The time is right for New Theatre’s risk-taking ‘Game Show’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

When Richard Carrothers decided he wanted to stage “Game Show,” a process that began in earnest about two years ago, he knew he needed a cast that was nimble, adaptable and quick.

Because “Game Show” isn’t like other plays you’ve seen at the New Theatre — or anywhere, for that matter.

The piece by Jeffrey Finn and Bob Walton, which originally ran off-Broadway 11 years ago, is really two shows occupying the same slice of time and space.

There’s a “live” TV broadcast, in which actual theatergoers are invited onstage to participate in a quiz show, and actors operating real cameras are capturing images that are shown on big screens on either side of the proscenium.

And then there’s the play itself: a backstage satire depicting cutthroat network politics in which the debonair host, Troy Richards, gradually discovers that he has been set up in an elaborate plot to get him off the show.

Charles Shaughnessy quizzes audience members in "Game Show" (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star)

Carrothers built a unique supporting cast around his guest star, British-born Charles Shaughnessy, who exudes effortless, David Niven-style charm as he interacts with theatergoers as Troy.

Carrothers assembled a group of Kansas City veterans as well as a couple of Chicago actors with improv backgrounds, all of whom had one thing in common: They could go with the flow. “Game Show” is scripted up to a point, but much of the entertainment is found in the unscripted moments when actors relate to real people from the audience.

“It’s going to be a different show every night, depending on the mood of the audience and how much wine they’ve had,” Shaughnessy said one afternoon during a rehearsal break.

Shaughnessy said he has never done improv, and he has never appeared on a game show, but you’d never guess it by watching him work in this production. He and his fellow actors form an ensemble of equally crucial components and share the stage with ease.

“I’ve never done a show like this,” said Shaughnessy, a veteran of film and television, perhaps remembered best for a regular role on “The Nanny.” “It reminds me a bit of English pantomime. This is really quite fascinating.

“You’re doing a play about a game show while filming the game show and broadcasting it to the audience. But the whole thing is a play that takes you behind the scenes. It’s a fascinating Russian-doll show — a show within a show within a show. It’s like Pirandello — wheels within wheels.”

Odd as it may seem to invoke the name of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello in discussing a show at a dinner theater, it actually is appropriate.

Pirandello, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1934, wrote “tragedies” that are considered forerunners of theater of the absurd. He is best known for a play hardly anyone has seen — “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” in which characters from an unfinished play wander into a rehearsal and implore the director to finish their story.Odd as it may seem to invoke the name of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello in discussing a show at a dinner theater, it actually is appropriate.

In short, Pirandello made it OK for playwrights to free themselves from the restrictions of conventional storytelling, to break the “fourth wall” by allowing characters to speak directly to the audience and candidly acknowledging the artifice of theater.

Carrothers said the jokey alternative title for the determinedly frothy show at the New Theatre is “Six Characters in Search of a Game Show.”

“That’s the whole Pirandello thing — blurring the line between acting and reality,” Carrothers said. “This show blurs that line.”

Carrothers had only two weeks to rehearse, which meant, among other things, coming up with questions for the actual games, because the script didn’t provide any.

“The games themselves were very sketchy,” Carrothers said. “The script would say ‘Round One: selected questions.’ ”

Joe Fox, the company’s vice president in charge of production, came up with as many as 400 questions, which they winnowed during rehearsals, Carrothers said.

Actors Craig Benton and Peter DeFaria, who play the camera operators, used the equipment from the beginning and, according to Carrothers, took to it like ducks to water. Actor Tim Cormack plays the television director in the show, which obliges him to direct the live video feed the audience sees on the big screens from an upstage console.

In the 30 minutes or so before the show starts, actors — including Jim Korinke and Todd Carlton Lanker — go into the audience in character and solicit volunteers to participate in the games. Carrothers said many spectators enjoy being made part of the action. But some don’t.

