Monday, May 11, 2009

Theater Review: Lost, by Arnold Schulman

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
Further info about this production is at the bottom

Previously, the tele/play Lost has only been staged once since its inception in 1956, and that was on live television, directed by Arthur Penn. Written by renowned author, playwright, and screenplay writer Arnold Schulman (A Hole in the Head, The Night They Raided Minskey’s, Funny Lady, to name just a few), this production is now being re-introduced by the Haberdasher Theatre Company and produced by Arthur’s son, Peter.

Back when live television was new, live dramatic shows were written by the likes of Schulman and Paddy Chayefsky (Marty, Network). The medium was untested and lines of tradition were not yet drawn, so possibilities were endless. One of the proofs of this openness was the avant-garde Lost, which is both ideal for a small, independent troupe, and yet it must have been a tough direct, though Patrick Sherrer did a magnificent job.

Set in 1950, Lost is about a man named Walter Uhlan, who has not necessarily become unstuck in time, but lost in his own skin. Roaming about New York City in 28 locations, projected brilliantly on a black, stark set using mostly plastic milk crates as the only props, Walter is both trying to find out who he is and why he is repeatedly drawn to particular locales, but also innately finding it freeing from a life he does not understand, and on some level wishes to escape. He is in almost constant motion, going here and there, but not knowing why or what draws him.

[Lee Solomon as Walter and Keri Taylor as Arlene in the foreground]
The entire hour-long play takes place in one day, as Walter and the ensemble of 11 flow, sometimes in slow motion, like eddies that sometimes flow around him and other times changing his direction. Each of the cast, with the exception of Solomon, plays more than one character.

An interesting theme of the piece is that as a bookend between some events, characters who have or had a relationship with Walter talk to the audience in a monolog and explain parts of his history, filling in the pieces slowly but surely, such as his wife and her best friend, his father, father-in-law, next door neighbor as a kid, and even a jazz singer/B-girl who tries to help him this strange day.

A central motif of Lost is not a new one, which is how one can be truly lonely in a city of multi-millions, but it is done exceedingly well without being overwhelming, thanks in part to the writing, and also to the interpretation by the cast and crew.

Lee Solomon, a member of a number of online and live sketch comedy troupes, shines as Walter, giving him many layers of complexity, as the character truly needs. At one moment his Walter just wants to be left alone, huddled in a corner, the next racing to a location – be it landmark or even a different city – in a state of near mania. Lee plays him both weak and strong, effectively bouncing between the emotions and never losing the audience.

As Arlene, one of the two main female leads, Keri Taylor portrays the jazz singer and possible prostitute (a strong step on live television in the 1950s) who is at first as hard as nails, then slowly melts when she begins to realize that as strong as Walter is, there is a vulnerability to him. It was pretty obvious Keri was relishing the role, which made the audience’s viewing all the more enjoyable.

Another strong character – though I wish she had been more flushed out – was Walter’s wife, Mildred, played convincingly by Lauren Kelston. Lauren’s character is hurt and confused by what her life has been, being married to someone she was pushing towards her own desires of status (i.e., as being the wife of someone successful). I’m not sure if it was in the original play or this company’s interpretation, but there seemed to be an implied relationship with her best friend, which was a nice, subtle touch.

Bill Bria has a double-dip role as a somber doctor who talks to Walter, helping to put a piece into the puzzle of his life, and also does the announcing by giving both an intro and an outro to the piece. This is quite a different role than the last time I saw him in Michael Weems’s Onward, Forward, just exemplifying what I suspected: the man has a nice range.

There are lots I’d like to discuss about the ending and its meaning here, but I try not to give too many plot points – especially the conclusion – so suffice it to say that this play is a thought-provoking production, and the cast, director, and production crew did a heartfelt charge on a deserving and complex piece.

[Peter Schulman]
After the show, writer Arnold Schulman was scheduled to give a talk about the play, but due to an illness, was unable to attend. In his place however, his son Peter Schulman, who is an academic man of letters, gave a joyous, off-the-cuff and behind-the-scenes story of how he came across the text (among many) in his dad’s attic, and pursued getting it produced. He also told tales of Arnold’s life, his own growing up with a famous dad and the company Arnold kept, and even some stories about his father’s experiences in Hollywood (both good and bad). Peter is a good speaker who kept everyone mesmerized (including the cast who sat among the audience and were as fascinated as we were).

When he finished his presentation and Q&A period, I had the opportunity to talk to Peter privately about one of Arnold’s earlier works, A Hole in the Head. He had explained during his presentation that it was written for Jewish characters, but when put on the screen, it starred Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson, and was made “Italian,” instead (which is ironic, since Robinson was Jewish). I told Peter that though I hadn’t seen the film in many years, my memory of it as a kid was that it was about Jews, rather than Italians, which seemingly brought some satisfaction to Peter. We definitely shared a landsman moment.

[Bill Bria]
On the way out, I stopped off to give a greeting to Bill Bria, as we have been communicating through Facebook about The Hays Office period of film gatekeeping, which is a topic in which we both are interested. Bill also gave me his own interesting incites about the experience of working on this piece, including that the original intro was Rod Serling-ish, but they decided not to do it that way as it would have been too easy.

After the show, I walked down to O’Flannery’s bar on 46 Street and caught some of the set by one of my favorite local singer-songwriters, Randy Stern, and picked up his new CD, which will be reviewed at my column in Jersey Beat.

The Looking Glass Theatre, 422 West 57th Street (between 9th and 10th Ave.)
Haberdasher Theatre's Mission: Haberdasher Theatre champions free expression and creative thought and strives to serve our patrons by presenting edgy and inventive theatre that will reawaken the ardor for live theatre, both as an art form and a source of entertainment. Haberdasher Theatre also serves as a launching pad for new and mid-career artists, including playwrights, actors, and musicians, who wish to share new, interesting and thoughtful works of art

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