Saturday, May 11, 2013

Israel Horovitz's Gloucester Blue at Harlequin

from left: Joey Fechtel as Stumpy, Anna Richardson as Lexi and D. Nail as Latham. Photo courtesy Harlequin Productions

Harlequin Productions’ love affair with playwright Israel Horovitz continues with Gloucester Blue, billed as “a dark comedy of modern manners and menacing power tools.” It’s a story of class struggles, murder and sex.

Harlequin co-founder and managing artistic director Scot Whitney has wisely recognized that Horovitz is one of America’s most intriguing living playwrights. Fortunately for Olympians, the playwright has a daughter who lives here, and it was on the occasion of one of his visits a few years back that Whitney and Horovitz connected and teamed up to produce Sins of the Mother, which was followed by Six Hotels, Unexpected Tenderness, and My Old Lady (a film is now in the works starring Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline). What a string of powerful, provocative, often hilarious and always dramatic plays culminating, for now, with this surprise-filled tale.

Horovitz is a master at capturing the lifestyles and speech patterns of working stiffs — especially if they happen to live in the seaport town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where many of his stories are set. He’s also a master at mixing outlandish comedy with gritty drama. Imagine an amalgamation of Tennessee Williams and Tom Stoppard.

Gloucester Blue takes place in an upstairs apartment in an old industrial building owned by Bradford Ellis IV, aka Bummy (Tom Dewey) and his wife, Lexi (Anna Richardson). Steve, also known as Stumpy (Joey Fechtel), has been contracted to paint the apartment, and he has hired Latham (D. Nail) to help him. As the play opens Stumpy and Latham are up on ladders scraping and spackling and sanding the walls to the tune of Aerosmith who is blasting away on a boom box. Stumpy hates the music and says he is more of an NPR type of guy, thus setting up a kind of class struggle between these two workmen that in interesting ways mirrors the class conflicts between them and their wealthy, high-society bosses, Lexi and Bummy.

Lexi is spoiled and sexy, and Bummy knows she’s having an affair. Bummy is equally spoiled. He says he knows how to read Greek and Latin but doesn’t know how to do anything —including, it would seem, how to confront his wife over her affair. He’s weak and easily manipulated.

standing: D. Nail as Latham, on floor: Tom Dewey as Bummy. Photo courtesy Harlequin Productions
Latham seems contented in his working-class status. He is the most deeply layered character in the play. He has an amazing knowledge of everyone in town, their pasts and their relationships to one another. He is alternately sassy and gruff and menacing, has a mysterious past, and nobody is comfortable with him and nobody knows how to deal with him.

Sex happens and murder happens and there is one of the most horrendous and realistic fight scenes I’ve ever seen in live theater (kudos to fight director Robert Macdougall). That’s all I’m going to say about the plot except to say there are surprises that I never suspected.
The quartet of actors is good. One of the four, Nail, is stupendous.

Dewey quickly had me feeling disdainful toward Bummy — good acting in a tough role to master because he is not a likeable or particularly engaging character. There were a few moments when I felt he was overdoing it. When Bummy falls to the floor in a melodramatic gesture I couldn’t tell if it was the character, the actor or the director (Scot Whitney) who was overreacting. But he certainly made it believable that his wife would betray him.

Richardson creates a believable, strong and sexy Lexi. I had no problem believing she would do the things she did. Fechtel embodies the character of Stumpy. And excuse the word play but Nail absolutely nails Latham. His performance is engrossing. He makes this most complex of characters simultaneously loveable, creepy and frightening.

Linda Whitney’s set is great. How they manage to scrape, spackle and paint the walls, knock over ladders without spilling paint all over the stage and each other, and almost complete the paint job during intermission is beyond comprehension. Perhaps I should have stayed to watch instead of stretching my legs in the lobby, but that would have messed with the magic of the stagecraft. And to think: they have to restore it to its original condition before each new performance.

This is a great play. But be warned: it is tough, gritty, violent and filled with harsh language. It is not for the squeamish.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through June 1
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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