Jere Luisi (center) as Louis Moreau Gottschalk, with (clockwise from lower left) Ashley Pike, Gordon Giles, Jacquelyn Cody, Joe Schwartz and Lucy Payjack, in The Man With the Ladylike Hands. Their performances can't overcome a sense of something missing.
courtesy of On the Spot Theater

Two Little, Two Late

I expected to be wowed by Michael Grady's new play, one of two programs by local playwrights to première here this week. I've never seen a Grady play that I didn't enjoy, and The Arizona Project -- which winds up Actors Theatre of Phoenix's 15th season -- is one I've been looking forward to all year. But I left the theater still wanting to like what I'd just seen, because this smartly acted and attractively staged story never really caught fire for me.

Grady arranges his characters' Act One catastrophes and Act Two resolutions adequately, and nearly every line of dialogue is infused with vividly observed details. But some of the narrative variations are mechanical -- most notably a talking cactus and an old-time prospector who may or may not be a mirage -- and others too mundane for the fellow who brought us the genius of Dancers and White Picket Fence.

Grady's seriocomic story about a couple of idealistic land developers is full of funny jabs at our desert lifestyle, but the ensuing revelations aren't terribly revealing. We already know that elected officials can be crooked, that commerce can triumph over ideals. I wanted to spend more time with Grady's young lovers, but kept getting yanked into witty discussions about land deals and oily developers.


The Arizona Project continues through Sunday, May 28, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

The Man With the Ladylike Hands continues through Saturday, June 3, at On the Spot Theater, 4700 North Central.

Director Matthew Wiener whittles this densely packed work into a well-paced showcase for an impressive cast of local stars. Michelle Gardner turns in two distinct and well-defined performances, and Nicolas Glaeser, Richard Trujillo and Jon Gentry each present expert variations on the roles that have become their stocks in trade. Comic actor Bob Sorenson breaks out in a serious role as a naive developer. Melinda Thomas commences at a crawl but is transformed by play's end into the story's most interesting character.

Jeff Thomson's superb scenic design evokes both a lush desert landscape and the ugly commerce that mars it, and Paul A. Black's skillful lighting stirs up sunsets and noonday glare with great style. All this talent should result in a memorable night of theater, but I was left hoping that our premier playwright is planning to rework this near-miss narrative before showing it to us again.

Despite a creaky ending, Nick Newberry's new play, now onstage at tiny On the Spot Theater, fares better. His The Man With the Ladylike Hands concerns pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a 19th-century roué whom Newberry is calling "America's first pop star." Gottschalk's other distinction, apparently, was a capacity to captivate most everyone he met. On this day, those people are Mrs. Norman Sutton (Jacqueline Cody), a widow taking the body of her war hero husband home to be buried; Maxwell Stout (Gordon Giles), a geezer whose prepubescent granddaughter idolizes Gottschalk; Fred Brechenbald (Joe Schwartz), a music critic who panned the pianist's last performance; and Marie Veritas (Lucy Payjack), a singer in love with Gottschalk.

We're trapped with these folks in the baggage car of a train bound for Gottschalk's next gig. The assembled crowd dashes on and off stage, engaging in Newberry's florid, often inventive dialogue.

The men come off better than the women here, although Payjack's performance is peculiarly captivating. Giles is spectacular as the drunken codger, and Jere Luisi's Gottschalk and Schwartz's Brechenbald are both memorably idiosyncratic.

But the actors, regardless of the quality of their performances and the clever bits of business handed to them by director Raymond Shurtz, eventually run out of things to do. Newberry wraps up with baffling boxes of light that derail the logical and frequently charming story he's begun to tell. As with Michael Grady's newest play, I left feeling vaguely shortchanged and wanting more.


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