Dear Evan Hansen

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen). All photos by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Anyone who says they never got caught telling a fib is probably telling a fib.  But what is worse is covering the tracks of the first lie with another, and then another, until the wheels finally come off.  Often, the result is loss of respect from others, compounded by loss of self-respect.  If there is a road back, it is an arduous one.

“Dear Evan Hansen” opens with a dramatically dark cacophony of moving electronic images and sounds associated with messaging and social networks.  Terminally timid and insecure, Evan lacks friends, and what little release from his fears of humanity comes through his laptop.  A senior in high school whose divorced mother has put him in therapy, he receives an assignment to write letters to himself intended to boost his self-esteem.  One such letter falls into the wrong hands and is subsequently misinterpreted.  So begins Evan’s descent down the rabbit hole.

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), Coleen Sexton (Heidi Hansen).

This set up may seem like a dreary appetizer to a dreadful meal, but the multiple Tony award-winning Broadway production ran 1,678 performances before succumbing to the effects of the pandemic hiatus and a poorly reviewed film adaption.  So, what’s behind its success?  Although the overarching issues are serious, if not depressing, plenty of comic relief, appealing music, and hope yield a great balance of entertainment and meaningfulness.

Evan’s deception, which dominates the plotline, occurs by accident, not by design, so it’s not that he’s like Donald Trump or Congressman George Santos who strategically create successful identities based on a web of lies.  For Evan to deal with the triggering incident truthfully would be an embarrassment that he doesn’t have the constitution to deal with.  So we sympathize with him because of his inadequacies and his circumstances.  It doesn’t hurt that the talented Anthony Norman portrays the dorky character with great sensitivity or that creative elements of the show lift the proceedings.

Further bad judgments and misadventures lead Evan to ally with two more losers in his class to form a project memorializing Connor, a fellow student who has committed suicide.  Along with a successful crowdfunding campaign to revitalize an apple orchard in honor of the deceased, the project is commercialized with tribute sweatshirts and buttons, but with the knowledge that fast action is required, as society will quickly move on to another focus.

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), Alaina Anderson (Zoe Murphy).

These sequences offer many funny moments but caution about the power of electronic communication and the ease of deceiving the public.  They also suggest how the departed can become idealized, as well as how they can bring people together and come to represent something far greater than themselves.  Sustaining that image often becomes more important than facing newer truths that may not jive with the myth.  Regrettably, this inclination also occurs at societal levels where whole countries are unable to learn and grow because of being wed to falsehoods they fail to address.  At least in this show, Evan acknowledges “All I ever do is run from the truth” and finally appears ready to face consequences.

Meanwhile, another plot turn that enlivens the action is the love interest.  Evan has had a crush on Zoe, who didn’t know he existed.  But she happened to be the sister of the deceased, and Evan’s involvement with the Connor Project puts him into contact with her.  In a grass-is-greener move, Evan even insinuates himself into the lives of Connor’s rich but dysfunctional family.  His presence becomes a source for positivity for them, and they encourage him to continue the project, even though their relationship with Connor was fractious.

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), John Hemphill (Larry Murphy), Lili Thomas (Cynthia Murphy), Alaina Anderson (Zoe Murphy).

Each and every character in the play is flawed, making them all very real.  It’s easy to dwell on their deficiencies, but we want them to overcome their weaknesses and have happy lives in their families and communities, and to some measure, they do.  Perhaps tragic circumstances and even ill-guided actions often have positive consequences.  This is suggested by the show’s optimistic message delivered with one of its fine songs of hope, “You Will Be Found.”

“Dear Evan Hansen,” with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul and book by Steven Levenson, is presented by Broadway SF, and appears at Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco, CA through February 19, 2023.


Louis Reyes McWilliams (Jason), Harold Surratt (Montrellous), and April Nixon (Clyde). All photos by Kevin Berne.

In the hands of some, a sandwich may be a most humble joining of Wonder Bread with a plain and prosaic filler of any sort.  In another, it can be a sublime assemblage of aspiration and dreams.  Such is the aesthetic divide between most of the truckers who patronize Clyde’s Sandwich Shop in Reading, PA, and the unseen kitchen staff who fill their orders.

