Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Location: Mansfield, Connecticut, United States

Monday, December 05, 2011

I'm Connecticut
December 1 -10 2011
by Mike Reiss
World Premiere
Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre

I’m Connecticut has legs. 

Mike Reiss and CRT mount boffo comedy!
This Piece has Legs. It is an object lesson in how to write comedy.

We might expect a play written by a show runner and writer for The Simpsons and creator and writer for The Critic to be like a television situation comedy, or an episode of an animated series, but Reiss knows his forms.  His children’s books are like children’s books, his humor magazine pieces are the right for a magazine, and his first stage play is built for the stage, not screen or print.  He knows how to write dialogue and he knows story structure.

Reiss knows how to make a show. He breaks the ice almost immediately with series of jokes, one-liners and two or three stroke witty exchanges.

He puts everything in and then keeps what works.
For Reiss, no theatrical tradition is sacred except the one propounded by the recluse poet Emily Dickenson when she said, “The show is not the show,/But they that go.” 
If it works, keep it!  If it doesn’t work, cut it!

He takes more from vaudeville and “Olsen and Johnson” and the “Marx Brothers” than from the 3-act stage form.

The joke about someone with Alzheimer’s meeting new and interesting people every day has been around for a long time but Reiss sets it up well and integrates it into the plot and context of this particular work.  The joke about the “New England Journal of Wrong” is a variation that we have seen before but is well delivered and well timed by Darrell Hollens.

Sometimes an attempt to make a show move quickly can result in a relentless pace that wears the audience out because there is no variation.  I’m Connecticut starts with a fast series of one-liners but as the show moves forward, the plot comes to the fore and the relationships between the characters come more into focus.  As we learn about our protagonists the humor becomes more about them and less about the catchy jokes.  The vaudeville one-liners evolve into a sweet love story.  As a matter of fact the subplot is a mirror love story of the main plot and we watch both sets of relationships grow with increasing interest.
I can imagine the author writing a ton of dialogue, action, gags, bits, and business and then mercilessly cutting what doesn’t work

Reiss knows how to set up a gag and bring it back later.  He teaches us why the joke is going to be funny and then tells the joke.  The evening is full of running gags that get funnier as they come back.

The humor is not dry but is intelligent and operates on several levels simultaneously

Joyce DeWitt and Jerry Adler are a great team and are generous and collaborative with the younger actors in the ensemble.

I hope the MFA students in the CRT took time during rehearsals to sit in the house and watch Jerry Adler walk on stage; no waste of energy, no meaningless pointing of hands; he’s there, he owns the room, the audience can just relax and watch.  He has an economy of effort that creates meaning and intensity.

Director, Paul Mullins reads the changes in the shape of the script and keeps the evening on pace.  Almost every time someone takes off or puts on a jacket there is someone there to help with the jacket.  One cannot help but wonder what practical consideration went into the development of this running bit of business.

With a smaller cast and a bit of rewriting for a different venue this piece could run for a long time Off Broadway.

And now a bone to pick.
We are told in the program that, “Reiss agreed and noted that there was little material focusing on the state; a play like this would be ‘wide open territory’…so I claimed Connecticut as mine.”
Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and his comedy Ah Wilderness both take place in New London; as does Woody Allen’s Old Saybrook.   
Avec Schmaltz by Mart Crowley takes place between Connecticut and California.  The leads are a WASP girl, and a wise-cracking Jewish TV composer.  Flemming by Sam Bobrick won praise and awards at the 2008 International Mystery Writers’ Festival.

Recently, and more locally, Barbara and Carlton Molette’s play about Prudence Crandall and her school for “young ladies of color” was produced at UConn.

And this reviewer’s The Norwich 9 was presented in Willimantic and Norwich and was given a reading by the UConn League.

In 2011, and for a couple of years, Connecticut Heritage Productions (CHP) has offered three awards and reading of three plays in the annual "Connecticut Stories on Stage" play writing competition. 
There are many more plays about Connecticut including 4 versions of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
I’m Connecticut is a valuable contribution to a long and growing list of plays about The Constitution State.


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