September 22 at the Whitney Arts Center, 591 Whitney Avenue,
New Haven. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
and Sunday at 3 p.m. (203) 676-9685, email@example.com
Steve Bellwood. Directed by James Leaf. Produced and Assistant
Directed by David Pilot. Co-Produced by Leaf, Bellwood,
Margaret Carl and Annia Bu. Stage Manager: Beatrix Roeller.
Costume Designer and Assistant Stage Manager: Lisette Lux.
been a great admirer of the plays and monologues of Steve
Bellwood for over 20 years now. I think Ive written
more about his work than any other critic. Bellwoods
versatility matches his prolificity. Ive seen literally
dozens of his plays, everything from Shakespeare-themed
childrens-theater vaudeville shows to a deft adaptation
of Capeks The Insect Play to a riotously funny pastiche
of various overblown holiday entertainments to dark dramas
of homelessness and solitude and violence to a pun-filled
parody of Casablanca. At one point an entire community-based
theater company committed itself exclusively to the staging
of Bellwood scripts. Their most popular effort was a series
of historical dramas performed in front of famous paintings
at the Yale Art Gallery.
of the Bellwood productions Ive seen, however, have
been done with minimal resources, before too-small audiencestoo
small to gather momentum for the laughs his comedies deserve,
or to agitate en masse at the prickly subjects he brings
to the fore of his controversial dramas. Sometimes these
scripts cry out for spectacle, or at least special lighting
effects, and few of the small companies that have done his
works have had the resources for large sets and serious
sound or lighting design.
like to think that Bellwoods wondrous wordplay and
intriguing character developments shine through even the
most amateurish or low-rent stagings, but Ive long
hoped Id get a chance someday to test another theory:
how his shows might thrive with the proper care and expense
put behind them.
current production of The Specials at Whitney Arts Center
(not to confused with Yales Whitney Humanities Center
downtown; the WAC is in East Rock, at 591 Whitney Avenue
near Cold Spring Street) is a step in that direction. The
venue isnt ideal: it has to subsist on natural lighting.
But its a real hall with good acoustics and a playing
area where actors can exit through real doors. Theres
room for good-sized audiences, and the company has really
worked hard at luring them.
are other ways that this Steve Bellwood done up in a way
he usually isnt. Hes not directing himself (which
he prefers not to do, but has often had to do by default).
Hes not being overly deferred to. Hes not having
to settle for whoevers able to act in his script.
Hes even been asked to leave the room on occasion
so that others might process his work.
David Pilot and director/actor James Leaf simply saw great
potential in an old script of Bellwoods (originally
titled Collateral Damage) and have worked hard to give it
a production it deserves. They assembled a worthy cast up
for the creative journey. Along the way, there has been
extensive editing and other changes. The scripts old
title, Collateral Damage, for instance, has largely been
rendered moot by a revised ending which Pilot and Leaf suggested.
By his own admission, Bellwood has rolled with these changes
grudgingly at times, but has also been impressed with how
well some of them work. Collaborations on new works are
seldom easy. This appears to be a particularly open-minded
company where everyone has strong opinions. But it may be
one of the best development situations that a Steve Bellwood
script has ever seen.
is the point in the article where I note that this is in
no way a review. The performance of The Specials I saw on
Sept. 21 was billed as a preview, and that changed ending
had been added just a few hours earlier. The audience that
night was largely an invited one consisting of those whod
donated money or set pieces or props, who stayed for an
animated talkback session afterwards. After they all left,
I chatted candidly with Bellwood and Pilot. So, not a distanced
review, this. Im an avowed Steve Bellwod supporter,
intrigued by a production process. Thats where Im
Specials has been carefully dramaturged right down to its
subtitle. Its being billed as A New American
Play, to stress the allegorical and metaphorical aspects
of the play. The play posits an academically inclined unmarried
couple (Dianes a professor, Toms a high school
teacher) on a road trip against an earthier, newly married
couple (Ivans in a special military service and deployed
to Afghanistan a lot; Ruths an ex-stripper).
could shorthand The Specials by comparing it to two Edward
Albee plays. Its got the feuding-lovers aspect of
Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the lingering-menace
feel of The Zoo Story. The couples barely know each other
when Tom and Diane arrive to stay over at Ivan and Ruths
house. Soon enough, they know each other a little too well.
(Bellwood denies any conscious influence of Albees
work on his own.)
script goes meta in how it depicts an encroaching
violent behavior, moral breakdown, reckless passions and
desperate desire for stability among its characters. Its
very much a 21st century play about scattered dreams and
dashed hopes and uncertain futures and defensive posturing.
its been wisely cast so one couple is not appreciably
older or more attractive than the other. Other than the
physically imposing bluster the bulky, bald-headed Daniel
White brings to Ivan, you can imagine the actors being almost
interchangeable, though the roles arent. Diane (Mariah
Sage, of the Theater Four ensemble) is poised and imperious.
Ruth (New York actor Irina Kaplan) is loose and needy. Tom
(James Leaf) is like a somber Woody Allen, commenting wryly
on events which nonetheless are terrifying to him. And Whites
Ivan is the lumbering wild card at the center of the piece.
Does being a war veteran make him a stoic realist, or just
psychotic? Does he have a disciplined, caring program in
place for dealing with Ruths emotional problems (and
his own), or is this domestic abuse? Youve been
dealt a good hand, Ruthie, the poker-playing Ivan
decrees. Stick with it.
play has four characters, but most of the scenes involve
just two people at a time, in various combinations. Sparks
fly, but not from the directions you think they will. The
action is kept lively with Halloween masks, brandished firearms,
a mystery object Ruthie keeps in the kitchen, andbig
reveal at the end of the first acta whole second set
piece, just when you think the whole show is confined to
Ruthie and Ivans living room.
harrowing, yet regularly amusing and entertaining, drama
takes a special balance of talents, and this production
has been able to assemble them. The actors have worked hard
to find the rhythms in Bellwoods play, which ranges
from frequent cursing to a languid explication of Edward
Lears nonsense verse The Jumblies. The direction and
design opens up what could be a claustrophic piece and allows
it not just to breathe but to express grander themes.
company also continues to probe and rewrite and rehearse
and investigate, in hopes that The Specials can move on
to other productions. It fully deserves to. For now, it
most deeply requires the support of New Haven theatergoers.
This is a theater troupe that is bravely trying something
new and challenging. They also are craving input. There
are three opportunities left to catch this special staging
of The Specials. Make a special effort.