In “Clyde’s,” two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage has written what is understandably her most popular work, which was the most produced play in America in 2022.   The Berkeley Rep production exceeds every standard the script demands.  A comedy in which four diverse kitchen workers reflect on life’s experiences, it brims with humanity as the characters stumble over each other’s sensibilities on the road to reaching mutual understanding and common ground.  Each worker, however, shares a similar backstory.  Each has been imprisoned.  Clyde has also been incarcerated and hires only ex-cons.

Harold Surratt (Montrellous) and Cyndii Johnson (Letitia).

Now, dispose any preconceptions that you may have had about the eponymous owner of the café.  Clyde is black and female and vibrant.  At one level, she represents an archetype in entertainment – the over-the-top, breezy, sassy, flippant, self-centered woman who fills a room when she enters and never subdues to a level of naturalness or genuineness.  But she is far from innocuous.  She is emotionally removed, demanding, and hostile.  What’s more, her hiring ex-cons doesn’t represent altruism.  She knows that a prison record makes it hard to get and keep a job and that work is often a condition of parole.  She hangs a sword of Damocles over each of her employees to keep them in line.

At least while Clyde is running the front of the house, the kitchen workers are able to find relief from her oppression.  Rafael, a Latino, is a light-hearted and optimistic fry cook who tries to make time with Tish, a sandwich maker, who is a black, single mother with a special-needs child, and bears all of the associated burden.  A new arrival, Jason, adds another dynamic.  A surly young white man, with white-supremacist gang tattoos on his face, he initially disrupts the bonhomie, but as would be expected, he eventually opens up and evolves.  Interestingly, Jason is a holdover character from another Nottage play, “Sweat,” but with no clear rationale or connection.

The eminence gris is Montrellous, an older black man, who is part mentor and part mystery.  He sets the standard for the unique activity that keeps the kitchen group lively and challenged – striving to create the best possible sandwich, often relying on ingredients uncommon to the working-class world around them.  Rather than citing some of the attempts the characters make, I’ll describe the one I made on lunch break that could easily fit in their competition – roast beef with pickled ginger slices and fresh lemon thyme on focaccia, slathered with curried sour cream!

Wesley Guimarães (Rafael) and April Nixon (Clyde).

Clyde not only refuses to try any of the cooks’ concoctions, but is more concerned that they not experiment on her time and with her ingredients.  However, her disdain does not discourage the staff from their creativity and enjoyment.  Sandwiches have come to mean something significant to them, representing new horizons.  They approach each new attempt with enthusiastic anticipation, even though their optimistic expectation is sometimes not borne out.

Always the philosopher, Montrellous notes that a sandwich is a meal in the hand that can be customized in an infinite number of ways.  One can even argue that sandwiches symbolize democracy and freedom of choice.

The playwright also says something about people who have made mistakes.  These are all decent people who, but for poor judgments or actions that may have been split-second and atypical, would not be facing the uphill battle of overcoming the black mark on their name.

Louis Reyes McWilliams (Jason) and Cyndii Johnson (Letitia).

Berkeley Rep’s production, directed by Taylor Reynolds, completely pleases the audience.  We want these imperfect people to thrive.  Well designed and crafted, the situation and performances resonate, led by the very effective, if unpleasant, characterization of Clyde by April Nixon.

“Clyde’s,” written by Lynn Nottage, is produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and plays on its Peet’s Stage at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through February 26, 2023.

In Every Generation

Cindy Goldfield as Valeria, Olivia Nicole Hoffman as Yaya, Sarah Lo as Dev, Michael Champlin as Davide (Nonno), Luisa Sermol as Paola (Nonna). All photos by Kevin Berne.

“Mah nishtanah, ha-laylah ha-zeh,mi-kol ha-leylot”  (Why is this night different from all other nights?).  This invocation, spoken by the youngest capable person at the dinner table at seder, is perhaps the most famous and evocative sentence in Judaism.  Not only does the ritual that follows those words reflect on the traumatic history of the Jewish people, but it speaks to their very existence.  So begins playwright Ali Viterbi’s poignant, insightful, and sweeping, yet frustrating “In Every Generation.”

The riveting Act 1, or Part 1 in the playwright’s specification, takes place in present time at the Los Angeles home of an esteemed, female professor at UCLA, Valeria Levi, who has divorced her former husband, a rabbi, caught in flagrante delicto with another woman.  The family celebrates seder.

