“Stylish … elegantly subversive,” says Anthony Chase of “Design for Living”


In the opening scene of Noël Coward’s comic masterpiece, Private Lives, when Amanda’s new husband assures her that she is entirely “normal,” she objects, “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”

This idea could serve as the theme of Coward’s entire career as a playwright. In the world of his plays, desire is a quality that cannot be contained by traditional monogamy. It is uncontrollable, and for this reason, nobody is completely normal.

Design for Living, currently enjoying a stylish production directed by Katie Mallinson at the Irish Classical Theatre, is a happy reminder of Coward’s genius for playful social critique. In this play, Gilda, played by Kate LoConti, cannot decide between two men who ardently love her. At the same time, these men, Otto, played by Adriano Gatto and Leo, played by Ben Michael Moran, clearly love each other. When jealousy intervenes, their happy ménage a trois seems to be unsustainable. That is until the three manage to devise a happy “design for living.”

The play itself was not much loved during the Coward’s lifetime. Written specifically for Coward to perform alongside his close friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Coward would later lament:

[Design for Living] has been liked and disliked, hated and admired, but never, I think, sufficiently loved by any but its three leading actors. This, perhaps was only to be expected, as its central theme, from the point of view of the average, must appear to be definitely anti-social. People were certainly interested and entertained and occasionally even moved by it, but it seemed to many of them “unpleasant.”

Coward was, clearly, quite attuned to his play’s social subversiveness. Despite the fact that many themes and events are identical to events in the perennially popular Private Lives, the conclusion of Design for Living has proven to be especially problematic in this regard. Gilda will (spoiler alert) opt to ditch her husband, Ernest, and keep both lovers. In putting their socially stigmatized desires above their social responsibilities, Gilda and Otto and Leo seem to have used and abused poor Ernest rather willfully. Unless you hit the right tone, the play just seems mean.

Less problematic today, but worth noting is the fact that the world of the 1930s was not oblivious to the play’s homosexual undertones, and not entirely tolerant either. In his 1933 appraisal, George Jean Nathan, the foremost American drama critic of the first half of the 20th century is unequivocal, and aims for the jugular.

As to Design for Living … I can see in it little more than a pansy paraphrase of [George Bernard Shaw’s] Candida, theatrically sensationalized with “daring,” gay allusions to hermaphrodites, “gipsy queens,” men dressed as women, etc., and with various due references to “predatory feminine carcasses” and to women as bitches. The big scene is simply a rehash of the one played by the two drunken women in the same author’s Fallen Angels and here given, relevantly, into the hands of two men.

Director Katie Mallinson graciously agreed to attend a performance of her production of Design for Living with me. I was intrigued to hear the observations of a director with her background in dramaturgy, about a play I know well. I have been very impressed with her previous work, notably the marvelous Road Less Traveled production of Dinner With Friends. I had also once seen an excellent production of Design for Living, like this one, done in the round. That was the widely admired and successful 1985 Circle in the Square production, starring Jill Clayburgh, Raul Julia, and Frank Langella. I was interested to see how Mallinson approached the challenge of the circular Andrews Theatre.

At the first intermission, I asked about the physicality of the staging, particularly Kate LoConti’s superior embodiment of Gilda.

Mallinson seemed pleased and said they had worked on this particularly in rehearsal.

LoConti’s performance is notable for its light agility and for the unflinching confidence of her speech. This is established immediately, when, without saying anything, she collects herself to answer the door of her Paris apartment, and subsequently, throws herself full-throttle into a diversionary conversation with Ernest, played by Eric Rawski. This deceptively dense dialogue sets up the thematic landscape of the entire play.

Everything about LoConti’s performance is satisfying. She exudes the requisite charisma, as well as the necessary girlish impudence. While it is never quite fair to compare one actor to another, I will admit that in flashes, she reminded me of young Leslie Caron. Rawski, while miscast again, and too young for paternal old Ernest, gives a game and amiable performance.

Mallinson was decidedly closed-mouthed and protective of certain aspects of the rehearsal process. I was especially intrigued, because the production was handed to her, already cast and with the creative team already in place, after another director was obliged to bow out. We discussed working in the circular stage of the Andrews Theatre, which presents certain challenges, and the director was interested by my recollections of the Circle in the Square production.

