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Listening to the intermission chatter at Wintertime, the Round House Theatre’s romp about the nature of love, I heard animated deconstructions of the production’s acrobatic chair-smashing, heroic goblet-shattering, epic door-slamming, and enthusiastic fit-throwing. Patrons were also waxing giddy over the fetish corsets, the pair of drownings, the Astaire-Rogers-style hoofing, the deliveryman who knows his Greek theater, and the French guy who delivers an oration on relationship-building while bumping and grinding in black stockings, a black lace teddy, and pasties.
“And you haven’t” said a well-dressed woman-in-the-know, “seen the butt dance yet.” And indeed we hadn’t, because that’s in the second act, after some serious garment-rending has reduced the cast’s wardrobe to shreds.
It’s not every day a suburban theater audience gets mooned by an entire cast—en masse, at length, and repeatedly—in the name of love. But then, it’s not every day that a Charles L. Mee play is brought to town. Mee writes erudite comedies that are as pointedly unconventional as they are theatrical. His Big Love, produced about a year ago at Woolly Mammoth, was a raucous contemporary farce based on classic Greek models. It featured startling nudity and all manner of peculiar plot devices. Wintertime, as mounted by Lou Jacob at Round House (the play will open off Broadway soon, at New York’s Second Stage), is considerably stranger.
James Kronzer’s set is a white-on-white wall-less living room in a snowy birch forest—hardly naturalistic, but reasonably conventional once you get past the snow-covered floorboards. A young man has brought his girlfriend here to propose—it’s his family’s country house—but his plans are disrupted when his mother walks in with her French lover. Then his father walks in with his male lover. Then a lesbian neighbor walks in with the news that her lover has just fallen into the icy pond nearby and drowned. Then the lover walks in sopping wet.
All of this is more than mildly over-the-top, obviously, but Mee isn’t exploiting it for sex-farce possibilities. Well, actually he is, but not exclusively. What he’s really doing is exploring the heady waves of jealousy and suspicion (“like a rising tide that could swamp all boats”) that sometimes make the lovesick feel as if they’re drowning. Swept up in the tide, everyone on stage engages in behavior that’s outsized and overheated. When the son (Eric Sutton) gets upset, he doesn’t just shout—he bellows like a gored ox for minutes on end while wrestling a chair into so many pieces that its only conceivable subsequent use is as kindling. His girlfriend’s response (“I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last dildo on earth”) is positively mild by comparison.
Later, when every stage couple has reached the breaking point and it’s time for someone to stomp out, slamming a door furiously, there’s no door to slam. (No walls, remember?) So Dad’s lover (Timmy Ray James) pries up a couple of floorboards, and a scarlet portal rises as an aria fills the auditorium, after which there’s an orgy of slamming—60 or 70 amplified crashes altogether, every one character-specific and entirely understandable.
A spurned libertine (Jerry Whiddon) writes down happy memories of his beloved on pieces of paper, then sets them on fire. A lesbian couple pick at each other (“Bertha, you were born grouchy, you live in a snit, and you’ll die in a huff”), and a delivery guy shows up prepared to pontificate on how love is the driving force in Greek tragedy. We’re not talking theatrical restraint, clearly, but you may find yourself wondering whether extravagance for its own sake is really as rewarding as the author and director seem to think it is.
Wintertime is to some extent a reworking of the elements in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, though it’s a less direct reworking than the one Craig Wright has crafted across town at the Folger Theatre in Melissa Arctic. Both plays deal with jealousy run rampant, and both eschew naturalism in bringing their characters to a happier place than they have any right to expect. The things Mee has to say aren’t always so unconventional, but they’re often arrestingly phrased. One Wintertime character notes that it’s always said that people “‘fall’ in love, never that they ‘step’ in love,” as if even language is conspiring to make love an accident rather than a conscious choice. That’s an interesting, if minor, observation. Whether it’s enhanced or drowned out by the shattering of crystal and the slamming of doors you’ll have to decide for yourself.
It would be hard to overstate the banality of the script James Still has cobbled together for Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, a solo show that tells the story of the first African-American chief butler at the White House. Alonzo Fields, a would-be opera singer and erstwhile Negro League pitcher, spent 21 years at the presidential mansion, serving four presidents during a depression, a world war, and the dawn of the atomic age. But if the man holding the president’s chair had an original thought while standing attentively behind Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, the playwright doesn’t let actor Wendell Wright utter it.
Instead, Still’s script kills time with anecdotes about dinner-party protocol and kitchen-staff scheduling. We learn that Roosevelt liked pigs’ feet, that Truman was as insistent on integration in his staff as in the military, and that the Hoovers always ate a seven-course dinner. But there’s nary a mention of Hiroshima (maybe it never came up at the dinner table), and a two-decade parade of celebrities prompts observations so colorless (“Errol Flynn was a big showoff,” “Churchill had a dynamic personality….He also had an appetite”) that it’s a wonder Wright can bring himself to say them out loud. Franklin Roosevelt dies, Eleanor mourns, and the chief butler offers the thought that “at that moment, she wasn’t the first lady—she was a woman who’d just lost her husband.” For this we need a behind-the-scenes insider?
Wright purrs and bellows, scowls and does presidential impressions, and manages on occasion to lend a bit of gravitas to the author’s pronouncements on racial inequality. But the actor’s bag of tricks, while impressive, is not bottomless, and he’s actively sabotaged by some of Still’s directorial notions, which are mostly as pedestrian as his writing. After insisting all evening that Fields could have pursued an operatic career, for instance, the writer/ director has the character sing his way offstage with “Ave Maria.” It’s a big finish that gets very small very fast, because Wright has a thin voice and an uncertain sense of pitch. The fact that there must be a dozen simple finesses—put on a recording and have Wright stand there listening, drown the actor out with a chorus before he has to hit the big notes—makes the failure to rescue him seem almost cruel. CP