Valeria is joined by her parents, Paola and Davide, WWII refugees from Italy.  The father survived a concentration camp but is now without speech, in the advanced stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  Two young adult women fill out the table.  Daughter Yael, or Yaya, studies at Yale and is home on break.  The eye catcher in this scenario is Dev, the older daughter.  Why?  It happens that she is adopted, and Chinese by birth and appearance.

Cindy Goldfield, Sarah Lo.

The animated table is full of love and arguments.  As Valeria simply notes, Jews argue.  All of the discussions relate to Judaism in one way or another.  At the same time, each topic has corollaries in other groups.  Or at least, non-Jews can empathize with the contrasting positions.  The passionate differences demonstrate the multiplicity of thought within the community.

Some issues reflect differing degrees of reverence and religious practice, with Valeria being among the least worshipful in the family.  Even though the talented Cindy Goldfield’s Valeria prepares the seder feast for the others, she still insists on having her Diet Coke and comfort food.  Not surprisingly, Dev conveys the strongest commitment to religion, as often happens with converts.  Yet, the devout and dutiful Dev, as portrayed by Sarah Lo with an occasional sense of differentness, will confront her nagging curiosity about her origin and the isolation of being an outsider within outsiders.

A never-ending discussion about Judaism is whether it represents ethnicity or religion.  The sad truth is that the decision on that point is more often made by those hostile to the community, and invariably to the detriment of the adherents.  Friction arises between the daughters on Jewish identity, even though Yaya, played by Olivia Nicole Hoffman with intellectual confidence but physical insecurity, behaves in a very secular manner.  While not meaning to discriminate or denigrate the adopted sister, Yaya suggests that Dev fits in a different category, without the same baggage as ethnic Jews.  But then she uncorks the unexpected.  She relates a study about predisposition toward anxiety and trauma that the children of Holocaust survivors might experience, with interesting insights into the nature versus nurture conflict.

Luisa Sermol, Michael Champlin.

The discussions in Part 1 keep the audience in rapt attention, and the performances are spot on.  Production defects concern communication.  Because of the direction that some actors face, some audience members cannot hear them completely.  And with the frequency of overlapping talk by characters and the occasional use of both Italian and Hebrew, numerous attendees felt they were missing a lot, even though supertitles appeared with most of the foreign language spoken.

While Act 1 / Part 1 takes place in real time, it reveals history and relationships with reasonable depth.  In Act 2, the playwright attempts to convert the remaining stage time into an epic built around seder celebrations.  Three scenes, or parts, cover radically different periods. 

The first scene after intermission, Part 2, is a flashback to 1954, when Paola and Davide are recent arrivals in the United States, and suffer through the scarcity and sparseness of the new immigrant experience. The situations they cope with are touching and relatable.  However, they don’t really set up a strong context for what had occurred in Act 1.  But the actors deliver the goods.  Luisa Sermol steals the stage whenever she is on it.  Flippant and dismissive as the nonna in Act 1, she is now young, earthy, and saucy.  Michael Champlin, the dying and voiceless nonno in Act 1, is an anxious and guilt-ridden survivor of Auschwitz in this part.

Sarah Lo, Olivia Nicole Hoffman.

Part 3 flashes forward to a highly dystopian year 2050.  This episode continues the message from Act 1 and depicts the further divergence between the sisters.  Given today’s growing and overt white supremacy movement with increasingly brutal racism, antisemitism, and victimization of immigrants, it offers a chilling potential reality.  The whole scenario is disturbing and unpleasant to think about but can’t be dismissed.

This apocalyptic vision tragically suggests that the coming depravity is driven not only by its perpetrators, but also by the victims’ inability to muster the wherewithal to confront it for the existential threat that it is.  Unfortunately, history does repeat itself.  A case in point is the dramatization of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here” which was performed at Berkeley Rep in 2016.  Among its reviews, some prominent ones dismissed the plot as unrealistic to apply to this country because of our history and systems.  Within weeks, the sad unravelling of American democracy began.

The final part enacts a seder in 1406 BCE, shortly after the Jews have escaped from Egypt.  All of the other Jewish-centric vignettes possess universalisms and dramatic impact.  Many viewers might find this tale a bit self-indulgent and lacking in drama and connectedness.


