“Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married” at Westfield Playhouse

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reviewed by Larry Adams

The skies were clear, the moon was bright and full, and the temperature was just right. It was one of those beautiful Indiana summer evenings, and so I closed up the office and took the short drive out to the hundred-year-old church that now serves as home to Westfield Playhouse. A jog up the steps and through the lobby, and I quickly found myself in the fictional town of Bunyan Bay, Minnesota for a performance of Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married.

Which reminds me- before I even get to the play, a word about the venue: the refurbished little church in and of itself is a charming place to see a show, but board president John Sampson consistently impresses with his sets, in this case creating a mammoth, high-ceilinged interior of a small-town drinking establishment complete with tables and chairs, a full- size bar and a separate stage for the occasional entertainer or local singer. I’ve been on this stage a few times over the past couple of years and I know it isn’t big enough to hold this set. It’s easy to forget the contribution of the peripheral elements in a production as we focus on the actors, but, with the help of tone-perfect set decoration by director Doug Davis, this impressive set draws the audience into the fictional world of Bunyan long before the actors first take the stage.

Clara (Karen Webster,) Trigger (Doug Stanton,) Bernice (Tanya Haas,) and Kanute (Kevin Shadle)

Clara (Karen Webster,) Trigger (Doug Stanton,) Bernice (Tanya Haas,) and Kanute (Kevin Shadle) in a scene from Westfield Playhouse’s production of “Don’t Hug Me, I’m Married”.

Ok. On to the show. Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married, by Phil and Paul Olson, is apparently the fifth in a series of Don’t Hug Me plays, all revolving around the same six characters, who presumably must therefore have some sort of longstanding intimacy problems. (I say “apparently” and “presumably” because I haven’t actually seen any of the other plays or bothered to do any research beyond asking the actors after the show. I’m on a deadline here, and my internet barely beats dial-up.) Westfield staged one of the previous shows in the series a few years ago and has brought back three of the original four actors to reprise their roles in this sequel. DHMWM takes a look at three different relationships among the characters: a new one just starting along the wedding track, a longstanding marriage that has lost its spark, and a, well, semi-reluctant romantic entanglement. Throw in a stun gun and a plague of encephalitis infected mosquitoes and, as they say, hilarious hijinks ensue.

This ain’t Shakespeare. It’s pure fluff, which makes it perfect entertainment for a summer evening after a long week at work or dealing with the kids. And although that’s not usually my favorite cup of tea, I have to admit this production has such an endearing quality to it that I couldn’t help but be sucked in. Partly that’s a credit to the script, which is filled with winks at the audience, almost early David Letterman-esque winks (kind of a “sure, it’s stupid, but what the heck, it’s just a show” sort of thing) which serve to reassure that no one, including either of the writers, is taking this too seriously. But it’s more than that. The cast just has a palpable chemistry, a comfort level perhaps developed in the previous production, that allows them to play it with abandon. They just look like they’re having fun on stage, and that fun is infectious. Like elephantitis. (Alright, you won’t get that one unless you see the show.)

Kevin Shadle shines in what I think is his best role yet as the rich and lonely Kanute, while Mike Green, who impressed me years ago in A Nice Family Gathering, again lights up the stage as the new groom-to-be Aarvid. Karen Webster and Tanya Haas, two ladies with whom I have had the absolute pleasure and honor of sharing a stage or two, show why they are among Indianapolis’s most enjoyable and dependable actresses as Clara and Bernice respectively, nailing both the laughs and the occasional poignant moments. Doug Stanton, however, gets the juiciest role (roles?) of the show as both Clara’s husband Gunner and his “identical twin sister” Trigger, and he revels in the latter. Cheap laughs? Sure, but he embraces them fully and makes them work to the point of being scene stealers. Put together, the five (six?) work together so smoothly and naturally you suspect they didn’t need a director- which, of course, is generally the hallmark of good directing. Credit Doug Davis here for both inspired casting and deft direction.

Aarvid (Michael Green) and Bernice (Tanya Haas)

Aarvid (Michael Green) and Bernice (Tanya Haas) in a scene from Westfield Playhouse’s production of “Don’t Hug Me, I’m Married”.

Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married was advertised during the previous production as a “play with music” rather than a musical, a distinction which, after watching it, seems somehow accurate even if I can’t quite put my finger on why. The show mixes a surprisingly lengthy set of short songs into the fun through the gimmick of a karaoke machine that can supposedly read the thoughts of the characters. If that sounds a bit hokey, well, it is, but not to worry- the writers aren’t particularly wedded to the idea and don’t seem to mind ignoring or completely disregarding it if it gets in the way of a joke. The cast, to their credit, does an admirable job of voicing the songs and pulling off what little choreography goes along with them.

In terms of pure musical talent, the ladies, I must say, outshine the gentlemen; however, even if the guys are not in great danger of becoming The Next American Idols, they still prove themselves perfectly capable of carrying a tune and are infinitely better dancers than Yours Truly (that last part’s not saying much, guys). Fortunately, the songs themselves don’t require major feats of operatic virtuosity, and, in fact, would probably be lessened by them. Even with the occasional missed note or chopped rhythm, there is a certain charm and, if I may say so, “authenticity” in hearing the thoughts and dreams of these simple characters revealed in pleasing but untrained voices.

Initially, I couldn’t quite decide if the whole musical concept of the show was working for me, with some of the first act songs seemingly rather forced and pedestrian; but the second act numbers, including Doug Stanton’s hilarious “The Day That Bob Dylan Was Here” and the show-stopping “We’re All Gonna Die,” easily won me- and clearly the rest of the audience- over. Again, it’s not Shakespeare, and it’s not Les Miz either; but, in a word or two, the music and the actors’ performances of it are, like the rest of the show, simply “great fun.”

Bottom line (as A Seat on the Aisle’s glorious leader Ken Klingenmeier would say): if you’re looking for a night of no-thought, pure fun entertainment, head out to Westfield Playhouse’s Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married.

Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married continues through June 18th. You can get theatre information and reservations at http://www.westfieldplayhouse.org or by calling 317.402.3341 .

  • – Photos from Westfield Playhouse’s Facebook page

“The Sunshine Boys” at Westfield Playhouse

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Mrs. K and I attended a second weekend showing of Neil Simon’s 1972 award-winning classic comedy The Sunshine Boys, currently running at Main Street Production’s Westfield Playhouse in Eagletown. The play is directed by Pamela Kingsley, and stars Duane Leatherman as the cantankerous Willie Clark, and Jeff Maess as Clark’s former vaudeville partner, Al Lewis. Scott Prill takes the role of Clark’s nephew, Ben Silverman, and Adrienne Reiswerg picks up the two nurse roles as the sketch nurse, Miss MacKintosh, and registered nurse, Mrs. O’Neill. Production stage manager Lydia Bowling comes on briefly as TV stage manager, Edie. The proceedings are set on a perfect looking run down apartment design by Ms. Kingsley and John Sampson.

This well-worn storyline is certainly a dated one and I suspect the comedy gods are still pulling for its success. But, The Sunshine Boys is Simon’s 11th show (in an amazing catalogue of 34 plays) and comedy has evolved in the 45 years since it was the toast of Broadway. I’m not saying its production is a futile effort – I’m saying it is certainly a large challenge.

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(From left) Duane Leatherman (as Willie Clark) and Jeff Maess (Al Lewis) in a scene from “The Sunshine Boys” at Westfield Playhouse.

WP’s edition of the script is at best a bit uneven. There are some noteworthy turns – Mr. Prill brings excellent energy and a sense of credibility to his portrayal of Silverman. The east coast accent he lightly employs seems accurate and even. His emotions, running from caring to mild frustration to exasperation and hopefulness are all fully on the mark. Ms. Reiswerg creates a playful sketch nurse and doubles down with her later private RN – nailing the right mood and flat voiced delivery. And young Ms. Bowling seems relaxed and natural in her brief cameo appearance.

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Adrienne Reiswerg (as Nurse MacKintosh) and Duane Leatherman (Willie Clark) in a scene from “The Sunshine Boys” at Westfield Playhouse.

