The Life of Riley
Zeitgeist Stage, Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 2. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene
Few area directors double as scenic designers. Arguably none of them create more richly detailed sets in the Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts than David J. Miller. In recent seasons, the out Zeitgeist Stage Company artistic director has established himself as the premiere local Alan Ayckbourn specialist on the strength of such stellar productions as “Private Fears in Public Places” (2010) and “Time of My Life” (2012).The former featured a handsomely appointed bar, while the latter evoked the family-centered play’s cozy restaurant ambience. Now Zeitgeist is presenting the East Coast premiere of one of the prolific playwright’s latest, ”The Life of Riley” (first staged in the United Kingdom in 2010).
Ayckbourn fans—and all who love theater ought to be—know that this adventurous writer likes to set some of his plays outdoors-perhaps most notably in the acclaimed trilogy “The Norman Conquests.” “The Life of Riley” follows suit—taking place in four gardens over the course of a year. As with the trilogy, very different female characters love or conflict with a singular male. Where Norman seems ubiquitous in the trilogy, the title object of affection in the Zeitgeist offering intriguingly never appears. Clearly Ayckbourn means to have the women in question provide contrasting perceptions in order to create a complex portrait of George Riley.
Ultimately, that portrait resembles Norman’s in the trilogy. Cleary unseen George is as immature in his own way as Norman. In fact, Ayckbourn describes him as “a kind of hippie Peter Pan.” He may never have grown up, but doctor Colin’s wife Kathryn, best friend Jack’s wife Tamsin and George’s estranged wife Monica-now with farmer Simeon feel for Riley enough to want to want to continue in various relationships with him. Their respective feelings intensify once they discover in turn that he has cancer and only a few months to live.
If the “The Norman Conquests” trio prove much more humorous and fully realized as plays, “The Life of Riley” does eventually gain some distinction. By having its dying offstage man-child give Kathryn, Tamsin and Monica varied impressions that he wants their respective company for his last days, Riley leads all three women to understand the importance of their current relationships. At the same time, all of those who know and love George are most concerned by the personal impact of losing him. Although the first act exposition and development need sharper focus, the stronger second act -with a twist about George’s final days visit to Tenerife and a clever resolution- supplies the kind of thoughtful observation that is an Ayckbourn trademark.
The Zeitgeist premiere benefits from Miller’s own trademarks- a convincing cast and a vividly thorough design. Maureen Adduci catches Kathryn’s gossip addiction as well as her frustration with her husband’s suspected infidelity. Victor Shopov—who has taken over the role of Jack- finds the right mix of best friend agony. Shelley Brown captures Tamsin’s very conflicted emotions. Peter Brown has the right cluelessness as Colin, who accidentally violates Riley’s patient confidentiality. Accents go in and out of authenticity, but the entire ensemble prove solid. Miller takes equal pains with the design of the four gardens-Jack and Tamsin’s somewhat fancy patio, Simeon’s unassuming farmyard, Colin and Kathryn’s sparer patio and Riley’s overgrown garden.
“The Life of Riley” may not be top drawer Ayckbourn, but Miller gives it first-class treatment.
Gold Dust Orphans, The Machine Nightclub-downstairs, Boston. 617-536-1950 or facebook.com/golddustorphans
Time has been good to “Mildred Pierce.” Joan Crawford’s deservedly Oscar-winning performance in the absorbing 1945 film holds up even in the face of a very good recent television mini-series version with equally commanding Kate Winslet in the title role. Not surprisingly, Gold Dust Orphans co-founder Ryan Landry—who parodied Crawford in the company’s hilarious 2002 “Joan Crawford’s Christmas on the Pole”— has now written a funny gender-bent musical take-off entitled “Mildred Fierce.”
All of the elements of the absorbing film melodrama are there—Mildred’s rise from waitress to restaurant entrepreneur, her ups and downs with men and her ongoing conflict with self-centered daughter Veda. Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson) , as good in her own way as Crawford, brings pathos to Mildred’s torment yet never loses sight of the laughter-rich possibilities of the character’s dialogue and body language. Her singing and high-stepping are as appealing and vivid as her pies- especially in a number touting them.
Under James P. Byrne’s skillful direction, Gold Dust Orphan regulars are as appealing as ever—especially Penny Champayne, wonderfully bitchy as Veda, and Delta Miles, who sings robustly as Mildred-loving and ambitious Wally. Olive Another brings Eve Arden attitude to Mildred’s restaurant partner and confidante Ida. Grace Carney has the right combination of spunk and vulnerability as Veda’s ill-fated younger sister Kaye. Brooks Braselman-looking like a cross between Elton John and Truman Capote in costumer Scott Martino’s envelope-pushing designs- vamps up Monty, Mildred’s Veda-chasing second husband. Landry himself is a hoot as Mildred’s loyal maid Butterball. Kudos to set designer Amelia Gassett for eye-catching miniatures of Mildred’s diverse homes.
“Mildred Fierce” may lack the topical inventiveness of the earlier “Rudolph the Red-Necked Reindeer.” Still, Merman’s larger-than-life performance and the show’s exuberant musical numbers make the latest Gold Dust Orphans offering a blue-ribbon dessert.