In sum, “In Every Generation” has much to say, and says much effectively.  However, this reviewer feels that as a theatrical production, the scope of the narrative overreaches and the plot points are not cleanly aligned. Nonetheless, it entertains and provokes.

In this era of political correctness, word police, and ad hominem attributions, I would like to say something about my own bona fides.  I am a Christian-reared, half-Sicilian who has rejected organized religion.  My wife of 50 years, who is also my editor, is a secular Jew.  We both feel extremely supportive of the other’s community.  Anything in this review that may be construed as unsympathetic to Jewish identity and its people’s right to live peacefully and autonomously is incorrect.

“In Every Generation,” written by Ali Viterbi, is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, and plays at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA through February 12, 2023.

Slow Food

Damion Clark as Stephen, Peter Marietta as Peter, Kimberly Ridgeway as Irene. All photos by Grizzly De Haro.

Foodies worldwide know slow food as a contemporary movement that rejects mass produced, low nutrition, low diversity, loaded with unhealthy ingredients fast food.   Playwright Wendy MacLeod has adopted the same words but applied them with a different twist in her comic play.  All of us have had that restaurant experience in which we thought the food would never come.  In this case, the cause is not a lost order or long prep time or overtaxed restaurant staff.  It is willful delay by the server from hell.

While this three-hander lacks a grand, compelling comic or dramatic arc, it does offer a number of observations into the human condition.  Somewhat like a television comedy show skit on steroids, it stretches into 90 minutes.  But with nimble direction and excellent acting, the laughter is almost continuous, so it makes for an entertaining, light-hearted theatrical experience.

Irene and Peter, played convincingly by Kimberly Ridgeway and Peter Marietta, are newly empty nester professionals from New York who are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Palm Springs.  Arriving late in the evening, starved and exhausted, they are finally able to find a Greek restaurant that is still open and taking orders.  Stephen, the insidious server with his own agendas, is portrayed with great flamboyance by a yappy, petulant, and sometimes confrontational Damion Clark.

The particular venue of this play is special to the Altarena Playhouse Artistic Director Katina Psihos Letheule, who directs this production and designed the simple but appropriate and appealing set.  Not only is she of Greek extraction, but she also grew up in a family in the restaurant business.

The acting style of the play is consistent throughout – one manic shred short of sheer farce.  Yet how the characters interact is not.  Many relationship matters arise between Irene and Peter.  Some are routine marriage-management issues.  Others are surprise revelations and problems.  But they are situations that many couples face in full measure.  The exchanges between the employee and the customers are not realistic.  The kernels of Stephen’s actions toward them will be familiar to anyone who frequents restaurants, but the extremes to which he takes them is definitely off the deep end.  Happily, it all works compatibly.

The gist of the plot is that despite Irene and Peter’s desperate desire for food and drink as soon as possible, Stephen manages to stifle their efforts in every conceivable way, bringing a new meaning to the term “denial of service.”  As Peter says, “This is not service.  It’s a hostage situation.” 

For example, Peter wants a Sam Adams beer and had even ordered one from another server before he and Irene sat down.  But as it is coming to the table, Stephen sends it away, insisting that their orders are his responsibility.  Not only does he demand that Peter consider a local brew instead, but he doesn’t relent until the couple has sampled it.

Meanwhile, whenever Stephen is away from their table, the couple furtively conspires to problem solve to defeat his obstructions.  Should they appeal to his vanity by being obsequious or flirting?  Should they take a bread basket from a table that hasn’t been cleared?  Should they try to purchase a beer from the bar and hide it from the server?  Should they bail and (God forbid) go to McDonalds?

There are a number of direct and indirect messages associated with the exchanges among the characters concerning hierarchy of jobs.  Many would-be actors wait tables, and many white-collar workers waited tables as a temporary job, maybe during college.  But Stephen asks himself aloud why he still serves meals after 20 years.  So, in his despair, he seeks solace by lording over restaurant patrons and claiming to have responsibilities beyond serving, such as running the front of the house and guiding a renovation of the restaurant, both of which appear to be fanciful.

In Stephen, Clark plays a really juicy role that is written for belly laughs, and he extracts audience reaction well.  Ridgeway and Marietta are more like straight men (people?) in more ways than one.  They often counterpunch with wry commentary, but they show their comic chops like pros as well, delivering their lines with crisp timing.

