Risky Business: The Kingfisher

Back in April there was a bit of a buzz about marrying early in adulthood. Julia Shaw posits on Slate that getting hitched young is the bee’s knees. Amanda Marcotte responds with stinging data indicating women who wed young are more likely to get divorced and be poorer.

William Douglas-Home’s The Kingfisher looks at marriage, both young and late in life. Langhorne Players presents the comedy through June 15 in Spring Garden Mill in Tyler State Park, Newtown. The lead female character, Evelyn, swats away both the above nuptial theses. She tied the knot young but wasn’t happily in love; a new widow, she has plenty of money.

“Love is one thing,” she tells one-time beau Cecil, whom she fled 50 years ago when he didn’t propose, “marriage is another.”

Cecil wouldn’t know matrimony if it pricked him in the butt, even though he’s had a 50-year marriage of sorts to his butler, Hawkins. If only Cecil were as enlightened as Joel Stein‘s college sweetheart. In Time, Stein points out it’s a good thing he didn’t put a ring on it — she’s a lesbian.

The Kingfisher Director Sheldon Zeff chose not to pursue the relationship between Cecil and Hawkins, allowing the subtext to tell the story. “I don’t need to beat people over the head with it,” Zeff says. Yet, a distinctive characteristic of the kingfisher is the lack of differences between the sexes, something archetypal among many orders of the bird class.

I can’t help but wonder if Zeff had chosen to embrace the implication more fully might the production have delved deeper into poignancy, rather than stayed on the comic surface of Cecil’s missed opportunity for marriage with Evelyn.

The couple kissed for the first time beneath a beech tree after spotting a kingfisher together. “Damned risky business if you ask me,” Cecil says. “Thank God I’m not a kingfisher.”

If that isn’t an expressed fear of coming out of the closet, I don’t know what is.

Yes, Cecil purchased the land around the beech tree of that long ago moment of promised intimacy — certainly a romantic gesture. But Cecil seems to mine his shared history with Evelyn more for its fodder in his successful novels than true love. He may want to pick it up again where they left off only in an effort to avoid running out of stories to tell.

Elliot Simmons’ Cecil fumes at his butler’s fussing, and takes him sorely for granted. Simmons, however, most comes to life when interacting with the luminous Gail Foulke’s Evelyn.

Foulke shines with incredible comic timing as well as physicality. Watching her weasel gossip from a side-car-fueled Hawkins while also imbibing is delightful. Both characters know full well what life is like as a “side car,” Cecil’s “favorite.”

Scott Fishman is perfectly haughty as Hawkins, fully without his prey in his talons as the moniker would imply. Fishman’s desperate anger as Hawkins takes his leave of Cecil is spot on. (I would like to put Fishman in well fitting, plain-front pants rather than baggy pleats, but that is just being picky. I also think Hawkins wouldn’t let his Sir Cecil out of the house without a crisp crease in his trousers, and he would be more fastidious with the table setting, but I digress.)

I could write an essay on Douglas-Home’s imagery, but thank goodness I don’t have to — for the reader’s sake as much as mine. While parts amuse and parts bemuse me, overall it’s fun. There’s far less social commentary available to mine in today’s increasingly progressive world, but it’s there all the same. Even this married-young person who split the outcomes can see it.

— Jodi Thompson

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Langhorne Players to Present The Kingfisher

I have a particular affinity for Langhorne Players. Not only have I rarely been disappointed with time spent in their theater, but their dedication to the creative community of Bucks County speaks to my sensibilities.

Langhorne Players is in no way insular. They aren’t a pack of exclusionary “cool kids,” not an Abercrombie & Fitch among them. Each production welcomes a new artist or artisan to show in their lobby. And each new production is open to new actors, crew and directors.

zeff at mirror

Sheldon Zeff on directing: “It’s about the story, so put up or shut up. I’m putting every effort into directing.”
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Newtown’s Sheldon Zeff will direct the company’s The Kingfisher, which opens May 31. It’s Zeff’s first association with Langhorne Players, but certainly not his first play.

“I was a professional actor in a past life,” Zeff says.

The Glassboro State College theater grad (he refuses to refer to his alma mater as Rowan University) even met his wife during a production of Fiddler on the Roof at (now defunct) Riverfront Dinner Theater, where she played Golda and he was “generic Jew number 3.”

In fact, much of his acting career has been associated with the well loved musical; he’s been in about 10 productions. Kingfisher is quite a different story.

“People don’t know this show,” Zeff says. Langhorne Players is known for selecting new or unusual works. They don’t produce the community theater canon.

The British comedy features three actors of a “certain age,” Scott Fishman, Gail Foulke, and Elliot Simmons. Zeff describes the three as very talented, with a wealth of experience. “They make my job very easy.”

