulls you in before playwright Laura Eason’s endearing story begins. Hank’s has a warm, rundown vibe of a place packed with memories, with  just a dash of stale beer. Lots of framed prints on the walls, a Teddy Bear over the bar signed by The Clash’s Mick Jones, a string of twinkle lights above the bar surrounded by a collection of mismatched stools. Only one thing was missing, noticed one keen observer: there should have been a few holes in the wall around the dartboard. But it’s all perfect. It creates a sense of place, a feeling, something meant to linger and stay with all whom cross the threshold.

Eason’s story is a little bit Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” meets “You’ve Got Mail.” Hank’s is a 25 year institution in 1992-era Chicago. It’s the place indie bands play on their way from the garage to the big time. Hank has the ear for it, too.  Music is his life and this dive bar he built is his world. That world’s about to be rocked by the by DJs who liked to mix it up at the turntables and keep a vacant warehouse full of 20-somethings dancing all night. This is a track Hank isn’t willing to play in his place. “Too produced, processed, and soul-less,” he grumbles. The neighborhood is poised to change, too, as the next generation landlord is selling off old properties for new uses. Yup, sometimes even the best tunes resolve to a minor key.

Director David Oliver’s well-chosen cast give life to Eason’s story. Hank (perfectly portrayed by Peter Palmisano) is irascible, funny, and philosophical, too. His monologue about music (“it’s some kind of magic,” he says) is both wistful and powerful. Christine Turturro (a graduating college senior in Niagara University’s legendary theatre program) is Hank’s daughter Lena. She was raised to love live music just like her dad, but her peers are the ones dancing in the warehouse. Turturro is a fine actor and picks a mean guitar, too. I loved the scenes when Hank and Lena grab their guitars and just pick and talk, thinking through their fingers. Listen closely to these small moments: your ear will catch some familiar riffs, a little Hendrix, some early Beatles. In my head, I finished the line of the Beatles tune, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead…”  Like Hank says, it’s magic.

Jeff Coyle as Toby, Hank’s bar manager, Diane DiBernardo as Bette his ex-wife who is still drawn to the man and the place that has her heart,  Johnny Barden as Nash, Lena’s beau with ulterior motives, and Nick Stevens as Joey, the son of the landlord with little respect for a handshake and tradition round out the cast well. Coyle and Stevens are fresh from MusicalFare’s last iteration of “Million Dollar Quartet” at Shea’s 710 Theatre as Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley respectively.  It’s Palmisano and Turturro who have the real chemistry here: their father-daughter dynamic is both fierce and sweet.

On the production side, John Rickus has some fun lighting key scenes, when the adjoining warehouse is packed with a couple thousand writhing dancers. He creates visual depth looking into a briefly opened door that’s stunning. Katie Menke’s sound design includes some fine tunes in scene changes. I couldn’t help myself: I started singing along with Janis Joplin at one point, and noticed the audience member next to me joined in. That’s another thing music does: it creates community.

“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” ends RLTP’s season on a high note, but like a great music set, I want to hear it all again.

Running Time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission.

“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” runs until May 19, 2019 at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The cast of “Between Riverside and Crazy” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Not all stage families are like the Von Trapps. Or the Pazinskis.  Meet Walter Washington, affectionately called Dad by his son Junior, his son’s girlfriend, Lulu, and Junior’s friend Oswaldo. They all share Walter’s rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive and they comprise the complicated,  flawed, funny, frightening family in playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Between Riverside and Crazy,” staged by Road Less Traveled Productions.

. . .strong. Solid. Gutsy. 

This show is strong. Solid.  Gutsy. RTLP director Scott Behrend staged other Guirgis works before, but this one grabs you. There are seriously funny moments, mostly dialogue-based when characters display the lighter side of their humanity. There are other moments that are intense insights into the hold addiction has on people who are struggling to get through another day. Addiction – whether to drugs, alcohol, old habits, poignant memories – is powerful, not crazy at all, just devastating.

