Updated: Another show added (R&G Are Dead) and some actors I forgot including Peter Haig, Missy McArdle, Julie Kleiner, John Manzelli, Michael Scott Ross and Michael Ursua
By Bill Hirschman
In looking over my huge collection of play scripts the other day, looking for Oleanna, I kept coming across titles of shows I either have seen and am anxious to see undertaken by a local company, or titles I’ve read but never seen – and really want to.
There’s no guarantee that these would play as well as I remember or as well as they read. Some you’ve heard of; some you might not know. But when I hit the lottery, the Florida Theater On Stage Players will undertake them all. We already daydream about some local professionals we’d cast. Or maybe some of you artistic directors might be interested. Add your ideas in the comments section.
They fall into several categories, plus one last one listing warhorses produced so often here that while I like them, even love some of them, I’d be willing to put them on waivers for at least another decade.
Top of the list
Cyrano de Bergerac – I adore Edmond Rostand’s unabashed passion and lush language even when translated – featuring a pure-hearted virtuous dreamer who feels that he is an outsider who cannot hope to be truly loved no matter the acclaim for his accomplishments. I’ve seen a wonderful television recording of ACT’s 1974 production with Peter Donat and Marsha Mason, plus the lush film with Gerard Depardieu, the disappointing Kevin Kline stage version recorded for public television, a better one filmed for the BBC with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack that played the West End and Broadway, the classic Jose Ferrer film, and I so wish I could see any version with Christopher Plummer. But I’ve never seen it live. It’s rarely done in regional theater due to the need for five large sets and a cast size akin to the population of Hialeah. If you do it, please, please don’t fall back on the popular Anthony Burgess version. Use the Brian Hooker’s 1923 translation whose balcony scene, for my money, is the most heartfelt romantic scene written in English (or French). I’m a major booster of hiring locally, but you may have to go out of town to find just the right actor who can handle verse and a rapier with equal dexterity. Maybe Seth Trucks or Nicholas Richberg as the hero and Anne Chamberlain or Lindsey Corey as Roxanne.
Inherit The Wind – My favorite play during most of my life. Could anything be more topical and relevant in these political times of deep division, intolerance, anti-scientific prejudices and the like? While it plays into a liberal, humanist agenda, Lawrence and Lee’s script is amazingly sensitive to the sincerity of its chief foe. Finding the right point on that spectrum is dauntingly difficult for any director and some have failed. Crucially, it requires two actors of gigantic talent in deceptively difficult roles that have defeated so many major names (George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, Kirk Douglas among them) other than the original with Paul Muni and Ed Begley, and the legendary movie with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. And, of course, it requires also a large cast to play the denizens of Heavenly Hillsboro.
The Front Page – If directed at the crucial correct pace, this breezy celebration of cynicism is difficult to mess up. And yes, it too requires a platoon of seasoned character actors like Peter Haig, Michael Small, Noah Levine, Troy Stanley, Dave Corey and John Felix, but that would give the local acting corps nearly two dozen choice roles. The fun would be casting Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson. Perhaps Clay Cartland if you wait a few years or Paul Tei or Jim Gibbons as Walter, and Cartland or Mark Della Ventura or Mike Westrich as Hildy. Or… or… or… We could go on all night.
Pygmalion – Other than Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Candida, what was the last Shaw play anyone mounted professionally down here? But he remains one of the most witty and observant social commentators of all time in any of his works, from Major Barbara to Caesar and Cleopatra, even the more serious Saint Joan. But Pygmalion’s skewering of the social caste system based on inherited income rather than merit is an easy sell simply by promoting it as the basis for My Fair Lady. So many actresses would be right: Anna Lise Jensen, Leah Sessa, Mallory Newbrough, Chamberlain or a dozen others. Among the folks I’d audition for Higgins: Tom Wahl or Jim Ballard, and for Pickering: John Felix; and Angie Radosh or Harriet Oser or Missy McArdle as Mrs. Higgins.
