21 September 2015

'A Casual Gathering'

Back on 30 July, my friend Helen Eleasari e-mailed me that her friend Daniel Schwartzman had a musical play scheduled in the Dream Up Festival 2015 at Theater for the New City in September.  Helen not only writes on theater and culture for the Jerusalem Post, but she directs plays in English in and around Tel Aviv, where she lives.  (I knew her as an actor here in New York City back in the late ’70s.  I directed her in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan for which she also designed the costumes.)  It's called A Casual Gathering,” she wrote me.  “He’s very chuffed about it and I told him I’d tell you.”  (‘Chuffed’ is British slang for ‘pleased.’  Helen’s a former Brit.)  She was writing to let me know about the festival production and recommending that I try to catch it.

(What I didn’t realize until a few days later—because Helen didn’t mention it—was that Casual Gathering was a play, under a different title, that Helen had staged in Tel Aviv back in 2011.  She’d written me about it at the time, when it premièred as Happy Hour: “It’s a bittersweet piece and Danny has written some lovely music for it.”  She also declared, “I like it."  When I read an on-line description of the play and its content, my memory stirred and I realized the connection between A Casual Gathering and Happy Hour and I immediately confirmed the fact with her; “Yep—that’s the one . . .,” she acknowledged.)

The Dream Up Festival performance at TNC in the East Village was the play’s American première.  Happy Hour débuted in a production directed by Helen Eleasari for the Tel Aviv Community Theatre (TACT) at Beit Yad Labanim in November and December 2011.  Schwartzman, who seems to have written the play around 2003, when it’s set, was a member of TACT at the time and eight of his plays had been performed there before Happy Hour.  Helen’s production, she told me, was an effort to revive TACT, which had stopped producing some time before, and the new troupe was presenting a series of one-act plays and short musicals.  TNC’s Casual Gathering was Schwartzman’s first musical to be performed in New York City (which may be why he was so “chuffed”). 

A Casual Gathering at TNC, staged in the small, 91-seat Community Space Theater (which was renovated in 2001), was part of Dream Up Festival 2015.  The book, music, and lyrics are all by Schwartzman and the production was directed and choreographed by James Martinelli with music direction by Erica Kaplan.  The set and costumes were designed by Martinelli and the lighting by Alan Sporing and Marialana Ardolino, the stage manager.  Casual Gathering, a 75-minute musical, ran from 12 to 20 September, and my friends Diana and Kirk and I saw the 9 p.m. performance on Wednesday, 16 September. 

A Casual Gathering depicts a February 2003 reunion in an East Village bar of six high school friends, all 1972 graduates of New York City’s High School of Music & Art who have not seen each other for 30 years (“High School Friends”).  After the initial joy at seeing each other again, the realities of their lives and what they have failed to achieve (“Life Happens”)—none of the budding musicians, singers, or poets has a life in his or her chosen field—come to the surface as a blizzard starts up outside (“Back Into the Cold”).  Though the two non-Music & Art spouses, feeling like outsiders, feel uncomfortable (and leave early), the classmates feel the warmth, despite the snow, of renewed friendships, rekindled love (“We Had Something”), and nostalgic looks backward to the best time of their lives.  That long-ago graduation ceremony, as the reuniters sing in the opening number, “Graduation Day” (reprised later in the show), promised adventure, success, happiness, and a life of art and fulfillment, a golden future which none of the grads experienced, but the promise remains wonderful.  Even the promises of the reunion—a romance reignited, another one newly discovered, lapsed friendships reborn—aren’t as sweet as they first seem—but the aging grads still take away into the showy night a feeling of renewal.  

The story is based on an actual event in playwright Schwartzman’s life (he is himself an alumnus of Music & Art), and while he was there, he wondered, “What if I was able to put this onstage?”  (“With some imagination added of course,” he continued.)  In Helen Eleasari’s words, the old grads, edging onto 50 now (“Don’t Want To Be Fifty”), are all living “very different lives from the ones they’d envisaged” on that far-away graduation day.  She explained that “none of [them] have realized their dreams.”  She concluded, “You might say that during the course of the reunion the protagonists finally grow up.” 

(New York’s High School of Music & Art, founded in 1936 by order of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, was located on Convent Avenue and 135th Street in Harlem.  It operated there as a public school where New York City students could develop talents in music, art, and the performing arts.  In 1948, a companion institution, the High School of Performing Arts—the school where Fame, both the 1980 film and TV series, 1982-1987, was set—was founded on West 46th Street near the Theatre District.  In 1984, the two schools were combined into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, situated on Amsterdam Avenue just behind Lincoln Center.  Many prominent actors, directors, dancers, singers, and musicians have graduated from the two schools and the combined facility.) 