Walter, (John Vines) is a former New York City cop, eight years  in litigation with the police force over his disabling injury. He still mourns his late wife Dolores and uses her old wheelchair to sit in at the kitchen table as he sips whiskey from her good China tea cup. It’s here where the family banters and jokes and where Oswaldo (Alejando Gomez) admits to Walter that this is where he finds comfort as he embraces his sobriety and takes steps along a better path away from his “emotionalisms.”  Vines and Gomez have great rapport as their characters: Gomez’s malapropisms have an earthy sweetness as he parrots the benefits of healthier eating and Vines brings the right balance of mature life experience and some urban wisdom to Walter. It’s a comfortable world in this kitchen, where tall boy beers are always in the fridge and it’s all good until the outside world beckons.

Junior (Gabriel Robere) is back home to look after his dad, but Junior has his struggles, too. He’s no stranger to the other side of the law, and his girlfriend Lulu (Melinda Capeles) may or may not have alternative ways to earn a living. Capeles is a hoot in this role: her comic chops shine in offbeat moment. Robere’s take on Junior is that he’s looking out for his Dad the best way he can. Every line he delivers is warm and protective

Lisa Vitrano is Walter’s old partner on the force. Now a detective, she brings her fiancé (Dave Mitchell) – a lieutenant on the force with his eyes on other things – to meet Walter. Mitchell plays the cunning cop role well, fey bumbling but sharp and ready to attack. You can see him seething under the good ol’ guy façade. Vitrano – who made stage magic in RLTP’s production of “The Illusion” earlier this season is clearly torn. She wants her old partner to settle the disagreement he has with the force which will help her fiancé,  but she sees Walter as a father figure, too, even when she questions his motives and speculates how good a cop or a husband he really was. These two cops though are living room bound. They don’t have the privilege, the access to family safe zone, the kitchen.

The visiting church lady is in the kitchen though. Victoria Perez is mystifying as this nameless visitor, there to drink juice and eat cookies and bring churchly solace to Walter. She claims to see things, feel things, and wants Walter to give his soul to Jesus for healing. But her motives (and her methods) aren’t pure. When her ‘visit’ causes Walter to suffer a heart attack, his weakened heart actually strengthens his resolve to move on with his life, on his terms.  Perez only has two brief scenes – both with Walter – and they are both exquisitely raw in different ways. Perez is an amazingly versatile actor: she saws two extremes in this character and she does so expertly.

In the end, it’s the apartment itself that is the central character. Its presence in this ersatz family’s life defines it. When it’s threatened, chaos reigns. As a home, it provides safety, sanctuary. Lou Iannone as set director got it right. The “bones” of a classic prewar apartment are there, but there are water stained walls and simple furnishings. It’s a home with some blemishes for a family that has some proverbial warts, too.

There’s one character we don’t see: the X$&$ing dog, Walter’s nemesis and pal that’s the objective of some pretty funny lines.

This plot is truly riveting. The characters are complex and there are moments that are so dark you want to turn away. But you can’t. You need to know. No surprise that this won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015.

Running time: 90 minutes plus a 10-minute intermission.

“Between Riverside and Crazy” is onstage now to March 31, 2019. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’ by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The holiday season is upon us, whether we like it or not, and this weekend was a perfect snowy setting to attend “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” presented by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre. Welcomed immediately into the world of Jane Austen by an inspired set design at the hands of Bethany Kasperek, the atmosphere felt almost anticipatory. Years of readers are familiar with these characters, and Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have breathed new life into the “Pride and Prejudice” heroine and her sisters, two years later.

You’ll regret missing this production. 

The entire Bennet family will be joining the Darcys at their home at Pemberley for the holidays; Mary, Jane and her husband Charles Bingley (with Jane expecting their first child), and the effervescent Lydia, traveling (much to Mary’s relief) separately. Mr. Darcy receives news they are to be joined by Arthur deBourgh, newly the master of an estate though he’d much prefer to stay at Oxford. And so, the Darcy home will be filled for Christmas.