In the end, it’s all kind of much ado about nothing, but wasn’t that a successful comedy as well?

“Slow Food,” written by Wendy MacLeod is produced by Altarena Playhouse, and plays on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through February 19, 2023.

Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon

Ennio Marchetto as Mona Lisa. All photos courtesy of Ennio Marchetto.

Paper ranks among humanity’s most ubiquitous, yet humble inventions.  But in the minds of solo performer Ennio Marchetto and his design partner Sosthen Hennekam, it becomes the stuff of dreams – two-dimensional costumes that clothe over 50 celebrities in his clever nostalgic production.  Mind you, this isn’t like routine printer paper, but uniquely-painted, industrial-strength stock that becomes the basis for paper art on steroids, contributing to a result of great hilarity.

“Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon” plays at Club Fugazi, a generous gift by the family of the same name to the Italian community of North Beach early in the 20th century.  Formerly the home of the world’s longest running music (and comedy) revue, “Beach Blanket Babylon,” it is the perfect setting for this production.  Like its predecessor in the venue, it doesn’t aim for anything serious, and having a drink or two along with the nightclub-type entertainment totally fits the bill.

Adele, with Lionel Richie below.

In a fast-moving 60 minutes, mime comic Ennio provides cleverly curated cartoon characterizations of celebrities and lip syncs to songs, mostly recorded by the people portrayed.  The music is the songbook of our lives (if you’re middle aged or older!), including rock-and-roll, pop of various sorts, and rap.

Actually, this evolving concept has run for over 30 years in more than 70 countries, accumulating a number of local awards and a Drama Desk nomination for its Off Broadway run.  The show catalogs over 150 musical skits and associated costumes, and a mix-and-match selection takes place in organizing for each performance location, which creates continuing logistical challenges for soundtracking, costume sequencing, and, of course, remembering the skit order and all of the associated lyrics.

Bruce Springsteen

Each vignette requires a different outfit, resulting in frantic changes.  An occasional “wardrobe malfunction” occurs, but nothing of consequence, certainly not as titillating as Janet Jackson’s at the Super Bowl – although this performer does get a little naughty from time-to-time.  Some costume changes are done in the dark.  Many are on the fly, with Ennio wearing multilayered, tearaway constructions.  At times, the revelations seem like pulling rabbits from a hat.  Perhaps the most clever onstage transformation is when Queen Elizabeth II morphs into a different Queen – a toothy Freddy Mercury.

All of the routines are laughter producing, and you’ll know the words to most of the songs.  Everyone will have their own favorites.  I particularly liked “I Got You Babe,” in which Ennio portrays both Sonny and Cher in a double decked costume.  In another, the performer’s face fits into the painting of “Mona Lisa” to the music of “I’m your Venus.”  Also, he does a funny Adele medley that keeps getting disrupted by a phone call from Lionel Richey, as well as a windblown bowsprit scene of Kate Winslet in the movie “Titanic” with Celine Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On.”    But there are funny depictions and wonderful songs from Elvis, Barbra Streisand, Beyonce, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, Marilyn Monroe, and many more icons.  In many of those representations, Ennio nicely captures the gestures and other trademarks of the artists especially well, from Tina Turner’s shimmy to Charlie Chaplin’s wobbling Tramp.

Celine Dion, with Kate Winslet below.

Honoring his Italian heritage, Ennio does go highbrow with music from four operas, but while the music may appeal more to the intellect, the performances certainly do not, and will be enjoyed by those who are not opera buffs.  Numbers are from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Bizet’s “Carmen,” Brecht/Weill’s “Happy End,” and a very expressive and emotive aria, “Un bel di,” from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”

In all, this production provides a fast-paced and unique reminiscence that still leaves time for a late dinner or snack in North Beach.  Have a good evening.

Can Can dancer.

“Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon,” created by Ennio Marchetto, plays at Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon (or Green) Street, San Francisco, CA through February 5, 2023.