“Audiences by their very nature are voyeurs,” Carrothers said. “It’s like looking into somebody else’s dilemma and wondering what they’re going to do. When you ask voyeurs to be active, there’s a sort of group resistance. We get emails and phone calls from people saying, ‘I didn’t appreciate being part of it.’ ”

As a creative artist, though, Carrothers likes watching what happens when you change the formula.

“It’s interesting that by having an audience member up there it changes the dynamic of how we’re experiencing the show,” he said. “I just love how it shakes up the dynamics. There’s really something I’ve found that in long runs actors get very comfortable with the words. It’s almost hypnotic. They feel protected by the words, but in this show they have to be able to respond.”

Shaughnessy, for his part, seems to enjoy where is. He inherited a baronial title, and he studied law at Cambridge. But the acting bug, he said, can be traced to his discovery in childhood that he really enjoyed reading out loud in class.

“I really like showing off,” he said. “And of course no sensible person is an actor professionally.”

But he never could picture himself among lawyers.

“That’s not my tribe,” he said.

Shaughnessy has done stage and television (including an eight-year stint on the daytime soap “Days of Our Lives”), and in this show he gets to do both. But he has no preference.

“It’s like different parts of a meal,” he said. “They’re all delicious, but they’re all different. I love getting onstage, but at the same time, it’s much more financially rewarding on TV, and that increases your fame, which allows you to do more theater.”

“Game Show,” whether it’s your cup of tea or not, does represent something that’s been happening more of late at the New Theatre: Productions that reflect playful, bold, even risky choices. Last summer Carrothers directed the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a show the company had done before, but Carrothers and his designers came up with a wild new take on the material, and the results were very funny.

Then Dennis Hennessey staged the rather shopworn 1960s British farce “Move Over Mrs. Markham” and hit on the idea of setting the show at the turn of the 20th century, with corsets for the ladies, high collars for the men and antique telephones in the parlor.

And now we have “Game Show,” which has so many unscripted moments that the potential for derailment is always bubbling just below the surface.

Carrothers said the explanation is simple enough. He and Hennessy, who have been producing partners since the 1970s, said they have learned a thing or two through the years.

“What you’re seeing out here is that I get a little more creative the longer I do it,” Carrothers said. “We probably wouldn’t have done ‘Move Over Mrs. Markham,’ but because Dennis had the idea for this mashup, that’s the whole reason we did it.

“I am now more open to outcome than attached to outcome. In terms of this creative piece (‘Game Show’), 10 or 15 years ago I would have gone in with a very rigid approach. But I was so open to any artist in that room who had an opinion, they participated in the shaping and molding of this show. And that’s what you see.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

Corrosive secrets frame story in MET production of ‘All My Sons’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Arthur Miller’s 1947 drama “All My Sons,” his first Broadway success, could be viewed as a warm-up to “Death of a Salesman,” and in it you see a fairly young playwright trying a bit too hard to be poetic and meaningful.

The well-acted production onstage at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre captures many of the play’s strengths and reflects most of its flaws.

James Wright and Licia Watson in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (Central Standard Theatre)

Miller was 32 when this play about a family destroyed by corrosive secrets opened. So it’s no coincidence that his protagonist, Chris Keller, a World War II veteran struggling to find his emotional equilibrium, is also 32.

Chris is full of denial, angst and passion but central to the drama is his relationship with his 61-year-old father, Joe Keller, who may or may not have betrayed his business partner and caused the death of 21 American pilots by knowingly selling cracked cylinder heads to the government.

Casting a shadow over the action is the memory of Chris’ brother Larry, who died in the war; his mother’s insistence that Larry is alive and will one day return; Chris’ love for his brother’s girlfriend, Ann, daughter of Joe’s now-imprisoned business partner; and her brother George’s unambiguous accusation that his father is innocent and that Joe’s the one who should be behind bars.

If that sounds rather convoluted, it is. Miller has set all the action in the Kellers’ backyard, and he stretches credibility at times to find reasons for all the characters to converge there.