As Mary Bennet, heroine of this story, Alexandria Watts is exquisitely charming and confident, equal parts wit and melancholy, but always sure of herself. It’s clear Mary is beginning to feel alone and excluded, especially from her married older sisters. Watts is nothing short of captivating in her RLTP debut, bringing humor and strength to her portrayal.

Amy Feder, also making her RLTP debut, is a delightful Elizabeth Darcy. She is particularly strong in the opening scene with her husband, who is incredulous as to the presence of a Christmas tree inside the house. It’s a German tradition, of course, but he can’t remember becoming German.

Buffalo theatergoers will recognize Todd Benzin, who in this production is playing Feder’s husband. He carries himself, both physically and vocally, in a commanding way, yet brings a gentleness to his portrayal of Austen’s heartthrob.

The Bingleys, enamored with their impending parenthood, are ably captured by Rosa Fernandez and Darryl Semira. Fernandez carries herself in the role of Jane with the experience of older sister bringing an almost matriarchal touch to her performance; it adds a subtlety to Jane’s character I quite enjoyed. Semira, too, is a performer you can’t help but watch. He and Benzin, masters of physical technique, make easy work of each moment given; a subtle look, casually sinking into armchairs in unison. They’re seasoned actors, in an experience sense, and it shows.

As Lydia, the bubbly socialite of the Bennet sisters, Brittany Bassett is terrific as well. She doesn’t have an easy task – Lydia is energetic ad nauseum, which Bassett has managed to capture with a characterization which literally bounces her around the stage, even while bringing humanity to her portrayal. Tracy Snyder ably captures Anne deBourgh, an unannounced visitor and relative of Arthur’s.

All of these performances allow for an unbelievably diverse ensemble that unites as one to carry along this story, so to single out one seems irresponsible. That being said, Nick Stevens might actually have walked straight out of an Austen novel and onto the stage as Arthur deBourgh. He’s exactly what you’d imagine in an Austen male: witty, charmingly awkward (or is it awkwardly charming), tall, dark, handsome…et cetera. He embodies Arthur deBourgh, and sparks fly almost immediately between Stevens and Watts. You know their romance is inevitable almost from their first meeting, and so you almost yell at them from the audience to figure it out for themselves. Stevens is almost barely acting here, this type of piece comes so naturally to him that he’s able to expose Arthur’s soul with ease.

All of these wonderful actors, dressed beautifully by Jenna Damberger, benefit immeasurably from Katie Mallinson’s elegant direction. She’s RLTP’s resident dramturg, so period pieces are kind of her “thing” and she’s right at home. Her vision is clear and concise, it truly feels like we’re looking into an 1815 portrait of England, aided by excellent dialect coaching by Jennifer Toohey. Mallinson has managed to keep a very diverse audience on the edge of their seat, and the pace and flow never slows because she’s smartly added vignette scene changes that tie the scenes together. Mallinson is a young director whose work has been and continues to be sharp, creative, and fresh. This production is no exception.

If you’re perusing Netflix for a Christmas movie, or you’re glued to the Hallmark channel this season, I encourage you to turn off the console and get over the Shea’s 710 to see this unbelievable production. It’s the perfect family show, perfect holiday show, and the spacious auditorium will feel all the more inviting and welcoming when filled with a couple hundred other supporters of live theater in snowy Buffalo (or Pemberley). You’ll regret missing this production.

Running Time: 2 hours plus a 10 minute intermission.

“Miss Bennett – Christmas At Pemberly” runs until December 23, 2018, is produced by Road Less Traveled Productions, and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Speed-the-Plow’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The cast of “Speed-the-Plow” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright said “A building is not just a place to be, but a way to be.”

Road Less Traveled Productions found its way by launching its 15th season  in a newly-built out theatre space (the first theatre to open on Main St.’s Theatre District in 20 years) with an outstanding production of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow.”