Right from the top, I was curious about her choice to make it entirely clear who is in Gilda’s bedroom at the start of the play. I have seen this detail played as a surprise elsewhere. Mallinson’s is a valid choice, but I missed the spirit of mischief and unpredictability, not to mention the dramatic momentum of making the actor’s entrance a revelation. I also noted that there were large sections of the first act in which actors seemed to be wading through pages of Coward’s language. These sections became very challenging for the audience at a three-hour play.

Alfred Lunt who originally played Otto, and Lynn Fontanne, the original Gilda, were, arguably, the most successful acting couple in the history of the theater. They worked almost exclusively together and rehearsed constantly, developing an acting style whereby they would overlap each other’s sentences with astounding precision. This practice must have proved invaluable for a play like Design for Living.

The Irish Classical Theatre production is most successful in the more rapid-fire exchanges. These land very successfully. For that reason, the third act, with its larger population of actors, and shorter exchanges, is particularly strong.

In the same vein, some of the smallest characters resonate quite vividly under Mallinson’s direction. Jennifer Fitzery is sublime as Gilda’s morally inflexible housekeeper Miss Hodge, endowing the woman with the perfect blend of flint and bluster. Even her walk is funny.

Late in the play, Lisa Vitrano makes a distinct and memorable person of Manhattan socialite Grace Torrence, a woman with billion bucks in the bank, but a bohemian sense of adventure. In the same scene, Conor Graham and Anna Krempholtz are acerbically funny as incompatible Henry and Helen Carver.

Mallinson conceded that the rehearsal period of four weeks is stressful for its brevity. Such economy of time is also necessary in a town like Buffalo, where audiences almost always number fewer than 200, and a theater cannot recoup enough to pay for longer rehearsal periods, or for preview performances. The burden is upon actors to learn words, to analyze scripts, and to make choices outside of rehearsal.

I admired the work of Adriano Gatto as Otto, and Ben Michael Moran as Leo, but would have been happier with clearer distinction between the two characters. In their favor, they are both dashing young men, and successfully projected the rascally fun of the piece.

The celebrated drunk scene between Leo and Otto comes at the end of the second act. Thinking that Gilda has run out on them forever, the men get drunk together on “Armadildo” sherry and try to comfort each other; they touch and hold each other; they thank God for each other and convince themselves that they are better off without her. Finally, however, they move past this suggestively homoerotic episode and lament that they are going to be horribly lonely without her

I would like to report that these gents nailed the scene, but I flat out could not see what was going on. It was played on a sofa with a decidedly high and opaque back. I was seated behind it. At the intermission, I quipped to Mallinson, “A love seat would have been funnier.” To her credit, she laughed. She did not comment on this design decision, and I did not press.

This was, to be fair, an anomaly, in a production that generally takes care to keep the picture revolving and moving, and which does not favor one side of the audience above another. It is also notable that three hours fly by very quickly and I felt fresh and energized as the play continued.

Beyond the hilarity of Otto and Leo’s surface absurdity, scenes like Otto and Leo’s drunk scene (or like the fights in Private Lives, or like the murder attempts in Blithe Spirit) lie at the heart of Noel Coward’s comedic project.   Whereas his contemporaries thought he was focused on the depraved few, in todays world we are much more comfortable with the idea of universal depravity. Find a spouse who has not felt jealous, or taken advantage of, or ignored, or who has not, deep down in his or her private thoughts, contemplated the murder of a spouse, coveted his neighbor’s wife, or yearned for the company of an ex-husband.

In her production, Mallinson successfully walks this delicate balance. I was particularly impressed by her admirable third act. Gatto and Moran shine especially brightly at this point. In an unscripted gesture, Gilda gently and compassionately pulls the boys back while Ernest is railing against their depravity. This is followed by the delightful, unbridled laughter that famously concludes this most elegantly subversive play.

Back in 1933, condemnation from George Jean Nathan might have seemed reasonable and persuasive. Today, there is something thrilling about finding this titan of 20th century criticism in a moment of critical hysteria. “Pansy paraphrase” is an epithet out of control. Nathan seals his own position in posterity, when he predicts historical oblivion for Noël Coward, who, on the contrary, remains one of the most produced playwrights in the world more than 80 years after the opening of Design for Living.

“Mr. Coward occupies the successful place in our theatre today that the late Clyde Fitch occupied twenty and thirty years ago,” wrote Nathan. “Where will the plays of Mr. Coward be when as many years have passed? As in the case of my critical reflections on Fitch in his fashionable heyday, I leave the answer to the calendar.”

