Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Caldwell Theatre: Dangerous [6 1/2 reviews]

David Rudd and Marta Reiman in Dangerous Michael McKeever's latest play, Dangerous, opened at the Caldwell Theatre Company on February 22. We've noted elsewhere that this is a bit edgier than some of McKeever's earlier work, and the Caldwell has gone to great lengths to warn the audience that this play contains nudity.

Clive Cholerton directed a cast that included David A. Rudd, Michael McKenzie, Wynn Harmon, Marta Reiman, Harriet Oser, Ashley Ellenburg, and Brett Fleisher.

This play has been reviewed for VARIETY (see below for excerpts).

Brandon K. Thorp
reviewed it for the Broward/Palm Beach New Times, and he starts off with a little history lesson:
McKeever's play is an ambitious reimagining of Dangerous Liaisons, the 18th-century Pierre Choderlos de Laclos novel that that depicts the moral vacuum at the heart of pre-Revolution France....It has since been adapted at least a dozen times, almost always retaining its pre-French Revolution setting...because the characters in Dangerous Liaisons are so dissolute and slutty that few milieus could tolerate them without censure or at least voluble criticism...

...but McKeever topped it: His play is set in post-World War I Germany. Germany's Weimer Republic was so decadent that McKeever ...could fill his work with open homo- and bisexuality without straining audience credulity.
And now onto the play:
McKeever's writing is both ornate and breezily casual.
...In nearly every scene, the actors belie the characters' mannered, dinner-party cool, enriching their fa├žades with an earthy humanity.

The trick sometimes fails...The scene in which Victor describes his early years in Berlin is overwritten and understandably overacted.

Dangerous is also burdened with an overlong denouement that seeks to explain loose ends that would be better left dangling. But these minor failures, no matter how annoying in retrospect, are almost invisible in the moment of performance. The things that stick in the mind are more basic, more tactile: Lena's gut-twisting collapse when faced with the evidence of Alec's cruelty; the way cruelty disfigures Alec's handsome face; Berber's slow, artful collapse into utter dissolution; and her desperate embrace of the National Socialist German Workers' Party in a moment of need.

Hap Erstein reviewed it for the Palm Beach ArtsPaper.
Last sighted at the Caldwell Theatre with Suite Surrender, a very audience-friendly farce reminiscent of Ken Ludwig, the Davie playwright now returns with an icy, mean-spirited, but darkly seductive drama called Dangerous, his “deconstruction” of Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th-century French novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

The evening’s debauched tone is set from the start with a prologue from a real-life party girl of the era, Anita Berber (an unsteady Ashley Ellenburg), who opens her fur coat and flashes the audience, stark naked. As a jolt that announces the play’s adult territory, the opening is effective.

...the frequent disrobing proves to be a counterproductive distraction.
This isn't really surprising; there are plays on the very subject, and exhaustive treatises explaining how doing a very real thing while attempting to create an illusion often destroys the illusion being created. (Not that I'm saying it's never called for or can never work; it is and it does. But it's walking a tightrope.)

While Erstein apparently was so rattled he forgot to talk about the performers, be did acknowledge the set design, and had this to say about Caldwell's continuing relationship with a local playwright:
The Caldwell has taken a risk with its continued encouragement of McKeever’s evolution, wherever it may lead, but Dangerous is another step up in quality for this prolific South Floridian.
Christine Dolen reviewed it for the Miami Herald: and like Erstein, she spends most of it discussing the script and playwright Michael McKeever. While I don't approve, I do understand: this is, after all, a new script. Audiences won't be familiar with it, and it helps to know if the story's something you'd be interested in. At the same time, we also go to theatre to see performances. And when critics fail to mention them, we are not being served.

And slapping an adjective next to an actors' name really doesn't count; seriously, does anyone think that the following snippets really describes the performances adequately?
...a dashing Michael McKenzie...
...the mysterious and looks-good-naked David A. Rudd...
...the charismatic Marta Reiman...
...a don't-mess-with-me Harriet Oser...
I'm putting this one by itself because it seems to echo Hap's take on this performer:

...sleazy ''entertainer'' Anita Berber (Ashley Ellenburg, an annoying cipher who makes Cabaret train wreck Sally Bowles look virtuous and doubly fascinating)

But does saying she's "unsteady" and "an annoying cipher" tell us all that much about the performance? Are they describing the actor, or the work of the actor, or is simply the character she portrays? Was it her choice, or the directors? We don't know, and no one else is helping us to find out.

Here's what she had to say about the production over-all:
The milieu is apt, the dialogue film noir-ish. But in this first, largely well-acted, sometimes-absorbing production directed by Clive Cholerton, Dangerous doesn't make enough of the connection between Germany's gathering storm and its characters' lives.

