Though time and place are undetermined, we’re on familiar terrain. The shack is poor by any standard: a basin serves as sink, there’s no apparent toilet, patched fabric curtains create rooms, one old table, two chairs, and a cabinet act as kitchen/living room/dining room. There’s a bucket to hold baby’s waste before it’s dumped and a bucket to keep bread from the mice. Designer Wilson Chin’s rough, cutaway structure with evocative staging levels feels viscerally bleak. (A hole in the floor creating the grave out of which Baylen shovels dirt and rocks and a long ramp evoking a hill, work splendidly.)
Ted Koch and KK Moggie
When Baylen (Ted Koch), a grave digger, comes home late, his wife Margot (KK Mogie) gets out of bed to serve him cold stew. Face almost in the bowl, he reaches for her. She pulls away, telling Baylen he’s filthy. He says she smells like wash on the line. They’re direct, a bit harsh, but devoted to one another. Then the baby wakes and wails. Stress comes to a nightly head. The couple argue. Daily existence is a struggle.
Gizzer (Todd Lawson) is also grave digger. He and Baylen eat lunch together, feet dangling into a newly dug site. One infers Baylen got his junior the job. Gizzer regularly engages in the kind of let-off-steam bar fights necessary to his volatile nature and complains for lack of his friend’s company.
Ted Koch and Todd Lawson
One day, a well heeled young man in suit and hat appears in the cemetery. Gizzer is immediately hostile and, vocally disparaging, ignores his request for directions. Baylen doesn’t understand. It turns out the stranger is Charles Timmons (Jeremy Beck) son of the ailing owner of The Merck, whom Gizzer holds responsible for his father’s death on the loading dock. (The company did nothing to help the large family robbed of its breadwinner.) It’s all Baylen can do to keep his friend from physical attack.. With even temper and perspective, he points Timmons on his corrected way, inadvertently intriguing him. The die is cast.
Jeremy Back and Ted Koch
Margot and Baylen can’t make ends meet. He insists on managing things and demeans himself to try to secure a somewhat better, but compromising situation. Gizzer will hate it.
Playwright Jeff Talbot’s character portraits are terrific. Baylen’s pride and religious faith, Timmons’ raging ambivalence about class differences and need of a sympathetic father figure, Margot’s striking, clear-eyed love and wonderfully clever methods of communicating with her husband, and Gizzer’s well aimed tirades are well written, beautifully manifest specifics that keep the stereotypical at bay.
More than once we expect someone to be violently murdered. The Grave Digger’s Lullaby features pain, sacrifice, determination and commitment under grim, untenable circumstances, yet its overriding message is one of the persistence of human spirit.
KK Moggie and Ted Koch
Ted Koch’s powerful portrayal of Baylen, wrestling with a seemingly hopeless situation, excavates feeling from the actor’s gut making every action personal. Anguish, resolution, and a single moment of joy, all seem authentic. We empathize rather than sympathize.
Todd Lawson’s Gizzard shocks with the extent of hate transparently coursing through the character’s system. He lashes out with utter honesty.
Jeremy Back internalizes Timmon’s thoughts so thoroughly, he vibrates.
KK Moggie imbues her Margot with innate intelligence, grace and forbearance.
Director Jenn Thompson does a marvelous job of defining her characters, right down to the way they carry themselves. Unplaceable southern accents are pitch perfect. Anger vibrates, a sex scene is coarse and sizzling, an entirely believable, rough and tumble fight makes one imagine nightly bruises. Actors take time to think and react. Horrible realizations are made palpable. Pacing of this intermissionless piece is just right.
Will Van Dyke contributes fine, dark, particularly atmospheric music.
Matthew Richards Lighting Design is cinematic.
Photos by Marielle Sloan
Opening: Ted Koch and Todd Lawson
TACT – The Actors Company Theatre presents
The Grave Diggers’s Lullaby by Jeff Talbott
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Through April 1, 2017
The Beckett Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
This unlikely musical commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the legendary actor Edwin Booth’s return to the stage (New York’s Wintergarden Theater) and the 400th Anniversary of William Shakespeare on whose work the performer and his family founded their reputations.
The British/American Booths consisted of father, Junius Brutus Booth who abandoned his wife in England and came to America with Mary Ann Holmes, fathering three bastard sons: Junius Brutus Booth Jr. (of lesser reputation), John Wilkes Booth who had a fairly successful career before assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, and Edwin Booth, the foremost American Shakespearean actor of his day and founder New York’s Player’s Club. Like the Barrymores, the Booths were a prominent theatrical family with serious alcohol problems.
Dana Watkins and Paul DeBoy
After an opening song reminiscent of Sweeney Todd we meet Edwin Booth (Dana Watkins) on the night he returns to the stage (in Hamlet) after the assassination of President Lincoln by his brother John. “Is that why you chose Hamlet, because our country lost a father?” asks his earnest, young bodyguard Rob (Ben Mayne). Were it not for needing to support his mother (Deanne Lorette) and daughter, the actor would not be risking his life. A surging crowd outside might easily contain someone vengeful.
