“The Rep has a world premiere comedy on its stage right now that may be one of the best…”
THEATRE REVIEW: World premiere of ‘Red Maple’ at theREP, a terrific new comedy
Secrets. You have to love it.BY J. PETER BERGMAN
By David Bunce
Directed by Margaret E. Hall
“If you can’t …”
TheREP, a.k.a. Capital Repertory Theatre, has a world premiere comedy on its stage right now that may be one of the best new plays around. Written by regional actor/director David Bunce, it is set in an upstate New York condo, in an apartment on the 17th floor where two couples are assembling for a dinner party. The host couple is recently estranged, she living in a nearby motel, and the two of them pledged not to tell anyone; the guest couple threatening to leave the area for Florida have a few secrets of their own—he has been in an automobile accident with some outrageous consequences. Into their midst comes a realtor ostensibly seeking an apartment to sell. But she has her own secrets, which don’t surface until the second act. Secrets. You have to love it.
Bunce’s comedy is not a “laff-riot,” but the laughs are there waiting to be revealed. The humor comes from within the characters rather than from the imposed circumstances, and that makes the play all the more fascinating. We can see how difficult and dire events are converted by intelligent people into humor, pathos, sympathy, empathy and disgust. We watch good relationships sour and difficult friendships ripen. We are with this quartet all the way and we end up cheering the indefinite ending. Bunce and his director, along with a most talented company, bring us into their onstage lives and hold us captive for two entertaining hours.
James Lloyd Reynolds is the accident victim to an outrageous extreme. Through his own actions and choices, Robert Morton, Ph.D., brings about the action of the play as his own self-disgust threatens everyone’s future. Reynolds is an excellent choice for the role. He is a man who seems undoubtedly pulled together and in charge of his own future. Watching him play against the image he projects is as humorously awkward as it sounds and it gives his character a pathos that is unexpected. Reynolds does a fine job as Robert and his regrets are as funny as his resolve.
Playing his wife, Stephanie, is the wonderful actress Elizabeth Meadows Rouse. She is easily Reynolds’ match in mania: She caterwauls, she caresses, she endears herself and makes herself hateful. She does it all with snap changes and alterations and when the author gives her permission to rant, she raves. Rouse is very funny in this part. She gets to play all of the extremes and she rushes from one to another without pause. I’m not sure she even takes a breath. She is exhausting.
As the host couple, Yvonne Perry and Oliver Wadsworth are easily the equals of Rouse and Reynolds, only with a vast difference. Both actors have been with the play since it’s earliest days and have undoubtedly grown with the play in its changes. Perry’s character, Karen Hartley, is a compulsive woman who believes in the sanctity of lives and the depths of humanity. She is both brave and challenged, the truth being her biggest fear. She is a woman who would sacrifice much for happiness but cannot bring herself to find the right course. Perry is wonderful. If all I could talk about was the opening sequence of the play as she dresses, cooks, cleans up the apartment and discourses on every subject under the sun, I would still be able to praise her work. Her physical activity in the second act is even more delightful and amazing. Karen is a woman to contend with, although she hasn’t quite realized that, and Perry gives the character character indeed. This may well be her finest performance to date.
Oliver Wadsworth’s John Hartley is a man confused by the fates, outraged by half-truths, incapable of lying or keeping a secret. As the husband of a woman who has walked out on him, he is expressively bereft, fulfilled by his attempts to compensate and able to confess his methods whenever he has nothing else to say. He is not a babbler, but babble he does. When confronted by crisis, John steps up to the plate and swings at the foul balls coming at him. It is to Wadsworth’s credit that there are no false steps in this performance. For a character on the edge of a breakdown, this actor manages to keep him physically under control even when his mind is slipping into the abyss. I loved the work done here by this actor.
So much depends upon the “intruder,” Theresa, played deliciously by Julia Knitel. Sneaking into the condo with a nefarious purpose, caught by the Hartleys, she is a delight as she makes her excuses, plays her adopted role, confuses and confounds with glee, and exits before we can ever guess at her real identity or purpose. Her reappearance in Act 2 gives her a whole new vision of herself. She is the character who brings the greatest surprises to the story and her own story intrudes constantly, which is even more amusing than what has happened to the quartet surrounding her. Knitel is wonderful. I’ve only seen her once before and this role makes it clear that she is a fabulous addition to the regional theater scene.
Margaret E. Hall has kept this play moving. People are constantly jumping to their feet, moving around, carrying on in their own odd ways. It is almost farcical how people appear and disappear in this play, but not quite, for the situation that surrounds them is much more serious and complicated than any farce could accommodate. Hall has excellent help in her production. Brian Prather’s condo set has that fine sense of reality to it that he often brings to a production’s look and style. Rob Denton’s lighting is subtle and keeps our attention focused on what Hall wants us to look at. David Rigler’s costumes are perfect for their characters. Fan Zhang’s sound design works well.