. . .the production is a fine example of RLTP’s consistent good work. . .

“Speed-the-Plow” is a satirical send up to the movie industry and the eternal struggle between making money and creating meaningful art on screen. The frenetically-paced show answers the question in a lot of rapid dialogue that brings shallow values and relationships to new depths.

Bobby is the newly-appointed studio executive, and  Charlie is his 11-year colleague in the trenches who brings him a concept and a deal. As they prepare a pitch for the studio chief, they also wager on Bobby’s ability to bed Karen, his (temporary) secretary.

True to Mamet’s style, there’s plenty of snappy and sassy dialogue, peppered with F-bombs and other words not suitable for family-friendly websites. Site gags between the guys set up their own version of a buddy movie, too: that’s the point Charlie drives home. They are buddies, they are loyal, and they are in this together. Enter Karen the temp  who turns out to be more than the docile “broad” who can bring the coffee after all.

Matt Witten, Kevin Kennedy, and Laura Barriere are Bobby Gould, Charlie Fox, and Karen respectively, and this trio (directed by RLTP’s artistic director Scott Behrend) christened the new stage with energetic, spirited performances.

Witten and Kennedy have the buddy thing down pat: there’s plenty of name-calling, shoulder slugging, and expressions of manly devotion in this script (at least until things go south), and they play it well. Kennedy is a hoot as Charlie Fox. He’s jumpy and excitable – he stops short of being completely irritating – and he plays out that carefully masked envy for his pal’s success very well. Witten is one of the region’s most versatile actors, having just completed the title role in “Sweeney Todd” at Kavinoky Theatre to over-the-top reviews. His Bobby vacillates between feisty and confused with the trademark Mamet edginess. Witten has an affinity these slightly sleazy Mamet roles: last season he was the smooth-talking Ricky Roma is RLTP’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Barriere’s Karen is all cunning sweetness:   she owns her scenes, replete with girl-power resolve that’s ready to change the world…even when it can’t.

While the production is a fine example of RLTP’s consistent good work, the star of this show is the house itself. It needs some more work that will come with time and support, but the pride that Behrend and the RLTP ensemble has for this place is palpable.  It’s time: from humble beginnings in a movie theatre, to the past few years at the Forbes Theatre on Pearl St., RLTP has distinguished itself on stage and off. Its Playwright Residencies and Off-Book discussion series are two engaging examples of how Behrend et al extend the company’s value into the community. Even the playbill, with its supplemental program notes specific to each production, is crafted with exceptional care. Personally, I love this supplement: it’s the theatre’s equivalent to Ed Yadzinski’s program notes in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s program, combining history and insight to accompany the production.  It’s all good stuff.

Behrend was wise to follow RLTP board member Stephen McKinley Henderson’s advice to “be so good they can’t ignore you.” Bravo to Behrend and the RLTP ensemble making many bold and successful moves.

Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

“Speed-the-Plow” runs through November 18, 2018 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘The Christians’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

Church scandals always make headlines. But imagine what would happen if a clergy member proclaimed that there is no hell. Does that lead to other shocking declamations against  the Judeo-Christian belief system? What happens to the church community’s inner balance? Our reward system? Our nightly prayers? Or our favorite punitive, dismissive comment? Somehow “Oh, go to…..nowhere in particular” doesn’t exactly pack a verbal punch.

The absence of Hell – the place and the metaphor – is the basis for ‘The Christians,’ the upcoming show for Road Less Traveled Productions. Director Scott Behrend was attracted to the play because it takes a neutral stance on an inflammatory topic. “This is the second of (playwright) Lucas Hnath’s plays that we produced,” Behrend says. “His work tends to look at both sides of any issue in a pretty balanced way. I think it’s important that theater looks at all our dilemmas including our questions about faith. ‘The Christians’ takes an important look at how and why we choose to believe what we believe.”