Seen Before, Of Course, But Not Locally
A View From The Bridge – I missed the recent bare bones revival in NYC, but I did see a stunning edition in 1997 starring Anthony LaPaglia and a barely known Allison Janney. Arthur Miller wrote a tale of an extended family of blue collar Americans in Brooklyn alongside recent immigrants circa 1955 in what is the equal of any Greek tragedy. A recognizable middle-aged happily married everyman falls in obsessive lust for his niece. Although a major work, it seems rarely done in regional theater. Great parts for actors in late middle-age: John A. Dalton, Gregg Weiner, Jim Ballard. Maybe as the wife, Patti Gardner, Karen Stephens, Jeni Hacker or Marjory Lowe. Matt Stabile could be the new immigrant, and Diana Garle or Kimmi Johnson could be the innocent beauty who sets the protagonist aflame.
Death of a Salesman – Speaking of Miller…. This may be revived every five years in New York, but I cannot remember the last time it was done in South Florida during the past quarter-century. If you’re worried about casting, Avi Hoffman portrayed Willy Loman last season in Yiddish in New York. Margot Moreland could ensure that attention must be paid.
The Iceman Cometh – Maybe I don’t want someone to do this. I will treasure forever the memory of the 2012 Goodman Theatre production in Chicago with Nathan Lane giving the performance of his career, no exceptions. And of course, it’s longer than a high funeral mass and twice as depressing, so word of mouth works against it and it requires a large cast of insanely talented actors who can make an entire bar of characters individually memorable with little dialogue to establish their personas. I’ve no idea who to cast as Hickey. Any ideas?
Jerusalem – The Broadway production of Jez Butterworth’s masterpiece with Mark Rylance was unforgettable. The script, although deeply rooted in the British proletarian culture, speaks to anyone open to its elegiac themes of a declining empire. Another large cast, but of course, you need a local Mark Rylance.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — Witty, insightful and ultimately moving about fate, art versus reality and a half-dozen other themes wrapped in the off-stage lives of Hamlet’s traitorous schoolchums. How about John Manzelli and Michael Scott Ross?
Overdue For A Return
The Elephant Man – The late lamented Mosaic Theatre in Plantation mounted this in 2005, propelled by Antonio Amadeo in the titular role. It’s a natural for a Florida theater: A well written script that touches the heart and head, and can be produced with imaginative theatricality standing in for scenic demands. And it provides the opportunity for bravura acting and directing. Casting? So many well-qualified contenders. Say, Clay Cartland or Aygemang Clay or Elijah Word?
Streamers – The Public Theatre of South Florida did a decent job with David Rabe’s excoriating 1976 anti-war play about a barracks filled with young recruits about to be shipped to Vietnam. But that was 13 years ago and we keep getting involved in war after war.
Shows I’ve Only Read And Never Seen
JB – This 1958 verse play (okay, don’t count it out yet) is Archibald MacLeish’s 20th century reworking of The Book of Job (don’t count it out yet) that incisively questions the company line on Faith. It posits two former actors reduced to selling popcorn in a dilapidated circus tent who take on the parts of God and the Devil wearing theatrical masks to magically create a living drama. The cynical Devil goads a pompous God into proving his assertion that Man is infinitely faithful by testing JB, a 20th Century prosperous businessman with a loving family, mirroring your neighbor or yourself. MacLeish asks why God, who takes all of it from JB, allows bad things to happen to good people, and how Man can cope with that eternal query with no reasonable black and white answer. Far from being stuffy, it is a bracingly questioning work whose central dilemma has only become more relevant with time. Accounts of its Broadway run with an imperious Raymond Massey (Basil Rathbone above) and a sardonic Christopher Plummer were ecstatic. It’s the kind of work one theater likes to classify as “theater worth thinking about.” We could see Peter Galman and Todd Allen Durkin facing off in this one.
Hapgood – A Tom Stoppard play most people have never heard of (so it would be a hard sell in a season brochure) that is amalgam of a door-slamming farce, a spy thriller, and a critique of the weakness of human perception — made analogous to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the idea that light can be viewed as a wave and a particle at the same time. My brother saw it in London with Roger Rees and loved its humor and intelligence wrapped in one package.
Wings — Arthur Kopit’s rarely revived piece from 1978 about a once-famous aviatrix/wing-walker, now in her early 70s, struck down by a serious stroke. Unable to communicate with the staff in a nursing home, her struggles are depicted both as gibberish as perceived from the outside by the staff, but primarily charted in incisively coherent monologues delivered from the inside of the mind of the heroine. She utters verbal arias filled with frustration, anger, fear and regret. Yet the play heads toward a transcendent finale as she fights the disorientation of flooding memories and physical limitations. Samuel French calls it “an evocative portrait of the ability of the human spirit to renew and survive.” It’s a choice opportunity for an actress (playing older than their real age just as actors do for King Lear), anyone from Beth Dimon to Barbara Bradshaw to Radosh.