This is a well-made play of the post-World War II era, which means, among other things, that Act 1 is basic carpentry. Miller carefully sets up all that comes after intermission, which is where the real play happens. That’s where we get the revelations, searing confessions, emotional shockwaves and expressions of love and rage.

The production at the MET, directed by Karen Paisley, showcases some fine performances but can’t quite overcome the play’s creakiness. Indeed, the production itself is a little creaky. Somebody needs to give that screen door a shot of 3-in-One oil to tone down its rusty hinges, which occasionally threaten to drown out dialogue.

Despite the play’s laborious, almost mechanical effort to evoke Greek tragedies, it does offer a glimpse into what certainly was an issue in the years after the war: How did returning veterans reconcile, if they could, the lives sacrificed with the new age of American consumerism? How did they feel about businessmen back home who used the war as an excuse to make money?

There are two fundamental reasons to see the MET production — the performances of James Wright as Joe Keller and Licia Watson as his wife, Kate Keller.

Wright has never been asked to stretch his dramatic chops like this before, and he meets the challenge. The character’s bluffness in the early going gradually gives way to abject despair, and Wright negotiates that arc with authority.

Watson, like Wright, is mainly known for her work in musical comedy, but here she demonstrates a capacity for serious acting that is at times startling. The emotional intensity in Act 2 is palpable.

Taylor St. John occasionally seems unsure of what’s going on inside Chris’s head, but his final confrontation with Joe and its aftermath are an opportunity for him to unleash explosive, raw emotions.

Natalie Liccardello, as Ann Deever, the dead brother’s girlfriend, rises to the challenge of the second act’s dramatic demands. Her revelatory scene with Kate, in which Ann shares the devastating contents of a letter she received from Larry Keller before he died, is about as good as it gets.

Doogin Brown makes what amounts to a cameo in Act 2 as Ann’s brother, George, who wants to settle scores because of his father’s unjust imprisonment. Brown’s relatively brief stage time is intense and memorable.

Competent supporting performances are registered by Bob Paisley and Karen Paisley as neighbors — Dr. Bayliss and his wife — as well as Matt Griggs and Courtney Stephens as a young couple next door, and Angel Reese as Bert, a neighborhood kid.

The scenic design, credited to Karen Paisley and Donovan Kidd, is simple but effective — although what appears to be green carpet representing the backyard grass is distracting, especially the dull squeak of actors’ shoes rubbing against it. Gregory Casparian’s lighting design is a plus, and the costumes — credited to Paisley and Watson — fulfill the script’s basic demands.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

‘Betrayal’ is an affair to remember: Living Room presents Pinter’s powerful drama with a fine cast and unusual staging.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” arguably his most accessible play, can be read one of two ways: as a cleverly constructed dissection of a clandestine love affair and all the levels of betrayal that come with it, or as an indulgent autobiographical work by a self-obsessed writer.

There’s no rule that says it can’t be both, of course. This play spans nine years and allows us to see the exuberant beginning and sad end of a seven-year love affair between a literary agent and his best friend’s wife. Based in part on Pinter’s own affair with television presenter Joan Bakewell while he was married to actress Vivien Merchant, he lays out the major events in “Betrayal” in reverse chronology.

Katie Gilchrist and Forrest Attaway in "Betrayal" (John Sleezer/Kansas City Star)

Thus, in the opening scene we see the final, bittersweet meeting between Jerry and Emma two years after their affair ended. In the final scene we see its passionate beginning.

There’s no denying that Pinter’s tight, economical dialogue draws us in. And his knack for conveying information about his characters as much by what they don’t say as what they do is compelling. In a strange way, “Betrayal” is put together like a thriller — although it doesn’t deliver much in the way of thrills.

The production at the Living Room, directed by Bryan Moses and featuring a talented cast, finds clever ways to distract us from the play’s fundamental emptiness. The love triangle presented in this play is remarkably cold and joyless, and how we feel about it all when it’s over seems curiously beside the point.