Daniel Schwartzman, who turns 61 on 30 September, is a native New Yorker, a graduate of Music & Art and the Conservatory of Music at SUNY’s Purchase College in Westchester County.  He “made aliyah” to Israel in 1978 to join  the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and moved to Tel Aviv in 1980, where he received a Master of Arts degree in composing and conducting from Tel Aviv University.  He’s been directing Hebrew translations of Broadway shows throughout Israel; his 2014 musical direction and orchestra conducting of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The Sound of Music at the Israel Opera House was well received and he’s now working on the Israeli production of The King and I, also as music director and conductor in the pit.  He acknowledges that his musical models are Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. 

Director James Martinelli, also a native New Yorker, is the recipient of the Yvonne Fanter Award.  He started out as a dancer and currently works as a director/choreographer.  Martinelli’s work will be seen in the 2015-16 season at the Heights Players, Brooklyn, as director of Mame by Jerome Lawrence, Robert Edwin Lee, and Jerry Herman, and Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women.  

Theater for the New City, founded in 1971 by actor and dancer Crystal Field and actor George Bartenieff with directors Theo Barnes and Lawrence Kornfeld, is one of New York City’s leading Off-Off-Broadway theaters.  The four theater artists had met at the Judson Poets Theatre, one of the original venues of the infant Off-Off-Broadway theater in the late 1950s and early 1960s where Kornfeld had been resident director.  Feeling that they’d gone with Judson Poets as far as they could, the TNC founders decided to form a theater of their own for poetic work that would also encompass a community outreach. They named their new company Theater for the New City after a speech in which then-Mayor John V. Lindsay envisioned a “new city” for all New Yorkers. 

TNC, officially opened in March 1971, made its first home in the Westbeth Artists Community in Greenwich Village.  Becoming known for radical political plays and community commitment; the company presented political plays, experimental poetic works, dance theater, and musical theater.  The new company’s earliest productions included work by Richard Foreman, Charles Ludlam, Miguel Piñero, and Jean-Claude van Itallie.  With puppeteer Ralph Lee, TNC initiated the Village Halloween Parade in 1974, but in 1976 Lee spun the Halloween Parade off as an independent event and TNC launched its Village Halloween Costume Ball, which it still holds. 

Productions, at TNC, which have included the American premières of Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine (1984) and Buried Child (1978) by Sam Shepard, have won 43 Obie Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  TNC currently exists as a four-theater complex in the 30,000-square-foot former First Avenue Retail Market located at 155 1st Avenue, in Manhattan’s East Village.  In the first year, Kornfeld and Barnes resigned and TNC moved from Westbeth to the Jane West, a transient hotel on Jane Street in the far west Village.  In 1977, the company moved again, this time to the East Village, converting the former Tabernacle Baptist Church at 156 2nd Avenue.  When rent increases forced TNC to move again, the company bought the underused market building between 9th and 10th Streets on 1st Avenue, their present home.  In 1992, Bartenieff resigned as executive director of TNC, leaving Field the artistic director. 

TNC runs several programs under which it produces scores of plays, mostly new, and community-oriented programs such as Arts in Education and the Community Festival Program, which consists of two free annual events, the Village Halloween Costume Ball and the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts.  TNC maintains the reputation as the least expensive Off-Off-Broadway theater of its caliber and many of its programs are free.  Its four theaters are: the Seward and Joyce Johnson Theater, the oldest performance space in the building (finished in 1991) which can be used as a 99-seat Off-Off-Broadway theater or a 240-seat Off-Broadway house, named for a major donor and scion of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical family; the Cino Theater, named after Off-Off-Broadway theater legend Joe Cino (see my post “Greenwich Village Theater in the 1960s,” 12 and 15 December 2011), a 74-seat adjustable space; the Cabaret Theater, TNC’s smallest space at 65 seats, is used most frequently for one-person plays, late-night cabarets, performance artists, and musicians; and the Community Space Theater.  In addition, TNC’s lobby houses the Theater for the New City Art Gallery and a small concession stand that’s open during performances.  (The basement of TNC’s home holds its huge collection of props, set pieces, and costumes.)

The Dream Up Festival is an annual event that’s been presented since 2010. This year’s festival, the sixth, ran from 30 August to 20 September and was staged in two venues: TNC and the Producer’s Club on West 44th Street in the Theatre District.  The festival presented 27 shows of nearly every description, most of them world and U.S. premières.  The motto of the festival is “Dream Up: Invent, Concoct.”  Dedicated to new works, the festival “does not want traditional theater which is presented in a traditional way,” according to its own statement.  The Dream Up Festival is comprised of performing artists from theater and performance companies in downtown New York, the country at large, and around the world, presenting wide-ranging and original theatrical works from the realms of drama, poetry, music, and dance—and combinations of several forms.  TNC sticks with its commitment to affordable tickets for the festival, whose prices range from $12 to $20 a seat for the participating productions.  Most shows are performed at least five times, though many run more, including untraditional times of day. 

