Wingfield

The hugely successful Wingfield plays (beginning with Letters from Wingfield Farm and numbering four or five sequels) tell the story of a big city stock broker, Walt Wingfield, who decides to chuck the fast lane and buy a small town farm — relating his adventures (and misadventures) in letters written to the local paper. Written by Dan Needles, they’re all one-man shows starring Rod Beattie.

Very funny comedies, yet with an underlining drama. Sure, they aren’t much more than sitcoms — but smart, high quality sitcoms, not relying on cheap jokes for the most part. The town’s folk aren’t bumpkins, and there’s a good natured charm to Walt’s clumsy efforts to adjust to farm life (an underlining theme is that Walt is often more nostalgic for — and protective of — the rural life than his neighbours who are born to it!)

A strength of the plays is Beattie’s multi-faceted performance, evoking a cast of characters who are consistent (yet also capable of growth) throughout the plays. Many of the plays have been recorded as audio productions and, in that format, his performance can be even more remarkable, as you wouldn’t realize it’s not a full cast acting together (well, except when he does the women characters).

Funny, charming…and definitely a modern classic of Canadiana.

The Ghost Train

90 minute BBC radio adaptation from 2008 of Arnold Ridley’s vintage 1923 stage play that mixes mystery, supernatural, and comedy with a story of passengers aboard a train who get marooned at a desolate train station for the night…where local history warns of a mysterious ghost train.

It’s a decent production, lively, and well acted (in a slightly fruity, OTT way) though some of the voices are hard to distinguish from each other. But the play itself is…problematic. For one thing, we’re probably half way into it before we even get to the spooky stuff (the first half more just introducing the passengers on the train) and, though it might have been more surprising when first written, nowadays kind of comes across as a predictable Scooby Do episode — as such, doesn’t quite succeed as being too scary/spooky (and even though it’s light-hearted…isn’t that funny). Still, an agreeable enough way to kill 90 minutes.

8

L.A. Theatre Works production recorded in 2012 of the play by Dustin Lance Black about the 2008 California court case involving Proposition 8 — a referendum proposal to ban same sex marriage (or more to the point: to strip that right that had previously been granted).

Part of the impetus for the play was that those arguing in favour of Equal Rights had wanted the trial broadcast to the public (as is often done in the U.S.) but the side arguing against gay marriage refused to agree (leading the makers of the play to present this as the story the anti-gay marriage side didn’t want the public to hear). The play is less a fictional dramatization than it is a recreation of key scenes and arguments, to essentially provide a public record of the trial (albeit trimmed to 90 min).

Initially intended both as an education in civil rights struggles and a fund raiser for Same Sex marriage rights, it was produced with all-star casts in New York and L.A. with this a recording of the L.A. show. Directed by Rob Reiner — yes, Rob Reiner — it’s a pretty heavy weight (all volunteer) cast, including George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch (as well as her fellow Glee castmates Chris Colfer and Matthew Morrison) and others. Because it‘s a recording of a stage performance, the audience will sometimes cheer or applaud when the actor comes on — but you have to wait till they speak to know what famous actor the audience is responding to! (Or to pick up on the “in joke” — the audience laughs knowingly when the character of the virulently anti-gay activist Maggie Gallagher appears, but it’s only when you realize the openly gay actress Lynch is playing her that you get the deliberately ironic casting).

Admittedly, given the nature of the script, a lot of the actors don’t necessarily get to shine in performances. Though with stand outs including Sheen, Bacon and Reilly, the latter two in essentially “villain” roles, so getting more colourful — and ultimately humorous — parts, with Bacon, as the lawyer against marriage rights, stumbling and stammering over the dubious logic of his own argument, and Reilly playing a particularly eccentric witness.