Because the perfect conventional matrimonial norm is, itself, a fiction, Coward’s plays endure, and even achieve a surprising universality. If we could speak across time, we might remind poor Nathan, that many a worthless degenerate has been revivified since 1933, for deep down in our private lives, few of us are truly normal. Beyond the hilarity of Otto and Leo’s surface absurdity, scenes like Otto and Leo’s drunk scene (or like the fights in Private Lives, or like the murder attempts in Blithe Spirit) lie at the heart of Noel Coward’s comedic project. Each of us needs to forge a design for living. Katie Mallinson’s production at the Irish Classical Theatre certainly and very pleasurably delivers this comical and important message.

by Anthony Chase, ARTVOICE, September 26, 2017

“Design for Living” delights from start to finish – Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News

“The Irish Classical Theatre Company’s consummate production of the play ,,,, directed by Katie Mallinson and starring an incandescent Kate LoConti as the gravitational center of a small galaxy of lovers, is an enchantment from start to finish.

The story concerns a love triangle among Gilda (LoConti) and her close friends/lovers Otto (Adriano Gatto) and Leo (Ben Michael Moran). In scene after glowing scene, they flirt and argue with one another, cycling in and out of love, affection and lust as if playing some sort of card game. Both Gatto and Moran are magnetic in their roles … They ricochet against LoConti’s charming characterization of Gilda in a series of rat-a-tat comic exchanges.

The production is a delight.”

Click here to read full review.

by Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News

3-1/2 Stars (out of 4)

City of Buffalo dubs 600 Block of Main Street “The Chris O’Neill Way”

September 6, 2016 – The Irish Classical Theatre Company today announced that, by order of Buffalo Common Council President Darius C. Pridgen, the 600 block of Main Street between Tupper and Chippewa will be named The Chris O’Neill Way to honor ICTC Co-Founder and Artist of great distinction, the late Chris O’Neill.

The Trailblazing Sign will be unveiled on Tuesday, September 12 at 5:30PM Plaza of Stars, Main and Tupper Streets, Buffalo

A native of Dublin, Ireland, O’Neill was best known for his fourteen-year role as Michael in the television and radio series, The Riordans, on Ireland’s national television station. He was an actor with the Abbey Theatre as well as a board member of the Gate Theatre and an owner of the Oscar Theatre, all in Dublin. As a theatrical agent, he managed the careers of such luminaries as Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne.

O’Neill was already widely regarded as one of the world’s finest interpreters of the works of Samuel Beckett when he arrived in Buffalo in 1985, where he and a small troupe of traveling actors staged a performance of Waiting for Godot in the basement of the Airways Motel in Cheektowaga. The performance was a staggering success, and the love affair between O’Neill and this city was born.

O’Neill returned to Buffalo, acting in the city’s theatres, notably at the Kavinoky. He soon persuaded his younger brother Vincent, an actor with Ireland’s prestigious Abbey Theatre, to join him, and in 1990, they co-founded, along with Josephine Hogan and the late Dr. James Warde, the Irish Classical Theatre Company,

His fame grew, drawing him to New York and Chicago, where he worked in theatre and film. Construction of the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s new home, The Andrews Theatre, was well underway when O’Neill succumbed to a brief illness in West Palm Beach, Florida where he had been performing. He was 50 years old. 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of his passing.

“O’Neill was a consummate storyteller,” said Terry Doran of the Buffalo News, memorializing him in 1997. “He was a man on such great charm and generosity that it sometimes concealed the fact that he possessed penetrating intelligence and a vast memory store of Irish literature and plays. … His contributions to the city’s cultural life are large and incalculable.”

Vincent O’Neill, Artistic Director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company, recently reflected on Chris O’Neill’s legacy saying “If not for my brother, Chris O’Neill, I would never have followed my passion to become an actor. Chris truly was the catalyst that made ICTC a reality,” he continued. “We are truly gratified that he is being honored as a great artist, as a visionary and as an extraordinary human being by the installation of a Trailblazing Sign naming Main Street between Chippewa and Tupper as the Chris O’Neill Way,” O’Neill concluded.

A reception will immediately follow the Street Naming Ceremony at the Chris O’Neill Lounge inside the Irish Classical Theatre Company, 625 Main Street, Buffalo. The public is cordially invited to attend.

“light and fun … a lovely summer evening’s entertainment” – buffalotheatreguide.com

by Gail Golden, buffalotheatreguide.com

Last night, I went to the Irish Classical Theatre Company and saw their production of “Hay Fever” by Noel Coward. This British drawing room comedy from the 1920’s isn’t performed as often as Coward classics “Blithe Spirits”, “Private Lives”, and “Present Laughter,” and so being able to see “Hay Fever” is a real treat.