Royal Hunt of the Sun – Peter Shaffer’s masterpieces are Amadeus and Equus, but this earlier work from 1964 is intriguing on paper (There was a little seen film). It charts Pizarro’s imperialist invasion and conquest of the advanced civilization of the Incas, depicting a fatal and tragic culture clash. The original starred Christopher Plummer and, believe it or not, David Carradine as the Incan king. Like other Shaffer plays, requires a decent-sized cast, but also imaginative scenic, lighting and sound designers to create the fluid, almost surreal parade of locations.
Grand Hotel – How is it possible that no local theater has mounted this 1989 musical version of the classic play and film about an array of disparate disconnected people passing through the lobby of a upscale German hotel circa 1929 – and how their lives briefly intersect for good and ill. A fine score, a raft of character parts, and as Tommy Tune proved, the ultimate exercise in choreographic staging. Casting off the top of my head: Michael McKeever as the terminally ill bookkeeper, Sessa or Emily Tarallo as the ambitious secretary, Mia Matthews as the elegant diva, Gregg Weiner or Michael Ursua as the businessman, Richberg as dashing destitute baron, and Julie Kleiner in any role she wants.
The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window – This last play during Lorraine Hansberry’s lifetime focused on Bohemian progressives fighting the corrupt establishment in the 1960s and its cost to relationships. It was never a hit in New York in 1964 although a grassroots campaign among theater lovers and pros kept it running longer than expected. It’s rarely done, possibly because no one knows if it’s a worthy work and whether it will feel like a period piece. But there was a successful production in the playwright’s home town of Chicago in 2016 and I’d really like to know if it works. Besides, it has a deeply moving finale whose last major speech I have used as a funeral eulogy more than once.
Look Back In Anger – John Osborne’s original British “angry young man” play of the 1950s might seem like a museum artifact today, except that its themes are echoed by today’s disaffected disillusioned inner city youth. Maybe cast it with African-Americans or Latinos. I used a bravura scene of its raging hero for years in acting classes and some performances, so I have an affection for it.
Only Seen The Movie?
A Few Good Men – Trust me, you don’t need Jack Nicholson or Tom Cruise. Aaron Sorkin’s original 1989 play was acclaimed when it starred Tom Hulce (Pinto in Animal House and Mozart in Amadeus) and Stephen Lang (the bad guy in Avatar). So many choices but Jim Ballard might make a fine Col. Jessup.
A Soldier’s Play (The film was called A Soldier’s Story) – An absorbing and effective stage play mixing a murder mystery with racial equity issues. It provided a career-making role for Adolph Caesar as the abusive African American sergeant who angrily resents black men whom he believes are holding back the race’s fight for equality. The original cast included Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson.
The Great White Hope — Do you have to ask?
Shows I’ve Seen, But Not Since The Calvin Coolidge Administration
Rhinoceros – Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist broad satire remains an all too relevant biting indictment of human beings’ tendency to descend into conformity. The showiest, but not the central, performance of a man who turns into a rhinoceros before our eyes, was made famous by Zero Mostel off-Broadway.
The Man Who Came To Dinner – The large cast requirement has relegated this one to college and community theater, but with the casting of the right Sheridan Whiteside (which is not as easy as it seems, maybe John Felix) and a cadre of gifted character actors, this is a hilarious evening.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – Why, oh why, is this not done? Who knows? Maybe it’s not as good as its reputation. But I’d like to find out. Wouldn’t you? Maybe with Betsy Graver and Todd Allen Durkin as Maggie and Brick, with Ken Clement as Big Daddy?