Moses has chosen to take advantage of the Living Room’s flexible and cavernous performance space to present the play in “promenade style,” meaning the audience follows the actors from room to room as they perform the show. The earliest scenes — set in a pub and a living room — are set downstairs, but most of the play is performed in the big second-floor loft where we see another living room scene as well as episodes in a Venice hotel room, a London restaurant and the flat where Emma and Jerry carry on their affair.

At the Monday night opening, the audience was literally left in the dark at times during the scene transitions and was unsure just where the next scene would be played, but in each case guides were on hand to direct viewers to the proper location.

Forrest Attaway dominates the production with a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Jerry. There are moments of potent humor in his deadpan reactions to an increasingly tense and soul-battering situation. Few actors can do as much as Attaway while saying nothing, and when he speaks, every word counts. Indeed, Attaway gives the piece some actual emotional resonance. In the final scene, when we see a drunken Jerry professing his passion for the surprised Emma, the poignancy is palpable because we’ve already seen the train wreck.

Katie Gilchrist brings her customary charisma to the stage as Emma, ably negotiating transitions between love, passion and, ultimately, an emotional void. And Rick Williamson, an actor I’d never seen before, delivers an impressive less-is-more performance as Robert, Emma’s husband. His work is subtle and controlled.

Williamson is particularly good when enunciating the script’s understated but withering commentary on the London writing and publishing scene, circa the 1970s.

The play has valid things to say about the different manifestations of betrayal — how each character emotionally betrays the others and how both Robert, who is a book publisher, and Jerry betray their own literary ideals.

But ultimately this play seems straitjacketed by the era it evokes. It invites us into the prop wash of London’s “swinging ’60s,” which in retrospect isn’t terribly interesting.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

Gary Holcombe and T. Max Graham were artists onstage, genuine men off

Published Nov. 5, 2011

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

T. Max Graham in Brian Friel's "Translations" (KCAT)

I hope I don’t have to write another obituary for a long time.

Last month, in less than three weeks, the theater community lost two formidably talented actors: Gary Holcombe and T. Max Graham.

Holcombe was an accomplished musical theater performer who could handle comic and dramatic roles with equal facility. And Graham was largely known as a funnyman but showed what he could do in dramatic roles late in his career.

Professional theater critics are, of course, expected to keep their distance and avoid close personal relationships with the people they cover. And I do. But it’s virtually impossible to do this job for years without forming attachments to some of the folks you write about.

I liked Gary and Max. they were talented men who almost always brought something special to the stage. they also happened to be good guys. each of them was complicated and had a few demons to deal with — who doesn’t? — but neither was a fake.

Despite my publicly stated admiration for their abilities when they were at their best, neither of them was immune to a critical review. I can recall performances when they appeared to be phoning it in. But it’s the exceptional work that I recall most vividly — those performances you knew were testing the limits of their abilities, when they were demanding something of themselves that nobody else would.

the last time I talked to T. Max Graham, we reminisced about the long-gone era of cheap biker movies, the virtues of misspent youth and the casual pleasures afforded by uncontrolled substances.

One night, as I surfed through the largely unwatched channels in my cable package, I landed on a 1970 film I had never seen. “Unchained Angel,” it was called, and although I was well-versed in the worst movies of my adolescence and early adulthood, this one had escaped my notice.

Shot in Arizona, “Unchained Angel” featured a few of the era’s most ubiquitous Grade B actors — Don Stroud, Luke Askew, bill McKinney — and depicted big-hearted bikers defending a hippie commune from violent rednecks in the nearby town.

As I watched I kept noticing a member of the biker gang who seemed to draw focus in every scene. Unlike the others, he wore a top hat and a cape, and later I learned the character’s name was Magician.

“that looks like Max Graham,” I thought to myself, and I went to the computer, called up the Internet Movie Data Base and quickly confirmed my suspicions. it was, indeed, the future king of dinner theater in Kansas City. This was his debut film, and he used his real name — Neil Moran.