In the larger roles, which plainly are tougher, the unevenness shows it’s face. Part of what seems to me to be missing from time to time is my old favorite essential – pacing, and the idea of suiting the tempo of a scene to it’s content. Some of this falls on the director – but perhaps this being a second weekend “get-back-to-it” performance contributed to this dilemma.

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(From left) Scott Prill (as Ben Silverman) and Duane Leatherman (Willie Clark) in a scene from “The Sunshine Boys” at Westfield Playhouse

Don’t get me wrong, Maess and Leatherman do share some nice moments together at times. There are real belly laughs to be enjoyed here – but the “classic” quality of the comedy, and an approach which I felt was short on pacing and tempo, takes some of the humorous intentions off the stage.

Bottomline: As so often occurs, the goodness outweighs the concerns here and attending the comfortable and easy to reach (now that the Keystone Pkwy/US 31 highway project has been completed) theatre still provides an entertaining evening.

The Sunshine Boys continues through February 19th. You can get theatre information and reservations at http://www.westfieldplayhouse.org or by calling 317.402.3341 .

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Footnote: Anyone who has ever attended a play at Westfield Playhouse knows about a very special distinction which exists there – the lack of indoor plumbing, which results in the necessity for port-a-johns outside of the building. Granted , this is a distinction the theatre would rather not have, but to their credit, it is referred to openly and light heartedly in their pre-show greeting and in their references to the building. Still, it has been this way for a long time, so I took the opportunity of this visit to do a little investigative reporting. John Sampson, the president of the theatre, answered my questions openly and honestly. The theatre has been actively doing plays in the old church since 2002 – so 15 years ago they set up a stage area, cleaned up the property and opened for business, with temporary portable bathrooms outside the doors.

When asked why this was still the status of things, Sampson told me they had the following situation. The building had had a septic system which, due to age and lack of maintenance, had fallen out of usefulness. The theatre was not allowed by Westfield to put in a new system because a sewage system was in the planning stages for the “near future”. So Westfield Playhouse has been asking certain government types “when?” on an annual basis and have been told “in about 2 years” for the past nine years or so. I must say, they are a patient lot. As I said, Sampson and the other good folks who helm the organization are nothing but good-natured about the status quo, but John told me he would be glad to have this information given out to my readers. A little knowledge goes a long way – especially when you have to pee outside.

“The Dealer Smiles” at Westfield Playhouse

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reviewed by Mark Kamish

Friday night was my first-ever visit to Main Street Production’s Westfield Playhouse (the 150-some-year-old theater just north of Indy – yes, still no running water indoors) where I enjoyed The Dealer Smiles, a thought-and-feeling-provoking play written by, starring and directed by local playwright, actor and guest reviewer for “A Seat on the Aisle,” Larry Adams.

Although Larry’s “comedy of Biblical proportions” and philosophical look of religion has been around for a few years – once before in Westfield, once at IndyFringe and for several church groups (there are even a couple YouTube clips out there) – it was a brand new opening night on Friday for this three-weekend run. See it for the first time, or see it again! The show is not too long (about an hour), but in that relatively short time, much “heavy” ground is covered in this two-man show, albeit in a light and easy way.

The plot and set are pretty simple. Matt Pierson (Larry Adams), recently divorced and in the thick of guilt over his role in his marriage’s demise (he’s noticeably still wearing his wedding band), is in the self-help section of a small local bookstore (where have those all gone, by the way?). There, he seeks answers to the struggles and losses he is dealing with in the crosshairs of middle-age.

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From left: Larry Adams and Jaime Johnson in Main Street Production’s “The Dealer Smiles”

In walks Josh (masterfully played by Jaime Johnson), a bubbly but odd fellow wearing a red “smiley face” shirt and matching red tennis shoes. After bumming some change from Matt for a cup of the bookstore’s own elixir of hot chocolate, Josh, by way of conversation (uninvited by Matt), goes on about the history of chocolate. Taken out of his self-absorption by Josh’s cocoa monologue, Matt is ready now to engage in a discussion with Josh that becomes much more.

What develops is a conversation we all seem to have at different points in our lives: Is there a God? If there is, who is She? What am I doing here? What purpose do I serve? How do I deal with this loss? Why is everything always changing? What did I do to deserve this? Am I the only person having these weird thoughts?