Zeff feels playwright William Douglas-Home had friend and actor Rex Harrison in mind for the lead, a well heeled 70-year-old considering marriage to a newly widowed ex-flame, much to the chagrin of his long-time butler, who “has basically been his ‘wife’ for 13 years.”

zeff laughing

Zeff bears a striking resemblance to actor Mandy Patinkin, with whom he shares the role of Tevye in “Fiddler,” as well as a middle name.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Zeff says the repartee resembles a verbal boxing match, quick and sharp, amongst people of means. “They don’t want for anything, except love, companionship and romance,” Zeff adds.

As is the goal of all Langhorne Players productions, Zeff wants to provoke conversation. “There are so many things [theater-goers] will relate to: What is your perception of love? What happens when you lose it? Gain it back again?”

He wants theater goers most of all to know “it’s going to be a fun night at the theater. But I want them to talk about it.”

— Jodi Thompson

Langhorne Players Present ‘God of Carnage’

It’s a question people ask when there is a tragedy such as the recent Boston Marathon bombings: How did a seemingly normal kid grow up to become a murderer? Yet seeing Langhorne Players’ first production of the 2013 season, God of Carnage, might give insight. The parents in Yasmina Reza’s play could very well raise monsters.

They, themselves, are savage beasts cloaked in successful and sensitive masks. They see their children as extensions of themselves. When the 11-year-old son of Veronica Novak, played by Tami Feist, has his teeth knocked out by a playmate, she takes it personally.

Feist is pitch perfect in trumpeting Veronica’s pride in her manners, civility and mothering. Veronica is an evolved parent, basking in the “soothing powers of culture.” As a writer, she examines the brutality of Darfur as if to glow in the contrast to herself. She has an ego the size of the continent of the Africa she loves.

As the ringleader of this conference – it’s doubtful the other three would bother to meet if not for her prompting – her main objective is not to gain compensation for the dental expenses or even to soothe her son with an apology. She just needs to be right. The other boy was wrong for attacking her son.

Her husband, Michael, played by James K. Perri, is an everyday man. He sells stuff. He puts a sweater vest and clip-on tie over his khakis in an effort to be cultured. Perri effuses the dichotomy that is Michael. He exhibits hospitality to the couple whose kid knocked his in the mouth. He worries about his mother taking a medicine that might kill her. He fusses over his wife’s ruined books with as much care as the other father’s ruined cell phone. Yet, he exploits his son’s dental pain to throw the family pet out on the street – something he’s longed to do.

When he assumes his wife will fetch the refreshment he proffers their guests, you just know he will pay for it later. Although Veronica insists “Michael always loved pushing a stroller,” it’s clear he had no choice.

The father of the kid wielding a teeth-shattering stick is as disconnected from fathering as he is connected to his job as a high-powered lawyer, shown by constant interruptions via cell phone. Tim Tolen plays Alan Raleigh with aloof ease, who comes to life when introduced to food, drink or a good cigar. So what if his son is a “savage” and his client’s medicine can kill, he’s on his way to the Hague tomorrow and his wife is lovely arm candy.

That trophy wife – her nickname is “Wolf Wolf,” as in “How Much is that Doggie in the Window? Wolf-wolf” for pitty’s sake – is quietly played by Stephanie Smith. Quietly, that is, until all that pain and anger Annette holds in spews across the room. Smith is as magnificent when tightly controlled as she is when her Annette is released.

Once unrestrained, Annette defends her son. She finds her backbone, which is carefully hidden behind a trendy exposed-zippered dress, and tells Veronica to back off dictating the punishment for her son. She disabuses Michael of his smugness by identifying him as a pet killer. No longer able to contain her anger at being left to handle all things “home, school and garden,” Annette cools her rage in alcohol.

As the “civilized” caucus leaves far more carnage in its wake than the fight that provoked it, you can’t help being reminded of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Bad enough that their marriages are toxic, but these folks are raising kids.

Under the direction of DeLarme Landes, Feist, Perri, Tolen and Smith channel Reza’s heavy hand well, never letting the symbolism overwhelm or distill the commotion, resulting in civilized chaos that’s amusing to watch unfold.

— Jodi Thompson

Youth on Stage

There’s no shortage of community theater opportunities in Bucks County. One that has flown under my radar is Acting Naturally, a nonprofit that teaches acting, singing and dancing. Acting Naturally’s Youth Company presents Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Newtown Theatre April 5, 6 and 7.

I’d welcome some comments from members and their parents about the experience of joining the company. I’m also curious how many community members who are unrelated to the performers attend the show. Tickets are $12 and $15.

— Jodi Thompson