The next day I called Max, excited to share my discovery. Max thought back to the late ’60s and recalled that he had never been on a Harley and had to take motorcycle lessons. his first time out, he skidded out of control.

Apparently he got better. Max allowed that when the cameras rolled and the biker actors swept into town in formation, their Harley engines roaring, it gave him a feeling of exhilaration that didn’t really require any acting.

“That was slick,” he said.

He recalled other details, too — how the actors threw away the phony marijuana cigarettes handed out by the props department and replaced them with the real thing.

One day he and one of his fellow actors, Larry Bishop — comedian Joey Bishop’s son — decided to get on their bikes and take a short tour down the highway during a lull in filming. Soon enough they were pulled over by a highway patrolman, who thought they were real bikers. And for good reason. they were in costume and looked scruffy. And they weren’t carrying IDs.

Max recalled that he and Bishop sat in the back of the patrol car for a couple of hours until the cops determined that they were exactly who they said they were — a couple of actors playing tough guys.

In recent years Max considered himself more or less retired. he collected pensions from all three unions for actors, although he was still up for the occasional bit of film work.

In some ways Max was a guy after my own heart. with no formal training, the one-time kitchen-gadget salesman made his mark. at Tiffany’s Attic and the Waldo Astoria dinner theaters, his name had real marquee value, and if you look at his film and television credits, they range from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Among them are the admirable television adaptation of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia,” and, most notably, Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil.” And on stage, at a time when by his own admission remembering lines had become a challenge, he took on the title character in Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” — a voluminous play with reams of dialogue. that was just two years ago. to do the play was an act of faith — and an act of courage.

Gary Holcombe was an operatically trained singer with a formal education. But he was every bit as earthy as Max.

Gary Holcombe in Lanford Wilson's "Talley & Son" (KCAT)

In one my last conversations with Gary, he couldn’t hold back his tears. I had called for a comment about the passing of George Keathley, the former artistic director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and Gary was bereft. he kept apologizing for being so emotional.

“I feel like a big baby,” he said.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this prickly Vietnam vet break down. Once, as I sat in his living room conducting an interview with Gary and his wife, director Donna Thomason, I casually asked about his hunting dogs without realizing that only recently he had been forced to put down his beloved Mitzi.

Gary excused himself and stepped into the kitchen, where I could hear him overcome with grief. “Blubbering,” he might have called it.

Gary Holcombe felt things deeply, and when he found something new to be enthusiastic about he committed himself to it totally. When he learned to play the banjo and guitar, he wanted only the finest instruments. he was the same way about racing bikes.

That enthusiasm was almost always obvious in his performances. the first time he got my attention was almost 20 years ago in “I Hate Hamlet,” a light comedy that has one great role: the ghost of actor John Barrymore. Gary, naturally, played Barrymore, and he played for keeps. I saw him do that again and again through the years.

And I saw him test himself in roles that didn’t necessarily fit like a glove — as the outcast Wing Biddlebaum in the musical “Winesburg, Ohio” and as German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who served the Nazi regime when other conductors fled the country, in “taking Sides.”

Gary and I had a number of long, memorable and exceptionally candid phone conversations. he was never one to bite his tongue. he said exactly what he thought, including his assessments of local actors. the ones he liked, he really liked. the ones he didn’t never really came up in conversation. And he frequently offered withering opinions of local productions, including those he was in.

Gary, for all his artistry and worldliness as a one-time Broadway actor, never divorced himself from his Kentucky upbringing. In much the same way, Max was always a product of Jackson County, even when playing a Neil Simon New Yorker or a brilliant Italian astronomer. Even when they seemed anything but grounded, they were rooted in Mother Earth.

I never got drunk with either of these gentlemen, although I’m sure the experience would have been worthwhile in its own excessive way. Aside from an occasional lunch or coffee date I rarely saw much of them outside a playhouse.

But I liked them. And I’ll miss them. Rest in peace, guys.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.