Not one to shy away from complex or controversial topics, Behrend say, “RLTP has become known for provocative theater that engages the audience emotionally and intellectually. I think ‘The Christians’ is a great example of this.”

Preparing for a production like this –  that is sure to ignite passions and raise eyebrows –  is a complex and multilayered process. Dramaturg Katie Mallinson and the cast researched different perspectives. The cast also discussed their own faiths, an irony of sorts since RLTP’s home for the past few seasons is the former Christian Center, and a place where faith was probably oft discussed in probably very different ways.

The audience is also invited to engage beyond the performance, too. To help foster more in depth discussion behind the scripts, their words, meanings, and nuances is RLTP’s off-stage discussion series called OFF-BOOK.  These 30-minute discussions are moderated by local writer/actor Michelle Holden and are held in the lobby bar. With seating limited to 25 guests, this intimate ‘script club’ (guests are invited to read the script before attending, although it’s not mandatory, just like a bookclub) is a fascinating salon for 21st century theatre-based conversation. Behrend says OFF-BOOK’s discussion about the previous production ‘Disgraced’ (also a faith-based production) was a big hit. There’s no additional charge to attend but registration is required and the cash bar will be open. ‘The Christians’ OFF-BOOK night is May 16: to register, click here.

If OFF-BOOK is a form of participation theatre, ‘The Christians’ actual production is one Hallelujah away from a holy day of obligation. The production is set as a service in a mega-church, during the sermon, complete with a 12-person choir on stage that’s integral to the production. Acclaimed singer and music teacher Karen Saxon is the music director. Saxon was immediately drawn to production. “I read the script and loved the story,” she says. “I also latched on to the opportunity to include the music I grew up singing.”

The mega-church sermon setting with the audience as the congregants makes this a unique piece of theatre, according to Behrend. “The structure combined with the ideas and storytelling makes it a very theatrical but also very familiar evening. I think it has a central core dilemma that will keep our audience thinking about it for a long time after the production.”

Amen.

“The Christians,” a WNY premiere, runs April 27 to May 20. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance of Buffalo.

Theatre Review: ‘Disgraced’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The cast of “Disgraced” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

They could be any accomplished, upscale couple living in Manhattan. He is a mergers and acquisitions attorney, she is an artist who finds her muse in Islamic imagery. He’s an American born Pakistani, raised in a Muslim household, she is porcelain skinned, auburn haired, attracted to opposites. But Amir and Emily’s story is an exquisite manipulation of identity: who they are, who they aspire to be, and to whom they are trying to turn from. This intense and very human drama is the heart of “Disgraced, “ the riveting Pulitzer Prize winning play by Ayad Akhtar making its Western New York premiere as the penultimate show in Road Less Traveled Production’s season.

. . .an amazing, calculated performance.

Afrim Gjonbalaj is Amir: in his $600 Charvet shirts “with ridiculous thread count,” silk tie and dark well-cut suit, he is the epitome of success…who changes his name in an attempt to hide his heritage from his law firm colleagues in our post-September 11 world.  Kristen Tripp Kelley is his wife Emily, the artist with a penchant for dark-skinned men. Akhtar’s skillful writing slides these quick references about Amir’s and Emily’s family into storyline very early on. Listen for them and hold them: these quick mentions are at the heart of the emerging story, and help define the characters’ souls. In the opening scene, Emily is sketching her husband as he replicates a pose from a famous work of art, but perhaps this is not as innocuous as it seems.