Ellie Pulsifer, Christopher Swan. All photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

“The sun’ll come out – tomorrow.  Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun.”  That optimism in the face of adversity along with a complex and uplifting melody made “Tomorrow,” the signature song from “Annie,” iconic.  It also acted as a huge audience pull.  The 1977 Broadway musical towered with success earning seven Tonys and over 2,300 performances.  It remains one of the most produced musicals around the country, and is in the midst of yet another successful national tour, with a charming production that will please audience members of all ages.  It is brimming with laughs and lively music, yet it offers significant social commentary.

Sophie Stromberg, Vivianne Neely, Valeria Velasco, Kenzie Rees, Riglee Ruth Bryson, Bronte Harrison.

So, what makes “Annie” so popular?  Where to start?  Set during the Great Depression and opening in an orphanage with conditions straight out of a Charles Dickens novel doesn’t seem a likely starting point.  Along the way, the always hopeful heroine, Annie, must overcome challenges, starting with her nemesis, Miss Hannigan.  This mean and drunken orphanage matron is one of the great female comic antagonists on the stage, and she blocks every aspiration Annie can muster.

If the orphanage wasn’t bleak enough, the story shines the light of social consciousness on another sad byproduct of an often heartless society.  Annie escapes temporarily into a Hooverville.  For those who think that homelessness is only a contemporary phenomenon, there were hundreds of these shanty towns and encampments at that time, and the plight of the denizens derived from similar causes of the homeless today – joblessness, debt, eviction, and addiction.


However, in classic deus ex machina style, the secretary to Oliver Warbucks, the world’s richest man, appears at the orphanage to whisk away an orphan for a two-week Christmas holiday in the lap of luxury.  That fortunate foundling would be Annie, and this is the start of something good.

With Warbucks’ war chest and connections at her disposal, Annie tries to find her parents, which engenders more issues – a child’s connectedness to biological versus adoptive parents; the effects of easy money on inducing illegal behavior; how wealth can influence government favoritism; and the clash between serving the needs of the working class versus captains of industry.  Yet many viewers, especially children, who will find this musical particularly appealing, can enjoy it simply for the engaging story and the lively staging.

Krista Curry, Nick Bernardi, Stefanie Londino.

The fun starts in the orphanage.  Seven talented young girls sing the lively “It’s the Hard Knock Life” in unison with bright shrieky voices, a high energy sound that only pre-teens can produce.  Later, the orphans show their dancing skills with high kicks, shimmies, and cartwheels. Whenever the waifs are on stage, they light it up, which, no doubt, keeps the kids in the audience involved. 

Of course, Annie gets most of the highlights with the touching and wishful “Maybe” in which she imagines reuniting with her long lost parents.  And then there’s “Tomorrow” which Ellie Pulsifer as Annie skillfully delivers, starting wistfully and with gradual crescendo, finishing like gangbusters.  The other memorable song is “Easy Street” in which Stephanie Londino as Miss Hannigan gets to display her notable gruff and growl.


The scene shifts frequently to Annie’s two weeks among the rich and famous.  In another fanciful sequence, she even joins Warbucks at a cabinet meeting with President Roosevelt, who apparently doesn’t have enough on his plate as he directs the effort to try to locate her parents. 

The plot of “Annie” is a bit jumpy with some superfluous scenes, and Warbucks talks of adopting Annie without much depiction of the motivation.  These are minor blemishes in a musical with enduring characters, memorable musical numbers, and a sense of socially conscious history.  Like most entertainments that draw from the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” this version contains many of the original signal elements.  Annie possesses curly red hair; in the end, she wears the obligatory red dress with black and white trim; Daddy Warbucks is billiard ball bald; and the biggest source of oohs and aahs enters Annie’s life – the scruffy orphan dog, Sandy.

Addison, Ellie Pulsifer.

“Annie,” with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and book by Thomas Meehan, is presented by Broadway San Jose, and plays at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA through January 15, 2023.

Poetic Justice – When Art Is Everything

Julia McNeal, Charles Shaw Robinson. Photo by David Allen.

In the past, we exchanged letters – luxuriant, literate, thoughtful, compassionate missives.  They especially sparkled when crafted by artistic minds. Thomas Jefferson’s note to a correspondent attests the goal of clever and succinct erudition when he apologized, saying that if he had more time, he would have written a shorter letter.  As static as the notion of portraying two people exchanging letters on stage may seem, the theme has been successfully dramatized.  One of particular relevance, Sarah Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth,” reveals the loving relationship between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, whose platonic amor spanned decades and distance, with little physical togetherness.

