CNY Playhouse pulls off ‘Unwrap Your Candy’— and without a crinkle
‘Wildwood Park’ proves the most engaging of the three one-act plays in this alternately dark and humorous production
The title Unwrap Your Candy, the set of one-act plays currently being offered by the Central New York Playhouse, is rather misleading. A piece of candy implies something sweet, a confection. You eat candy in lieu of dessert, or when you’re craving something sugary. But these three one-act plays written by Doug Wright are anything but saccharine.
Perhaps a better title might be The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or An Evening with a Modern-Day Edgar Allan Poe. The comparison with those masters of the macabre and the twist ending is hardly an exaggeration. These plays, while not as famous as any of Hitchcock’s or Poe’s works, exhibit strong writing and, for the most part, captivating storylines.
Unwrap Your Candy also demonstrates the versatility of the relatively new local theater troupe, Central New York Playhouse. The company’s last play, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, was corny and sentimental. Another recent musical, Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha, was silly to the point of being insipid. Unwrap Your Candy on the other hand features dramas with dark humor and suspense — including one with a sci-fi twist.
The strongest of the three plays is the second, Wildwood Park, directed by Heather J. Roach. Sharon Sorkin plays Ms. Haviland, a high-end realtor with a challenging prospect. She is trying to sell an upscale property that has been the site of a recent grisly crime, which the audience learns about incrementally as the play transpires. Ms. Haviland is showing the house to a well-heeled physician, Dr. Simian, who assures her he is not in it for the prurient tabloid appeal but rather for the house’s architectural advantages.
Sorkin smoothly describes the residence’s accoutrements: a Revolutionary era portico, a quaint weathercock, a brass chandelier. The house is 8,000 square feet, and as Dr. Simian notes, has such details as a marble mantelpiece that can support objets d’art, among other features. Unfortunately, the house has become more than a business deal for Ms. Haviland — it has become a personal obsession. She reveals more of herself to the doctor (skillfully played by the charismatic Nathan Faudree), who also shares some telling particulars about his life.
One reason Wildwood Park stands out among the three one-acts is that it contains genuine dramatic interaction between the principal characters. The two converse, face each other, react to each other and move about the stage together.
The two other plays, The Bone Violin: A Fugue for Five Actors and Baby Talk: A Case Study in One Act, are more static. In each, the “action” essentially consists of actors presenting mini-monologues directly to the audience. The Bone Violin, (directed by Christopher Best) is set during an auction, while Baby Talk (directed by Justin Polly) is set during a legal proceeding or medical review of some sort. With a key exception in Baby Talk, the characters in both mostly talk to the audience rather than to each other.
Likewise, the front piece of the production (which probably gives the program its name) also features disparate characters communicating mostly to the audience rather than each other. The angle here is that they, like Unwrap Your Candy’s attendees, are awaiting the start of a play at the Central New York Playhouse.
We hear pre-recorded voiceovers that represent the unnamed characters’ internal musings, while they sit before the start of a play urging theatergoers to unwrap their candy prior to the start of the show, lest the crinkling noise disturb others in the audience. This is a clever but slim conceit that extends to a tiresome level as the voiceovers continue during the intercessions between the three plays. (A spotlight shining directly in your face during these interludes makes this especially irritating.) Certainly, Wildwood Park, The Old Violin and Baby Talk can stand on their own without the addition of the “audience listening to an audience” segments.
With its sci-fi leanings, The Bone Violin might be the oddest of the evening’s fare. Gina Fortino and James Uva play a mother and father of little boy who had been a musical savant. At five, the boy could play Beethoven and Brahms perfectly, and at seven he had already surpassed this teacher’s musical skills. William Edward White played The Professor and projected the air of an erudite professor with aplomb.
Into this mix stepped The Doctor, played by Jody Agostinelli, who ran an institute that was researching eugenic selection of designer babies created with genetically superior sperm and eggs. Agostinelli announces her plans for the boy’s DNA with the right mix of scientific-sounding authority and defensiveness about a process that some would find morally reprehensible. I wonder if Wright was inspired by the true-life case of the Repository for Germinal Choice, run in California from 1980 to 1999 and recounted in the nonfiction book by David Plotz, The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank.
The Bone Violin looks at the wonder and anguish experienced by parents of highly gifted children and explores the nature-versus-nurture debate, with some other elements thrown in for added interest. (I’m leaving these out, so I don’t spoil the climax and ending for people yet to see this production.)
The darkest and funniest play has to be Baby Talk. Steve Rowlands plays a psychiatrist who seems to be testifying and reading from his notes about the case of a woman he had diagnosed as schizophrenic. The woman, Alice (played by Kasey McHale) begins to hear her unborn fetus talking to her in utero. Her husband, played by Daryl Acevedo, dismisses his wife’s mood swings as hormonal. But something more bizarre is afoot.
The theatrical tour de force belongs to Dan Rowlands, who plays The Baby. This is no ordinary pre-term infant. He first goos, gahs and babbles, then start starts spouting Shakespeare before moving to crude invectives. Rowlands is hilarious, in the truest sense of black comedy. Is this all in Alice’s head, or is it truly a case of the “bad seed?” Again, no spoilers here.
On the other end of the performance spectrum is Steve Rowlands, who appeared hesitant and unsure of his lines. Steve is Dan’s real-life father — an interesting juxtaposition in a play that deals with biological inheritance. A disparity in performances was also evident with McHale and Acevedo: McHale was appropriately believable and anguished as the jibber-jabbers of the baby began to ratchet up, while Acevedo had an inconsistent accent that occasionally evoked South Boston.
The playwright has a remarkably eclectic oeuvre. Wright in 2004 won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his one-man show, I Am My Own Wife — based on the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgendered person who survived Nazi Germany and the Communist regime in East Berlin. The drama a
lso garnered a Tony Award for the actor Jefferson Mays.
Wright wrote the books for the Broadway musical version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid and the oddball musical Grey Gardens — about Big Edie and Little Edie, the Southampton eccentrics and recluses made famous by the documentary of the same name. Wright also penned the play and screenplay for Quills, which imagines the life of the Marquis de Sade in the insane asylum at Charenton. The film starred Geoffrey Rush.
The Little Mermaid and the Marquis de Sade — two characters who could not be more different! The current one-act plays at the Central New York Playhouse also offer a dramatic contrast to the typical offerings of local community theater.
And back to the name of the production: The title of the play, Unwrap Your Candy, presents a facile prompt for potential drama critics or copy editors, offering an easy start for a headline. To wit: “Theater-goers should not unwrap this candy” might work for a bad production with bad performances. Strong production, strong performances? “Theatergoers unwrap a great box of candy!” could be the lead.
To continue along this line, let me offer my own take on the candy metaphor: Delve into this box of candy with gusto! You won’t be disappointed. While you will not find that the candies are sugary sweet, they are treats just the same — for the mind and the imagination.
What: Unwrap Your Candy, by Doug Wright
Who: The Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY
Performance reviewed: August 17, 2013
Remaining performances: Plays through August 24
Length: About 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets: $10 and $15. Call 315-885-8960 or www.cnyplayhouse.com
Family guide: Some profanity and dark humor