Stop The World I Want To Get Off – Theaters are always asking for suggestions for a summer musical. This Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse show from 1961 has been rarely revived and not with much success because its tropes feel very much of the Eisenhower Era. Older audiences will recognize the title and, if the advertisements mention it, the 1960s standards “What Kind Of Fool Am I” and “Gonna Build A Mountain.” It has a memorable score including the soaring “Once In a Lifetime.” The script follows an Everyman (portrayed as a clown in a circus setting) from birth through adolescence through young adulthood through irresponsible mid-life crazy crisis through sobered up age. One woman plays the multiple loves and illicit affairs in his life. It requires a charismatic lead who audiences will support as a familiarly flawed protagonist even as he cheats on his wife. It also requires a director able to nail an elusive tone, otherwise audiences will leave just thinking, “Well that was a pleasant evening.” Roles for Shane and Amy Tanner?
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
Amadeus — It’s been tried twice down here at least. I’m sorry, neither reached a whiff of what I saw on Broadway at the end of the run with, believe it or not, David Birney giving a fine performance. Nicholas Richberg could do it as well as a few others. It is a brilliant play in every department with opportunities for imaginative scenic and lighting design. But if you’re an actor and you want to be terminally discouraged from pursing your profession, look at a recording of Ian McKellen’s matchless opening monologue at the New York Public Library’s Theater on Film and Tape collection at Lincoln Center.
Hedda Gabler – I’ve seen two Florida productions, both earnest and imaginative efforts. But there’s a much better one out there somewhere. Like A Doll’s House, the 21st Century public will not find the themes revolutionary, but still disturbing because the sexist paternalistic controlling paradigms still exist. So many locals could nail this. Say Niki Fridh, Karen Stephens, Jeni Hacker, Ann Marie Olson, among many others.
Other People’s Money – A scathing but surprisingly even-handed examination of the war between greed-fueled pragmatism versus the myth of the American business ethic of hard work, honest dealings and loyalty that allegedly dominated the first two-thirds of the 20th Century. Jerry Sterner’s “greed is good” script is sharp and funny. But the 2004 production by the Public Theater was phlegmatic other than the standout performance of the vibrant Jacqueline Laggy. We’d love to see her get a second chance (or a raft of other local actresses) with a better supporting cast and direction.
And how about….
Anything by Caryl Churchill or Christopher Durang?
Any of the magical works by Jean Giradoux or Jean Anouilh? It would be very difficult for a 21st Century troupe to locate that quaint Gallic tone of wry whimsy and poetic fantasy of the post-war period, but it would be exciting to see someone try The Madwoman of Chaillot, The Enchanted, The Apollo of Bellac, Time Remembered, or the more serious Electra, Becket or The Lark. Ahhh, it’ll never happen.
Holes In My Education, But Everyone Says You Should See It
Skin of Our Teeth – I can’t vouch for this, having only read it and seen part of a television version, but this is one of those legendary plays. Again, droll and considered theatrically surreal for its time, it’s a fanciful fable that starts with an average family unit facing extinction with dinosaurs as the Ice Age approaches and ends in a third act with the family striving to survive an apocalyptic world war. Supposedly, the finale is both funny and moving as Mankind survives – if only to start where it began. Although far more farcical, it shares Thornton Wilder’s world-in-a-microcosm concept of Our Town.
Aunt Dan & Lemon – I’ve not even read Wallace Shawn’s reputed masterpiece, but it has an outstanding reputation.
Shows I Like Well Enough, But Do Not Care If I See Again For Another Decade (the Give-Them-A-Rest Dept.)
Critics see a lot of the same shows year after year. And I happily could see a different vision of Hamlet every year, but…..
Any big name musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein – and I love them all when done really well or have been reimagined. But come on, there’s other deserving musicals out there. Choosing them is just running for cover.
Crimes of the Heart – Rarely done as well as it deserves. Try something else.
Steel Magnolias – A surprisingly effective script that can be pulled off by a cast and director of even middling talents, so it has become a regional theater perennial when the company needs a surefire seller. But there are other options out there to entice subscribers.
Fiddler on the Roof – Reinventions of this have not worked very well, leaving the field to the classic interpretation – which we have seen over and over and over and over and over.
Cabaret – A great musical, and we selected the adjective carefully. Yes, it has a great score and great parts. But Sally is much harder to pull off than most people think (including casting directors), although the Maltz succeeded in 2012 by hiring Kate Shindle who delivered the most thematically faithful interpretation of the title song since Jill Haworth. But seriously, rarely does a year go by that it is not seen in Florida.
La Cage aux Folles – Wonderful show on all counts, and the count is about once every 17 months.