And, as in real life, Matt’s open, candid conversation with Josh (who seems to have an inside track with the “Almighty Dealer”) ultimately reveals no answers and resolves very little, other than to cause Matt (and the audience) pause; to be open to greater self-awareness and the peace that comes from being present and not resisting what life brings our way.

Very organized, light-hearted, certainly laugh-out-loud funny in some spots, and fast-paced, The Dealer Smiles will likely lead to discussions that continue long after you leave the theater.

In fact, Larry and Jaime take some time at the end of the show to launch those discussions, holding a “no-holds-barred” Q & A with the audience. I found this 30 minutes or so as interesting and entertaining as the show itself.

In a similar free-for-all discussion about religion I once had with a high school teacher of mine, I remember that teacher telling me, “I’m not Catholic because I think Catholicism is the second-best religion.” Religion and faith play such vital roles in our lives. Somehow, whether we are members of a particular church, spiritual seekers unaffiliated with any particular dogma, or even atheist, our beliefs, pursued in search of meaning and deeper connection, become very, very personal. These faiths and beliefs do, in fact, become part of our identity in many cases.

I think Larry’s play reminds us of a danger brought about by our strong-held spiritual faiths and religious beliefs. Unfortunately, our commitment to following those faiths and beliefs, purportedly in the pursuit of recognizing the interconnectedness we all share with one another and with our Source, can ironically separate us from each other (and from our Higher Power). The inevitability of the ego to begin to view “my church,” “my spiritual belief,” “my faith” to distinguish our “right ways” of thinking and believing” from all of those “lost souls” who believe differently, doesn’t unite; it divides. One of many beautiful things about The Dealer Smiles is the way Larry’s script appears to make room at the table for people of all spiritual beliefs (and even disbeliefs) to participate in this greatly-needed human conversation.

The Dealer Smiles continues its run at Main Street Production’s Westfield Playhouse through October 9. For more on specific dates, show times and to order tickets, call the reservation line at (317) 402-3341, email the box office at info@westfieldplayhouse.org or visit Main Street Production’s website: http://www.westfieldplayhouse.org/.

And remember to stick around after the show to talk with Larry and Jaime about all things spiritual and to discuss bringing this show to your church or spiritual group.

“God’s Favorite” at Main Street Productions

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God’s Favorite, which is currently being presented by Westfield’s Main Street Productions, is perhaps Neil Simon’s most unusual play. It is a retelling of the story of the biblical Job, dealing with the traumatic episode in that character’s life where all his health, family, and his many riches are taken away as a test of his love for God. Considered by some to be possibly Simon’s most imaginative play, it is also seen as one of his least successful writings. With it’s combination of deep and depressing angst, alongside a sometimes zany style of humor (not to mention a set that must destruct between acts), it is a difficult, unbalanced piece to produce and stage. It may be interesting to note that in an interview from 1977 Simon himself says this: “Sad to say, God’s Favorite was not a good play…..because it was simply not done skillfully enough.”

In my opinion, director Danny Russel’s effort at the task have rendered a mixed bag of results. Attempting this demanding a play at the community theatre level is just one of the challenging factors here. The complexity of the two major roles, Joe Benjamin (the Job role), taken on by Tom Doman, and Sidney Lipton (a messenger of God) as provided by Steven Marsh, requires – I think – a pair of well-trained actors to handle the many inclines and plateaus Mr. Simon has laid out here. Dorman, whom I thought showed much promise in his role in Russel’s production of The Diviners at CCP, is steadfast in his approach to the much put-upon Joe. But I believe his is a role that requires a bit of stage experience to conquer and sustain. Marsh, in an even more demanding role, is a work in progress. He presently seems to have not found his way into all the nuances of Sidney’s jumpy, manic, sometimes frenzied mannerisms and pronouncements. This is a role originated by the likes of Charles Nelson Reilly, who had the perverse qualities necessary for this part. (In my reading of this script a few years ago, I envisioned a cross between Woody Allen and Arnold Stang!) Not that we are requiring that level of accomplishment, but in my opinion the work done here is in an incomplete stage, even given Mr. Marsh’s talents.

