Regional Reviews: Seattle
Timeless and Timely The Children's Hour and
Also see David's reviews of Snapshots and American Idiot
Known to most from a rather static and soft-pedaling 1962 William Wyler glossy film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, the Hellman play debuted in 1934 with its now mild but then scandalous tale of teachers Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. They run a private girls school and are caught in a spiraling web of gossip and suspicion when Mary, a spoiled brat of a wealthy local family, conspires against the pair for reprimanding her bullying of fellow students and flagrant lying. Mary's altogether too coddling grandmother Amelia even finds the story hard to swallow, the rumor of a supposed lesbian relationship between the teachers, until classmate Rosalie, blackmailed into it by Mary, corroborates her lie. Mary's older physician cousin Joe, Karen's fiancé, stands by the pair but he begins to wonder whether there actually might be a germ of truth in the accusation, and Martha's wacky, self-obsessed aunt Lily refuses to return to town to testify when they sue Mary's family. Their school in ruin, their own relationship, and an open admission of latent homosexuality from Martha to Karen leads to an ironic and still devastating denouement. Despite Hellman's own revision/update to the tale in the 1950s, and a fairly arbitrary resetting of the timeline to an early '80s Seattle, the best reason to attend the Intiman production is several fine performances.
Director Sheila Daniels has trouble setting a balanced tone for the early girls school scenes (think "The Facts of Life Meets the Bad Seed") vs. what comes later, and though a conscious effort to cast roles against type seems to have been an agenda, I was impressed by both lead actresses work. Tiffany Yvonne Cox is an admirably less fragile and stiff upper lipped Karen, imbuing the character with a tougher veneer and a steely sense of an inner strength that will get her through the unspeakably hard times she is facing. As Martha, Hannah Mootz doesn't play a victim; she is softer around the edges, and less an obvious "butchie" stereotype, and together the duo make a plausible pair of college friends whose friendship and shared vision of life beyond university years does indeed mask deeper issues.
In a welcome return to Seattle stages after what seemed like forever, Suzanne Bouchard steals the show as a perfect Bellevue matron reinvention of the grandmother Amelia character as someone who probably thought of herself as a liberal until she got caught up in the venal lie spread by her granddaughter, and then tries desperately to make amends so she can live with her actions. And as the upright if ultimately weak Dr. Joe Carden, Michael Place looks like that dream catch every woman was supposed to want, with a then liberal attitude to boot, and Place never hits a false note playing a man who can't live up to his own supposed convictions or have real trust in the word of a loved one.
Julia Prud'homme as the outlandish, faded actress Aunt Lily gives a performance more suited to a dark farce on the order of Oh Dad, Poor Dad ..., making it look like she did Martha and Karen a favor by not returning from a shoddy road company to testify for them. Luckily, Jasmine Jean Sim's Mary has some shading, and even elicits specks of sympathy for this girl whose early loss of her beloved father turned her into the little monster behind the chaos in this tale. Meme Garcia is ideal as the seemingly tough but easily cowed blackmailed classmate Rosalie, and Betsy Schwartz is wry and subtle as Amelia's housekeeper Agatha, who is wise to Mary's abominable behavior, but keeps a lid on it to keep her job security.
Jennifer Zeyl's scenic design is a functional and versatile interior of a classroom in Martha and Karen's house, alternating with the swankier surroundings at Amelia's apparently waterside estate. Robert J. Aguilar's lighting design doesn't offer much of a challenge but suits its purpose, and Melanie Taylor Burgess' costumes are handsome and era specific, including the girls' starchy uniforms.
A worthy early 20th century play worth seeing, and a production whose whole is less than the sum of its parts, I give a GTG (Good Thing Going Thing Going +/ 3. 5 star) rating.
John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter is suggested by an actual event, namely a 2008 gay softball controversy in which a San Francisco team came to Seattle for the World Series with an ace in the hole, a former pro baseball player on its roster. This set off an ugly battle about sexual identity, ethics, and privacy. The play's protagonist Lyle is a Seattle softball player (Adam Standley) who has a kind of Don Quixote syndrome, wanting to right all the gay wrongs that have been done, in an outspoken, abrasive and maybe not so right way (many of his windmills seem to have all ready been knocked down). He seems mellower when he is on the softball field with his pastime cronies than in a largely hetero office job, or sparring with his basically supportive sister and brother-in-law. His teammates include Franklin, the team's father figure (Charles Leggett), who is as likely to lead the group in a hilarious, cornily choreographed and slightly off-key rendition of that Broadway show-queen classic "Together Wherever We Go" as he is to to rouse the team to an actual victory; Moises Castro as the saucy, sassy Hispanic player Tyler Terise as Sam, a sulky performance artist type; and Meme Garcia as the Seattle team mascot.
Baxter (Riley Shanahan), who is engaged to a woman, becomes a prized member of the gay San Francisco softball crew which is down some players. John is recruited at the last minute, before the championships, and becomes the spark for a lot of distrust when his actual sexual identity is made public. In this play all the softball team interaction, staging, camaraderie, and conflict is what works. The office dynamics, sparse scenes with John's fiancée and Lyle's family dramas are weak by comparison. The office scenes seem expendable, the scenes with the fiancée too thin and not fleshed out enough, and the family stuff could get there, but isn't yet.
Standley is an always compelling, warmly likable actor and a key player in the last few Intiman Theatre Festival seasons of productions. Whatever weaknesses in the role of Lyle as written, the actor glosses over them. Leggett kinda steals the show with his nuanced, sympathetic, at ease with himself gay man who fought his fights and dished his queeny dish, back in the early post-Stonewall and AIDS crisis days. This role is even more a showcase for this veteran Seattle actor than was his admirable Roy Cohn in Intiman's Angels in America a summer ago. Riley Shanahan in the title role is pre-requisitely handsome, affable, and sphinx like. It isn't really important whether John Baxter is gay, but if he is, which is left to debate, or isn't, he didn't need to lie to stay on the team, and that is confusing. Castro as Alex is like a jolt of electricity when center stage, Terise is enjoyably defiant as Sam, and Garcia does much with facial expressions and reactions despite a small amount of dialogue. I also admired Bradford Farwell as Lyle's ambivalent yet open-minded brother-in-law Bret, and Betsy Schwartz as Lyle's please everybody all the time sister Charley, as well as Isaiah Johnson's sincere portrait of the balanced and honorable San Francisco player Mike. The rest of the cast give solid ensemble performances throughout.
The playwrights have enough of a good thing going that, with a cast and solid production values as seen in this version of John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter in a future incarnation, another time up at bat with a solid rewrite of problem spots will give their play a shot at a home run. Me? I rate this rendition with a GTG/3 stars.
The Children's Hour and John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter run in Rep through September 27, 2015, at Cornish Playhouse, Seattle Center. Tickets start at $20. (206-315-5838 or intiman.org).- David Edward Hughes