Dana Watkins and Patricia Noonan
Edwin is sober for the first time in years. He’s lived through the demise of his alcoholic father Junius (Paul DeBoy) and tender wife Mollie (Patricia Noonan), both of whose untimely deaths have been blamed on his neglect, implied guilt about exploiting sibling Junius Jr. (Adam Bashian), and the infamy of being related to a murderer. Having finally stopped drinking , he fearfully hopes against hope for a kind of redemption in tonight’s performance. Assuming he survives it.
The protagonist floats fairly smoothly from present to past, from narrative to (a few too many) bits of Shakespeare plays, surrounded by ghosts of his relatives. We observe fraught family relationships and professional history. John, the most volatile brother, is portrayed as his father’s favorite. When Edwin takes his turn accompanying Junius on tour (to regulate drunken behavior as best as possible), his father keeps calling him Johnny. Crucial connection is nonetheless established. One might conjecture Edwin’s drinking started with the death of his role model.
Todd Lawson and Dana Watkins
The choice not to make John Wilkes Booth the nucleus of the piece is inspired. Illuminating and entertaining, Edwin delivers a real feeling for life tethered to the theater as well as a family portrait. (One assumes certain implied relationships are conjecture.) It also has a whizz-bang ending. But, beginning with its length, there are issues.
Second, and easy to correct, there’s currently no information in the program about each character. My companions and I were all lost as one after another person came onto the scene. Was “Johnny” John Wilkes Booth or another actor In Hamlet? Which player was the third brother? Who was Mollie? Were Mary and Junius not married? Who was dead? Though all this becomes clear, it’s confusing at first. An audience shouldn’t have to work so hard. (The surprise ending can be hidden.)
Adam Bashian, Dana Watkins, Todd Lawson
Paul DeBoy is an excellent Junius. The actor has style and brio, plays drunk with finesse, confidence and exhaustion with prowess, and listens skillfully. DeBoy moves with the kind of on-and-off stage prideful awareness we imagine Booth pere to possess. His timing is impeccable.
Both Deanne Lorette (Mary Ann-mother) and Patricia Noonan (Edwin’s wife, Mollie) have fine voices with Noonan’s lovely contralto standing out for clarity and enunciation. Both actresses imbue their characters with warmth and naturalness. Noonan also slips in and out of Shakespeare with aptitude and emerges particularly empathetic.
Todd Lawson’s multidimensional characterization credibly depicts John Wilkes Booth as hot tempered, frustrated, and out for glory. The piece implies his pro-Confederate politics had more to do with the latter than with confirmed beliefs. Lawson appealingly flares and moves as if owning the stage.
Ben Mayne and Dana Watkins
As Rob, Ben Mayne manages to bring sincerity to a small part, especially during scenes in Edwin’s dressing room. Adam Bashian does a yeoman like job as Junius Jr.
Dana Watkins is alas, though very attractive, the weak link here. Watkins’s low notes are lost. He mumbles too often, is rather stiff, and never seems, like the other Booths, to commandeer a room. Nor do we believe either romantic love or agony of repentance.
The strongest creative contribution comes from Librettist (and Lyricist) Eric Swanson. There are insightful, character specific conversations about aspects of a life treading the boards, ego, jealousy, intimacy, and motivation. Swanson’s tone is literate, and mercifully lacking in contemporary vernacular. He clearly understands ‘the life.’ Several lyrics, including one about the contents of Junius’s prized make-up case, deftly relate to Shakespearean roles. Songs like “Oh What a Life!” and “Tom Fool” paint vivid theatrical pictures. Ballads are somewhat less distinctive as are derivative opening and closing company numbers. Several songs, though fine unto themselves, unnecessarily repeat information and emotion imparted earlier.
Marianna Rosett’s Music suits the period, evokes mood, and carries each lyric but sometimes lacks individuality. Using what seems to be the same tango for two very different numbers is a questionable decision.
Director Christopher Scott gracefully engineers flow on and off the stage-upon-the-stage, and episodically through past and present. Brief choreography is welcome as is an unexpected sword fight (Fight Director-Ron Piretti). Chad McCarver’s minimal Set is used optimally, in fact, with some elegance. Most Booths command the stage with presence and sweep. (You might have John take his hand out of his pocket during dramatic scenes). Women are immensely sympathetic.
Early on, in the snippet of a scene from Lear, male actors play Lear’s daughters while the women present play men. One assumes this is because there are only two women. Nonetheless, it’s disconcerting.
David Zyla’s Costume Design is artful and appropriate. Variation in men’s attire is particularly adroit.
Sound Design is unfortunately an issue here. There are no mikes and only some of these thespians consistently project. Sections of dialogue and song are periodically lost.
By Unknown – The Life and Times of Joseph Haworth – The Booth brothers
A production of Julius Caesar mounted before the tragedy, starring all three of the Booth brothers, funded the statue of William Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park just south of the Promenade.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Paul DeBoy, Patricia Noonan, Adam Bashian, Ben Mayne, Deanne Lorette,
Great Circle Productions presents
Edwin-The Story of Edwin Booth
Book & Lyrics- Eric Swanson
Directed by Christopher Scott
Piano/Conductor- Evan Alparone
Bass-Dara Bloom; Violin/Violas- Ljova Zhurbin
Theatre at St. Clements
423 West 46th Street
Through September 18, 2016