Fight choreographer David Girard deserves his own place in the credits here, for there are fights and fights and fights, and they are excellent, funny and frightening when needed. Bravo!
I love a good new play and this is a play I’d love even if this was the 15th production. However, it is not. It is new. It is theREP’s world premiere and one it should be proud to have birthed. The full house at the performance I saw seemed to enjoy everything about it, as I did, and so I recommend it to you without reservation—except you should make some so you don’t miss “Red Maple.”
Red Maple plays at theREP, 111 North Pearl St., Albany, New York, through Sunday, Feb. 17. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call (518) 445-7469 or go online to capitalrep.org.
Review: ‘Red Maple’ @ Capital Rep, 1/29/19
By Steve Barnes
ALBANY — “Red Maple” is a triumph for Capital Repertory Theatre, its play- development program and local actor-author David Bunce.
The play, a rapid-fire comedy with deep reserves of heart, is getting its world premiere at The Rep after being discovered during the theater’s 2017 Next Act! New Play Summit. As a 15-point timeline in the program takes pains to point out, although Bunce is a popular figure in area theater circles as actor and director, having spent 27 years with the former New York State Theatre Institute, his local ties didn’t help “Red Maple” during the Next Act process. Read in successive selection rounds by committees unaware of its author, the play rose to the top three, out of more than 450 submissions, and ultimately was offered a full production.
As directed by Margaret Hall, The Rep’s assistant artistic director, whose portfolio of responsibilities includes managing the Next Act festival, “Red Maple” feels familiar and immediately relatable as well as lively and vital. The latter attributes are largely a credit to Bunce’s zippy dialogue, which pings the funny bone several times a minute, and to a five-member cast that, under Hall’s supremely assured direction, manages a deft balance of humor and sincerity.
A quick plot-and-theme overview does not make “Red Maple” seem especially promising: It’s a midlife-crisis play that brings together a pair of straight, white, upper-middle-class couples in one of the couples’ tasteful condos for two hours of soul-baring comedy. And the ground Bunce covers is predictable and well-trodden: demanding but ultimately unfulfilling careers, marriages in need of rejuvenation after decades together, spousal communication and the lack thereof, empty-nesters adjusting to the fledglings having flown the coop but still needing parental support, the secrets we keep and the effects of those we share, and existential questions as profound and yet as clichéd as, “Is this all there is?”
Every bit of this is executed with such aplomb, by a cast who seem genuinely energized and excited to be creating a brand-new play, that the familiarity actually works in favor of “Red Maple.” The eponymous tree is a majestic specimen that one of the foursome, Robert (James Lloyd Reynolds), spots during his commute to a local university, his home for many years as a literature professor. Mindful of literary symbols, Robert decides he’s the tree: Like his life, he says, it’s impressive and complete if viewed from one angle, but a closer look reveals longstanding if hidden damage.
And so he’s taken drastic action to change the status quo, which he confides to his best friend, John (Oliver Wadsworth), a photographer, who is hosting a dinner party with his wife, Karen (Yvonne Perry), a career woman whose unproductive but needy boss keeps interrupting the evening with phone calls. Rounding out the foursome is Robert’s strong, no-nonsense wife, Stephanie (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), for whom marriage to a man of ideas has meant decades of being the practical one who gets things done.
John, unable to keep his friend’s dramatic secret, soon spills it, and the arrival of an unexpected visitor (Julia Knitel) makes the evening — acted out on a handsome set by Brian Prather, with lighting and an Albany-skyline projection by Rob Denton — get further messy. The neatly knit writing of Bunce’s first act unravels to a degree in the second; in some cases, it’s obvious which threads he’s going to pull, and in others you feel like he didn’t know what to do and just snipped it off.
But “Red Maple” is new, and part of the purpose of a world premiere is to give the author time to tweak until opening night, and then return to the page with his perspective reframed by having seen the play in front of audiences for several weeks. Given its subject matter, small cast, single set and other limited production demands, “Red Maple” seems sure to have future productions; its humor and humanity make it a natural fit for theaters nationwide, first at the professional level like The Rep and for years with community troupes.
Would that future productions have a cast as good as this first one. Three of the five are familiar to audiences of The Rep, especially Perry and Wadsworth, and together they make a near-perfect ensemble, carrying off both Bunce’s hijinks — a nod to fight choreographer David Girard — and his more earnest inclinations with elan.
Without psychologizing too much, Bunce, who is roughly the same age as the central couples, seems likely to have been inspired by professional turmoil in his own life. First NYSTI, based at Russell Sage College in Troy, was shut down in 2010 after a scandal unrelated to him, and, though he became part of the next iteration, the Theatre Institute at Sage, he was among the victims last year of layoffs there, too. Such upheaval after three decades as a working theater artist must have been unsettling. It’s a testament to his resilience and creativity that — whether despite the setbacks, because of them, or both — he was able to conceive and bring to life something as worthwhile as “Red Maple.”
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