Mohammed Farraj is Abe, Amir’s nephew, whose knock at the door is a request for his lawyer uncle’s help. Abe – who also changed his name – still follows his faith and he wants justice for a jailed Imam. It’s here where Amir’s worlds begin to collide in ways he can’t manage, nor wants to, it seems. Things begin to bubble up, like veiled references to Muslim heritage and opinions from his elders, like “white women have no self-respect,” as he still portends to brush off his past. Of Abe, Emily says, “His heart is in the right place. Is yours?” as she can’t understand Amir’s hesitation to visit the Imam.  Fictional lives, like real lives, intersect in interesting ways: Emily’s art dealer Issac (Matt Witten) is married to Joury (Candice Whitfield) another attorney in Amir’s firm. When the two couples meet for dinner, ostensibly to celebrate Emily’s successful inclusion in a prestigious art show, elements of their distinct backgrounds are no longer repressed under the careful machinations that we create to define who we want to be. Things are said here – and happen here – that cross boundaries. It’s stunning to watch the storyline advance so quickly here and the characters evolve as words explode from the actors’ mouths.   

This is an amazing, calculated performance. Road Less Traveled Productions took some chances here…and they were worth it.  John Hurley’s direction brings intensity to an already strong script. Watch the careful scene changes: the opening and closing second of each scene is like a mini-still life. John Rickus echoes this in his lighting design: there’s one dimly lit moment  where Amir removes a piece of Emily’s art from the wall: narrow vertical parallels of light fill the space, not unlike the shafts of light that fill the Manhattan skyline where the Twin Towers once stood. This is elegant. Lynne Koscielniak’s set design is a spare and suitable backdrop for the passionate, powerful script.

Gjonbalaj’s performance as Amir starts slow, almost stiff, but wow, as he develops his character, he grabs Akhtar’s writing and pulls raw and powerful impact into every word. As always, Kelley is luminous, herself a portrait of strength as the story simmers on, and illustrates the complexity in her marriage to Amir. Witten plays Issac with subtle passion and solid craft: his versatility as an actor (coming off Kavinoky Theatre’s “Mamma Mia!” and the solid but slimy “Glengarry Glen Ross” before that) is amazing this season. Whitfield as Joury is proud and determined, but charming in equal measure. Farraj as Abe was almost hard to hear on opening night: perhaps too soft spoken.

“Disgraced” is part modern 21st century “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with elements of Amy Waldman’s novel “The Submission” woven together. It’s a shattering reminder ,that while we can modify our façade, what’s in our hearts and souls create our passion, our conviction, and those take more than acquisitions to change.

Running Time: 90 Minutes with no intermission.

“Disgraced” runs until March 31, 2018 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Nether’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

steve_eve.jpg

Steve Jakiel and Eve Everett in “The Nether” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Welcome to the Nether, a look into the not-too-far future, of an online world, a utopia to roam and spend time and pleasure without consequence. In the Nether’s total sensory immersion, users can simply log in, choose a persona, and indulge in whatever you desire. Though during an investigation of a particularly sinister realm of the Nether, a young detective becomes obsessed and convoluted the deeper and darker she goes.

. . . a story that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. One of the most original plays I’ve seen.

“The Nether,” written by Jennifer Haley, and winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, explores the fascination of the world of the Internet, how it’s grown and consumed our way of learning, thinking, and even feeling. Coupled with the ever pressing issue of pedophilia while exploring the disturbed minds of the predators, imaginations come to life in this virtual world with an in-your-face realism that is as disturbing as it is provocative.

The play opens in an interrogation room, Detective Morris (Eve Everette) harshly questioning a middle-aged man, Mr. Sims (aka Papa), who remains stubborn and elusive. He is being detained, for what the audience pieces together as the story continues. Detective Morris has evidence that Mr. Sims is the creator of the Hideaway, a secret realm in the Nether for older people to come and act on sexual and violent fantasies of little girls. In Sims’ (Steve Jakiel) defense, nothing heinous is being committed. It’s all online, the girls aren’t real, and isn’t it safer for pedophiles to embrace who they are in the world of virtual reality?

The way these characters speak, how they defend themselves and how they break, is truly remarkable writing and acting, for you start to sympathize with these men being interrogated. Mr. Doyle (Dave Marciniak) is the second man Morris questions throughout the story, a man who constantly goes to Sims’ Hideaway and refuses to give up information about him. Morris seems to go in circles for most of the time spent with these men… admitted pedophiles but only in their imagination.