Despite the additional efforts of projection designer Sean Lawson and Paul Klee-inspired set designer Tim Bennett to establish time and place, the sexually self-absorbed world of Dangerous could take place anywhere. And it has.
Mary Damiano reviewed it for Miami Artzine, and she didn't find the nudity as distracting as Hap Erstein did:
McKeever's dialogue is witty, as it should be for this sex and cocktail crowd. There's nudity, but it's never gratuitous, just perfectly natural for the lifestyle and mindsets of the characters.
And she discusses the script, but instead of just telling us history and development, she comments on how it works;
The downside is that some of the characters are lacking. For example, Ernst is so bland that it's hard to see why he meant so much to Victor in the first place. And the foreshadowing of the rise of the Nazis ending the debauched lifestyles of the rich and infamous gets heavy-handed in the final few scenes, with some clunky dialogue. A lighter touch and a brisker pace would improve the play.
And finally, someone's talking about the performances:
McKenzie plays Victor with just the right balance of charm and villainy, while Ellenburg, mainly used as a plot device to comment on the political climate and the rising Nazi presence, is delicious in her few scenes. Unfortunately, Rudd plays Alec with more gruff impatience than confidence, which is a disservice to his character. Rudd's flawless physique certainly fits the part of the bisexual cad on the prowl, but Rudd plays him with a distinct lack of charm, making one wonder how he not only beds so many conquests but makes them fall hopelessly in love with him as well.

Still, Dangerous is wicked fun...
Bill Hirschman reviewed it for the Sun-Sentinel; thank goodness they're finally sending their own reviewer out: hopefully, it's a trend that continues.
There is a car wreck fascination watching an entire society committing slow suicide...

Think the aristocracy before the French Revolution; some might say 21st Century America. But Michael McKeever's premiere Dangerous depicts dissolute Berliners in 1930 as the Nazis accumulate power.

The performances are adequate, some more than others, but you catch almost everyone acting except the wonderful Harriet Oser as a clear-eyed grandmother. Perhaps it's because these mannered characters are playing roles in masks. The two leads do miss that delicious venality of George Sanders in All About Eve but they put their roles over, especially Rudd when his rediscovered humanity makes him a vulnerable victim for his former playmate.

Clive Cholerton's polished staging is unusually fluid for a play in which people mostly sit around talking to each other. The frequent nudity is not gratuitous but perfectly apt. Tim Bennett's set is a nightmarish evocation of Paul Klee's paintings, all jangling angles in cobalt and rust combined with newsreels projected on the walls.

When you aim this high, even a flawed production is more worthwhile than some other theater's triumphs.
Bill Hirschman also reviewed for Variety, that famous rag read by producers the world over. While he reaches the same conclusions, it's a different review for his different audience; still, it is a voice we've already heard, hence the "1/2" status. Whether it's this one or the previous review that counts as "half" is left to the reader.
There's a scintillating idea behind Michael McKeever's "Dangerous": Set the self-destructive corruption of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" in the waning "Cabaret" days of the Weimar Republic, and give it a gay twist.

If McKeever searches no wider thematically than the original, neither do the countless artistically satisfying riffs on, say, "Othello." Besides, "Dangerous" is a harrowing descent in its own right. The playwright has hewed closely to the narrative of Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel and Christopher Hampton's 1985 play, but the writer is not just self-consciously finding imaginative analogues between his setting and the original; instead he deftly creates a believable, unforced parallel universe. He also has a feel for wicked Wildean dialogue.

The two leads put their roles over, but they could stand to amp up the delicious venality. And McKeever might have assisted by allowing them to sneak in exposition a little more smoothly.

Clive Cholerton fluidly stages a play in which people mostly sit around talking to each other. Nudity of both sexes is appropriately used to express the vulnerability lovers feel in the boudoir.
Kevin Thompson reviewed it for the Palm Beach Post:
Dangerous is set in 1930 Germany, a period rife with decadence and a complete lack of morals. In other words, a perfect setting for McKeever's play, which asks the question: What happens to society when there are no rules?

(Rudd and Reiman) do a magnificent job of drawing you into their complex love/hate affair that boasts more drama than 10 Lifetime movies combined.

As Victor, the rakishly handsome McKenzie is the perfect villain as he delivers such memorable lines as "nothing makes us stupid faster than love" with a devilish glint in his eyes that'll make you love and despise him. With his tall stature, slicked-back hair and cocked eyebrow, McKenzie could easily pass for George Hamilton's younger brother. Kudos to director (and newly announced Caldwell artistic director) Clive Cholerton for getting the most out of his talented cast.

McKeever has written a deliciously engrossing play teeming with three-dimensional characters who make it easier for an audience to connect with them even when they don't like them or fully understand their motives.

Meanwhile, Alberto Arroyo's vintage costumes (Alec wears some killer suits!) are perfectly in-step with the time period's fashion sense, and Tim Bennett's set design makes good use of Swiss expressionist painter Paul Klee's colorful geometrical shapes. Those shapes almost serve as visual reflection of characters who are also full of sharp edges and loud colors.


It features its fair share of full-frontal nudity from both male and female characters. Although the scenes don't come off as gratuitous and snugly fit in.
Dangerous plays at the Caldwell Theatre Company through March 29, 2009.

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