The play takes place at a country house where Judith Bliss, a famous actress of a certain age, and her family and friends have assembled for a weekend. The Bliss clan is eccentric, Bohemian, and given to theatrics and this has a detrimental effect on the psyche of their unwitting guests.

Direction by Gordon McCall is spritely and smooth, and the pace is good. It could benefit by being a little wilder and more inspired – especially at the end of Act 3 – but this is certainly a pleasant production.

Josephine Hogan is the central character, Judith Bliss, and Ms. Hogan is very much in command of the proceedings, shining especially brightly as the emotional crux for the hijinks of the second act.

As her over-the-top daughter, Marisa Caruso, is appropriately both vivacious and arch, and she delights vocally with a range that can run from sultry to squeaky within the same sentence!

Ironically, the straight man played by David Lundy, gets the biggest laughs of the evening, and Jacob Albarella also scores as a hapless stage struck hunk.

Providing able support are David Oliver as the pompous novelist, Jordan Levin as his immature son, Hilary Walker as a notorious vamp, Melissa Levin as a ditzy flapper, and Andrea Gollhardt as the exasperated maid.

Production values are high with lighting by Brian Cavanagh, sound by Tom Makar, and colorful scenery topped by a set of spiffy lamps by Paul Bostaph.  The consistently excellent period costumes by Lisa Harty include gorgeous beaded dresses and wonderful touches like two tone oxfords, red and black gardening gloves, and magnificent patent leather boots.

“Hay Fever” at the Irish Classical Theatre Company is light and fun and a lovely summer evening’s entertainment.

Running Time: 2 Hours 10 Minutes with one 10 Minute Intermission.


The Winslow Boy is “an elucidating family drama” – broadwayworld

by Michael Rabice, broadwayworld.com
Apr. 24, 2017

A family’s desire for wealth is at odds with its desire for honor in Terence Rattigan’s intriguing THE WINSLOW BOY now on stage at the Irish Classical Theatre.

Set in Kensington, England in the early 1900’s, Rattigan has written of the Upper Middle Class Winslow family and their 3 children. Youngest Ronnie (Collan Zimmerman) has returned abruptly from Military Academy having been accused of stealing a 5 shilling Postal Note and discharged from the school. His sister Catherine is the 20-something suffragette and his elder brother Dickie is floundering away at University

The patriarch of the family, Arthur, is brilliantly played by stage veteran Robert Rutland, remembered for much of his great work at Studio Arena Theatre. Rutland’s intense portrayal of the controlling father/husband anchors the drama, never allowing anyone to doubt who runs the family. His fixation with wealth is cemented as he interviews Catherine’s intended fiance, John Watherstone, played by Ben Michael Moran. More interested in the young man’s finances than his love for his daughter, Arthur lays out his own financial status while probing into the Watherstone’s fortune. Rutland’s brusque manner and endlessly fidgety fingers created an impatient character, who becomes a man possessed once he convinces himself that his son has been wrongly accused. His quest is to clear his son’s name while ensuring the family’s character remains untarnished.

Mr. Zimmerman performance as the titular character, under the guidance of Director Brian Cavanagh, often comes across as an aloof, immature teen not fully grasping the gravity of his predicament. Rattigan writes him as an unworldly 14 year old who desires nothing more than to enjoy his teenage years, more interested in attending a movie than attending his own court case. Zimmerman’s soft spoken voice and timidness at first seemed problematic, but later these attributes worked in his favor as the naive boy accused of a petty act.

Pamela Rose Mangus shines as the mother Grace. Her nuanced performance was utterly convincing as she often deferred to her husband’s wishes, but later in a face to face stand off with him, elucidates the toll her husband’s desire to right Ronnie’s name has taken on the fabric of her family, including the small family fortune. Ms. Mangus is a treat to watch on stage, fully embodying a woman raised in Victorian society and lovingly overprotective of her youngest child.

Rattigan has created a multi layered character in Catherine, brought to life by ICTC favorite Kate LoConti. Her no nonsense personality often mirrors that of her father, and LoConti revels in Catherine’s desire for equal rights coupled with her aging need to marry. It is clear that her impending marriage only superficially appears to be a true romance, further enhanced by Mr. Moran’s straight forward, dead pan line readings of his purported love for her. This only strengthens the fact that the two would only have a loveless relationship.