Steve Jakiel gives a stellar performance as Mr. Sims, in that I felt myself cringe whenever he was on stage, sinking into my seat. Jakiel’s subtle villainous stares and mannerisms together with his jovial and guiltless behavior speaks volumes on how real life pedophiles lure their victims and their sympathizers. By the end I was confused and angry with myself for even considering that what these men accused Detective Morris of (shaming them and telling them their love was farce), were at least a little worthy of understanding.

Though Morris, as we find out, isn’t the cool-headed, hard talking detective she at first presents herself to be. As the interrogations continue, her own darkness comes to light, as well as a past she can’t keep from conflicting with the case. I don’t mean to be vague, but I absolutely can’t give away too much detail, the ending is a twist I was not expecting. Eve Everette as Detective Morris was the surprise of the show, taking her character’s hits and misses with authentic emotion and conviction that nearly left me with whiplash.

The lights and stage setup is immersive in the cold, stone walls of the interrogation room, and inside the realm of the Hideaway itself, floors and windows shining with colors of activity. The small stage presents an ambiance for a futuristic sci-fi crime drama that isn’t cheesy or over-done. Perhaps it’s easy to think a world like this could exist, a world devoid of organic human emotion, chosen instead to live virtually, because we are already so close to it. Epic props to director Katie Mallinson for taking such an unsettling, sensitive topic and presenting it so fiercely and ruthlessly.

“The Nether” is a story that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. One of the most original plays I’ve seen. There is so much to discuss: the future of technology, the intangible value of human life, the touchy debate over pedophilia (and why it’s being debated at all) and, surprisingly, human affection.

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Advisory: Strong language and adult themes.

“The Nether” runs until February 11th, 2018 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘The Nether’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The Internet. A tool that is both a gift and a curse. In recent times we as consumers have been very keen on utilizing the internet for everything. Shopping, communication, and maintaining relationships. The information super high way is both a wonderful thing to have at our fingertips, and it is also incredibly scary if not used properly. Is the internet making our quality of life better? Are we as a society more capable, having this power at our disposal? Could our society be crumbling under us because of this necessary evil we have integrated into our everyday culture? These are a few of the topics explored in Jennifer Haley’s play “The Nether”, opening on January 19, at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

“It is like this play was taken from a CSI episode,” says Katie Mallinson, the director of the production, “when I first read it a few years ago I loved it. I found it to be beautifully haunting. It is challenging material.”

“The Nether” is a dystopian story where the internet has become a virtual reality, and people live within this reality. “The characters interact in this virtual world, and the audience is presented with a story that asks, how do we regulate the virtual happenings on the internet,” says Mallinson.

With Net Neutrality being a hot topic issue in the News, this show is sure to be relatable to the audiences. “It takes place in the not so distant future, and the audience will find that it is a different conversation piece. I hope that they are able to discuss the perspective that this story presents,” says Mallinson. One of the big questions being, who is in control?

While the story takes place in virtual reality, Mallinson says that the characters are relatable and different. “I was surprised about the compassion that I felt in the characters, says Mallinson, “There is no ‘bad guy’ in this show. There is dark and light parts in each of the characters.”

Mallinson says that this process of rehearsing for this show has brought forth many perspectives, and has started many conversations with the cast about their thoughts on the content and technology. “There was an article in “The Atlantic” about smartphones ruining a generation, and I found it to be pretty interesting. Young adults and children are seeing the world filtered to them through screens and are constantly connected to the web. I remember life before I had a smartphone, now I feel nervous if I don’t have it by me to check it,” laughs Mallinson, “I think it is important that we use technology for good, and that we don’t use it to isolate people.”

Mallinson says that the show will be a very enjoyably hour and twenty minutes. “This plays shows us right now. It can happen anywhere, at anytime.”

“The Nether” opens on January 19 and runs until February 11, 2018 at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.