Simon’s failures with the script as a stage piece is the true culprit here. Even the person whom I would identify as the most accomplished actor in the group, Stephen E. Foxworthy – who plays the troubled Benjamin son David, struggles at times with the uneven script. His practiced range is enough to cover only a portion of his role’s demands. Other portrayals are managed by what would, in most other shows, be a strong cast. Joyce Pendleton, who takes the part of Joe’s wife – Rose, shows obvious talents in her turn which mixes schtick with sweetness with outrageous piteousness. The Benjamin’s twins, played by newcomer Ben Austin and burgeoning actress Addison D. Ahrendts, use high energy to fashion their mostly preposterous characters – and manage a level of success doing so. Scott Prill and Pam Young, who are onstage as servants Morris and Mady, use accented approaches to their somewhat narrow parts.

Indeed, I applaud the entire cast for their endeavors – I know how hard avocational actors work on their art in these productions. But given such a flawed script to work with, no manner of preparation could fully see them through.

A thorough congratulations goes to the technical side of this production. Danny Russel’s design for the large, two-story set (a first at MSP as I understand) works well and looks the part of a Long Island mansion. Master carpenter (and MSP president) John Sampson has constructed a set whose deconstruction (for Act 2) is well-accomplished. Lighting design and operation are also noteworthy, especially when the technicians take on the role of God’s fury. Not least, costume designs by Adrienne Conces and her assistant Janice Hannon are appropriate and good-looking.

God’s Favorite continues two more weekends at Main Street Production’s Westfield Playhouse, which is located at 1836 W. St. Rd. 32 in Eagletown. For information about show dates and times, log on to http://www.westfieldplayhouse.org or call the box office at 317-896-2707.

“The Dealer Smiles” at Westfield Playhouse

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It has been many a year since Mrs K and I have been to the Westfield Playhouse. But I wouldn’t for the world miss a chance to see my friends Larry Adams and Jaime Johnson in Larry’s short one-act play The Dealer Smiles. The play, which I promoted on this blog last summer after seeing a DVD of the show from a church presentation – https://asota.wordpress.com/2012/06/22/the-dealer-smiles-a-play-by-larry-adams/ – and which won a Most Impressive Theatre Award last year in the special category: Most Impressive Independent Production, is now getting it’s first showings in front of a secular audience in Westfield and will be produced this coming summer as a part of the Indy FringeFest.

Showing several small but meaningful changes from the DVD I saw, the play is very solid in this format and should be a favorite at the FringeFest due to it’s comic yet thought-provoking style. If anything, I believe the thoughtfulness works even better as live theatre, and the comedy does just as well as in the DVD.

Running at just under one hour – the play makes you feel as if you have painlessly been injected with 500 fresh ideas and you are sorry when it concludes, wanting more. The script is so well written, it seems to somehow sharpen the mind as it lays out the ideas.

As I said in my post of last summer: “what develops in the arc of the play, is an entertaining, yet deep conversation about life, God, faith, enduring one’s problems and making more of what we are given in this world. There are so many enriching “ah-ha” moments, mixed in with a lot of clever, funny and even ridiculous humor. The subject matter deals with questions we have all asked ourselves. Where is God? Is there a God? – How does He allow such evil to be in our midst?

“But let me be clear – this is not a religious play – it is more a philosophical discourse. While it does not give any definitive answers – it allows our own interpretations. We do not get conclusions – and yet, we somehow are left with a new understanding – of ourselves among other things. It is a powerful, intelligent, non-judgmental examination of the questions of the ages.”

The actors, Adams as Matt, a troubled divorced man, and Johnson as Josh, what I’ll call “an enlightened presence”, work extremely well together, like the long-time acting-mates they are. Their performances tonight were flawless, as was the entire production. An additional treat was provided when the actors came out after the show and led an informative Q&A period with the audience members. It furthered understanding for the audience and allowed feedback for Larry and Jaime as they continue to develop this play.

Only a limited number of performances remain. The Dealer Smiles continues Sunday, April 21 and next weekend Fri-Sun, April 26-28. Showtimes are 7:30 pm on Fri/Sat and 2:30 pm on Sunday. Call 317-896-2707 for reservations.