Kevin Craig is thoroughly enjoying himself on stage as Dickie, living the carefree life too much for his father’s liking. His levity is palpable and in great contrast to his father’s consternation. Local favorite Lisa Ludwig makes the most of the slightly wacky but loving housekeeper, Violet. Todd Benzin as Desmond, a family lawyer friend who yearns for Catherine, gives a poignant performance as the man past his prime who would unconditionally love Catherine, if she only would consider him.

The climax of Act I introduces us to the pivotal Sir Robert Morton, the high profile barrister engaged by the family to represent Ronnie and have his case heard in the High Court. Matt Witten is brilliant as the seasoned lawyer, building great intensity in his questioning of Ronnie that leaves the family, as well as the audience stunned and captivated by his brilliant mind. More perplexing was his initial encounter with Catherine, where innuendos of a prior relationship never became fully fleshed out in the script. Nonetheless, Witten and LoConti share great chemistry, which may later be realized after the play’s conclusion.

Evocative sound design by Tom Makar amplified the simple setting, as well as Dixon Reynolds lovely period specific costumes.

The second Act allows Rattigan to deepen the family relations and expose the toll that the two year ordeal of “Winslow vs. Rex” has taken. With the family’s name being strewn across the daily papers and reporters clamoring at their doorstep, Catherine’s prospect of marriage becomes weakened and Arthur must decide how much more his family and their coffers can endure. Here Rattigan is at his best showing the dichotomy of Arthur’s quest for financial security for his daughter while seemingly squandering away his own fortune, which ultimately will lessen her dowry.

Cavanagh paces the evening well in this play that at first glance seems much ado about nothing, but later turns into an elucidating family drama.

A “flawless performance” of “The Winslow Boy” – nytheatreguide.com

by Mary Best
Posted April 23, 2017

Opening night of a play can be a rocky one. Missteps, line stumbles and low energy often plague a cast kicking off a multi-week run. However, the cast of “The Winslow Boy” at Irish Classical Theatre Company delivered a flawless performance Friday night, showcasing some of the best Buffalo theater has to offer.

Brian Cavanagh directs this Terence Rattigan play, which lets us peek behind the curtain at the English Winslow family in the years leading up to World War I – ironclad patriarch Arthur, mother Grace, passionate feminist Catherine and brothers Dickie and Ronnie. Despite a stellar track record of being the favorite son, Ronnie gets expelled from Osborne Naval College after being accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. The story unfolds into many layers in the months that follow the incident, detailing each Winslow’s personal sacrifices and conflicts that result from pursing a trial to prove Ronnie’s innocence and, as they say, “Let right be done.”

As an ensemble, these 10 actors drive a high-energy performance, which isn’t always easy in a presumed courtroom drama that never leaves a sitting room. Despite a timeline that spans nearly two years, the audience never feels left out or like something is missing.

Kate LoConti portrays the intelligent, no-nonsense Catherine. She’s strong in all of her choices, and lets us see the detailed thoughts of every conflict Catherine faces, including having to choose between her fiancé, John Watherstone (a suave Ben Michael Moran) and supporting the progressive ideals motivating a trial for her brother. Her unwavering commitment to the women’s rights and suffragette movement is especially relevant to our currently politically charged society, making her an even more worthy heroine to root for.

The best scene of the entire play comes at the end of act one, when the reputable attorney Sir Robert Morton arrives to question Ronnie about taking his case. From the moment Matt Witten enters the theater as this shrewd character, the tension in the room triples. He is immediately captivating and powerful in a divine performance.

Robert Rutland portrays the strong-willed patriarch of the Winslow family – Arthur. His comedic delivery is excellent, and as his character’s health declines throughout the story, he never lets go of an ounce of strength. It’s rare for a character to evoke so much emotion without wearing their heart on their sleeve, but Rutland does this terrifically.
I’d be remiss not to call out Todd Benzin as the endearing Desmond Curry. As a man who’s always been in love with Catherine, he’s careful to bring a shred of sadness and disappointment that’s all too real for those of us possessing unrequited love. His scenes are especially nice to watch.

Collan Zimmerman, Lisa Ludwig, Pamela Rose Mangus, Kevin Craig and Gianna Palermo round out this A-team of players, making sure not a single moment in this funny and polarizing story is lost.

Dyan Burlingame’s set is rich with detail and perfectly suits Irish Classical’s intimate 360-degree space. Costumes by Dixon Reynolds were spot-on, adding a layer of personality to each character and leaving the audience anxious to see more.