My two friends and I were disappointed, especially after Helen’s warm characterizations of Happy Hour.  (There were also some nice descriptions of the TACT production on Israeli websites and blogs.)  I read that Schwartzman (whom I met briefly just before the show) had revised some of the play since 2011—for instance, he apparently changed the school to which his reuniters had gone to Music & Art from Performing Arts, perhaps because, as Helen reported four years ago, the play’s “sort of autobiographical—although the playwright/composer won’t admit it”—but I don’t know how much.  What was the most damaging in the performance we saw, however, wasn’t the script, it was the cast.  They were barely above amateur level, both in singing and acting.  A non-union showcase, it sounded like a college or even high school company.  Just to rub salt in the wound, the cast couldn’t project lyrics over the piano, which was right down front.  I lost a good many of the words to the songs even though the space wasn’t large or cavernous; the acoustics weren’t very good anyway.  I don’t know if the pianist (musical director Erica Kaplan) played loudly or not, but the company needed to make some accommodation for the weak voices one way or another.  

I don’t feel that a run-down of the performances is of any value, so I’m not going to belabor the point.  I will, however, list the cast:  Kevin Paul Bain (Robert, the outsider husband of Andrea), Meg Dooley (Helena, the would-be singer and the alumni pres), Terry Ellison (Pete, the bartender), Wendy Lazarus (Sue, a grade-school music teacher), Betsy Marra (Celia, the poet who now teaches English lit), Valerie O’Hara (Lindsay, the outsider wife of Will), Raffael Pacetti (Vinny, the failed trumpeter), Juan Luis Sanchez (Young Vinny, Young Will), Devra Seidel (Young Andrea), Angela Shultz (Andrea, the cellist who wasn’t), and Kerry Wolf (Will, the wannabe singer). 

I also wasn’t impressed with James Martinelli’s directing—certainly not his casting (although I do know the hardships of casting middle-aged non-Equity actors)—if for no other reason than that he couldn’t coach his singers to project over the music.  None of the cast was particularly convincing in their roles, which is also a directorial function, so on the whole, I’d have to say Martinelli’s major accomplishment was to prevent the actors from bumping into each other or the set.  His choreography, though that’s supposed to be his specialty (he teaches dance, after all), was of the same caliber.  Lighting designer Alan Sporing and the uncredited designers of the set and costumes essentially kept the Community Space from going dark, the characters from having no place to sit in the bar setting, and the actors from going naked.  (I’m sure, from my own experience in Off-Off-Broadway, that the actors supplied their own costumes and that the lights and set pieces were all pulled from TNC’s basement storage area.)

I can’t be sure that the deficiencies of the production of Casual Gathering my friends and I saw at TNC were due entirely to the performances and the staging.  Many descriptions of the play say it’s “a warm romantic comedy,” “bittersweet,” and “playful and poignant,” that it has “real charm,” all with overtones of sweetness, misty nostalgia, and truth.  It was all missing from the production I saw.  Perhaps it was all wiped out by the acting and directing, but that’s a tad heavy to lay on one element of the performance.  Granted, the actors weren’t convincing—or even truthful—in their characterizations, but what were they working with?  First, Casual Gathering is awfully contrived: of the six alums, no two have been in contact for most of the ensuing 30 years; not one became a musician, singer, or writer; both of the two outsider spouses are controlling pills and are mismatched with their Music & Art wife or husband; and there are no enemies or even antagonists, no jealousies or resentments among the six classmates (in a school full of nascent artists?  Really?)  No school group is that harmonious or homogeneous!  Either Schwartzman has cleaned up his memories a lot or he seriously cherry-picked his character models.  The snowstorm is a bit convenient, too, particularly since it has so little impact on the play’s content—a few lines and an excuse to bring the reunion to an end.

Schwartzman’s music has been called Sondheim-esque both in the promotions and spectator descriptions, and I admit that “High School Friends” did make me flash on “Married People” from Company, but Schwartzman isn’t remotely as good as Sondheim, however much he wants to emulate the great theater composer.  To start with, neither his music nor his lyrics are anywhere near as clever or surprising and he doesn’t have Sondheim’s range and variety.  At best, Schwartzman’s Sondheim (ultra) lite.

Unsurprisingly, at the time I’m writing this report there have been no reviews of Casual Gathering (or the Dream Up Festival), either in the papers or on line.  Off-Off-Broadway, especially short-run festival performances, often don’t get press coverage.  (There are some exceptions: the Summer Shorts one-acts some of which I saw last July and reported about on 12 August, was reviewed in omnibus notices and the annual New York International Fringe Festival is usually covered as well.)  That obviates my customary review round-up, of course.

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