Premiering at San Francisco’s The Marsh, both of Lynne Kaufman’s plays, packaged together under the title “Poetic Justice – When Art is Everything” connect to “Dear Elizabeth.”  Like Ruhl’s work, the first play, “You Must Change Your Life,” reflects on letters – these between Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and then military cadet and aspiring poet Franz Kappus.  The second, “Divine Madness,” takes poetic license in conceiving conversations between Robert Lowell and his ex-wife, book critic Elizabeth Hardwick, with cautionary entreaties of Elizabeth Bishop in the background.

With only a couple of props and a little blocking here and there, the production of both one-act, two-handers is virtually unstaged.  You won’t need to check your watch, as they are brief and engaging.  The performances are exquisite, with Charles Shaw Robinson playing the esteemed figures and Julia McNeal portraying the less known but also significant literary artists.

Which actor performs better is a matter of subjective criteria.  Robinson differentiates his portrayals more and looks highly convincing as both characters.  He excels as Rilke with his soft, cultivated German accent, suggesting a bit of ramrod intellectual arrogance, but betraying a history of suffering.  As Lowell, he seems more relaxed and naturalistic but with occasional fits of extremes, reflecting the Boston Brahmin’s bipolar disorder, which dogged Lowell throughout his life.

McNeal’s characterizations are less divergent, yet well differentiated.  Two anomalies mark her portrayal of Kappus in “You Must Change Your Life.”  Her character is a male teenager, which is not adequately clarified at first.   Her mature, feminine bearing, as well as references to the character being in the military in turn-of-the-century Austria don’t naturally mesh.  Yet, without mimicking a male youth, she makes the passionate depiction work nicely.  McNeal does not use a German accent, which perhaps she doesn’t feel comfortable with, or maybe Director Lauren English decided that two foreign accents would make the exchanges too taxing for the audience.  In any case, that conceit works well as well.  McNeal’s Elizabeth Hardwick conveys an approach-avoidance clash in her relationship with Lowell that she executes with sensitive frustration and attachment.

The very short Rilke piece, which serves as the basis for his most widely read work, “Letters to a Young Poet,” acts as the warm-up.  It lacks much topography or interaction, but the characters do engage the audience, and the messages resonate.  Rilke advocates living a Godly life “in ever expanding circles” and in helping others. His many deeply introspective and eloquent letters of encouragement to an unknown boy were clearly altruistic, but it is otherwise not clear how closely he heeded his own counsel.  In the parlance of philosopher Joseph Campbell, Rilke’s most important advice focuses on following one’s bliss.  In particular, he challenges Kappus to “Confess to yourself if you would have to die if forbidden to write.”

In “Divine Madness,” the two characters do interact organically and with greater animation. Conflict reigns as Lowell attempts to reconnect with Hardwick, having betrayed his ex in life and in literature, the latter being his Pulitzer Prize winning yet biased tell-all poetic tome, “The Dolphin.”  But his agendas are transparent, and Robinson effectively reveals Lowell’s manic side in the process. Hardwick parries his advances, but McNeal’s ambivalence shows that Hardwick’s love for Lowell still simmers.  Although no introduction is needed when this play follows the first, there is some confusion that could be resolved with a minor adjustment.  Lowell is not identified at the outset and is repeatedly referred to as Cal, which most observers will not know was the poet’s nickname.

A common thread in the two plays, as suggested by the umbrella title, concerns sacrifices in pursuit of art.  But is it that obsessives become artists or that artists become obsessive?  In any event, dedicated artists can be both rapacious and needy, putting their own concerns above those of the ones that they purport to love.  A probably unintended connection that extends well beyond these two poets is that famous and well-respected individuals often deviate from norms and ideals in what the mainstream would view as negative ways, whether through psychological problems, sexual nonconformity, abusiveness, or addiction.

In short order, playwright Lynne Kaufman offers enticing insights into two contrasting, important modern poets, and the simple production succeeds through fine acting.  This compact but impactful taste of familiarity fully satisfies on its own, while many attendees will want to learn even more about these fragile artists and their robust literary works.

“Poetic Justice – When Art is Everything,” a world premiere written by Lynne Kaufman, is produced by The Marsh and appears on their stage at 1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA through January 29, 2023.