Of course the play has a bias (it was intended as a fund raiser, Reiner and others were actually involved in funding the court case the play is portraying, and the audience applauds vigorously at key speeches) and is most appealing for those who already support equal marriage rights. Yet if you’re on the fence, but open minded, the play is an interesting chance to hear the arguments (or lack thereof) made on either side. And as an example of civil rights trial theatre (think Inherit the Wind or 12 Angry Men) it’s fairly compelling — with some good dramatic moments, good emotional moments, and good funny moments. Though since based mainly on the court transcripts and ancillary interviews, it’s not like there are character sub-plots, or even closed door negotiations to be revealed. But ultimately, tightly paced and an effective court room drama.

The CD contains probably an hour of extras, including interviews with some of the cast, Black and Reiner, and the real life lawyers who argued for same sex marriage rights — and against Proposition 8 — David Boies and Theodore B. Olson.

Mizlansky / Zilinsky

L.A. Theatre Works audio adaptation of the play by John Robin Baitz, a satire of Hollywood’s fringe dwellers, also rans, and tax shelter schemes. It involves a fading movie mogul who’s trying to market Bible stories on audio, but has cooked the books in the process.

Enjoyable enough comedy and satire (with a darker bite, dealing with anti-Semitism — most of the characters are Jews) though can be one of those plays which is a tad unsatisfying by the end. Not gut busting hilarious, yet not completely satisfying emotionally (since Mizlansky is an anti-hero) or conceptually (it’s not like it’s some grand house of cards scheme). Even the anti-Semitism can feel a bit tacked on toward the end simply to add gravitas. And I’m sometimes a bit ambivalent about stories that, on one hand, want to tackle prejudice and anti-Semitism — even as many of the Jewish characters are portrayed as con artists and avaricious. Baitz (who I assume is Jewish) presumably wants to satirize all sides, but it does seem to send mixed impressions.

Still, that aside, in short this is like a dozen better-than-average but not quite great plays and is certainly worth a listen. Though — dagnabit! — as a sci-fi fan, I’m not sure I appreciate the digs at science fiction (one character is an actor who is basically supposed to have hit bottom because he’s contemplating a role in a SF series). Ah, well…

The “name” cast of familiar voices is definitely an appeal, although with a certain mix of styles. Nathan Lane (as the scheming Mizlansky) is loud and more farcical (and Rob Morrow’s gay assistant is a bit broad) while Richard Masur and Paul Sand (as Zilinsky) play it more grounded and subtle, as do Grant Shaud and Robert Walden. Kurtwood Smith is also in the cast (and maybe a bit broader, too). All are good but, as I say, maybe coming at it from different angles. (Funnily, I came across a review of a stage production of this with some of the same actors — but cast in different parts!)

A Doll’s House

There have probably been a few radio adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, proto-feminist play. This one is a 2 hr production done for BBC Radio in 2012 adapted by Tanika Gupta, relocating the story to colonial India (while still being faithful to the scenes and much of the dialogue) with Niru (ie: Nora) a naive Indian woman married to the seeming loving but condescending Englishman Tom (ie: Torval) and what happens when secrets and Niru’s past misdeeds start to come back upon them. Indira Varma plays Niru and Toby Stephens Tom.

It’s an effective, well-made production, with strong performances particularly from Varma (appealing despite the, initial, flighty nature of the character) and Stephens (the latter a popular actor on British radio but one I’ve sometimes been mixed on — not that he isn’t always good). The play itself is effective just as a kind of pulpy potboiler (with twists and revelations and tension) even beyond the “message” — indeed, the last scene is among the most awkward as it feels like a lecture (and some of the earlier twists and surprises can be a bit contrived in their coincidence!) But, as I say: a very good, quite engaging production.

The transposing of the story to India effectively adds a nice, rich sense of atmosphere (though was the term “item” used to refer to a romantic pairing back in the 19th Century?)

BUT…any added political subtext is, perhaps, more awkward. By seeming to want to graft on a theme about colonialism it can feel like an odd fit. Does Gupta want us to infer the events would’ve been different if Niru had married an Indian man? ‘Cause, um, it’s not like India had anything to learn from the English about sexism or class prejudice. Indeed, the fact that A Doll’s House can be performed all over the world, and has been re-imagined in different cultures and time periods, perhaps makes a point about how similar people are. But as I say, a good, entertaining version of the story.