The production features a fine-tuned company of actors giving high caliber performances, making “The Winslow Boy” a truly delightful night out at the theater.

“Let right be done!” See “THE WINSLOW BOY” at ICTC, powerful as Shaw and funny as Wilde.

by Peter Hall April 22, 2017, 12:02 pm

THE BASICS: THE WINSLOW BOY, a 1946 play by Terence Rattigan, presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, skillfully directed by Brian Cavanagh, starring Robert Rutland, Kate LoConti, Pamela Rose Mangus, Matt Witten, Kevin Craig, Ben Michael Moran, Todd Benzin, Lisa Ludwig, introducing Gianna Palermo, and Collan Zimmerman as “the boy” opened April 21 and runs through May 14, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 & 7:30, Sundays at 2, at 625 Main Street (the Andrews Theatre). (853-ICTC) www.irishclassicaltheatre.com Cozy full bar, snacks, coffee. Run time 2 hours 45 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: A masterful blend of drama with laugh lines, underneath it all THE WINSLOW BOY is a romantic comedy. Set in England before WWI (think “Downton Abbey”) we meet somewhat rigid patriarch Arthur Winslow toasting his suffragette daughter Catherine’s engagement to John Watherstone (son of a prominent military man) when he learns that the Osborne Naval College (a Royal Naval Academy under the aegis of “The Admiralty”) has expelled his 14-year-old son, Ronnie, for stealing a five-shilling postal order. Coming around to the lad’s innocence, Arthur Winslow stakes his modest family’s fortunes (he is a retired banker, not a lord), his personal health, his older son’s Oxford connections, familial peace, and Catherine’s marriage prospects to pursue justice. Under English law, Admiralty decisions, even involving petty theft, were official acts of the government, which could not be sued without the attorney general responding to a petition of “Let right be done.” And so the family engages Sir Robert Morton, a famous barrister and Member of Parliament. This is not a courtroom drama, although we do follow the case. All of the action takes place on a single set in the Winslow family home which is appropriate since the play really is character driven, with some of Buffalo’s best actors portraying those characters.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Opening night had all the energy one expects and none of the problems that occasionally occur. Everyone was delightfully well rehearsed. Thank you Brian Cavanagh and Irish Classical! My only complaint is that the audience was too reticent to laugh, at least early on. Come on, people! The characters on stage are stiff upper lip, God and Crown, veddy veddy “we don’t laugh, we’re British” but you’re not. The laugh lines by Terence Rattigan are hilarious. Let yourself go.

It was a fine triangle of superb theatrical skill, and the other characters rose to that level.

The performances are first order in this penultimate play of the ICTC season. (Next up, by the way, is HAY FEVER by Noel Coward where you really must be ready to laugh.) Robert Rutland as Arthur Winslow, the father, is a commanding force on the stage who ages and reveals more and more of his character most convincingly. Kate LoConti is always “in the moment” in the difficult role (difficult in real life too) of being a modern woman in a traditional family. And Matt Witten, with his big boomy voice was excellent as Sir Robert Morton, the barrister. It was a fine triangle of superb theatrical skill, and the other characters rose to that level. Personally, I loved seeing Ben Michael Moran again as a clueless English twit (he was marvelous in AN IDEAL HUSBAND). Mr. Moran should guard against type casting, he is so good in these roles. And Kevin Craig has the insouciant ne’er-do-well, but ne’er-do-much-else-either pampered Oxford student down to a tee. Lisa Ludwig deserves a special mention for taking what might seem to be a small role (the maid, Violet) and recognizing it for what it really is.

Amanda Sharpe was the dialect coach for this production, and while I can’t speak to the accuracy of the accents (we’ll leave that to Professor Henry Higgins) I can tell you that they were believable and utterly consistent throughout the evening, which is no small accomplishment, especially in moments of great emotional distress. Well done.

While this performance runs almost three hours, this skillfully crafted play keeps your attention and affection for every minute. Playwright Terence Rattigan has learned many things from George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and has reinvented them for our time.
Photo: Gene Witkowski

RATING: 4-1/2 BUFFALOS (out of 5)
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

ICTC’s “The Winslow Boy” lives up to its classic status – Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News

3-1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The sound of desperation crackles in the background of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play “The Winslow Boy,” which opened April 21 in the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Andrews Theatre.

On the surface, the play chronicles a family’s fight to reclaim its honor in the wake of a wrongful accusation. Beneath that veneer, it tells a broader story about the struggle to maintain order in a world descending into chaos.

Set in London in the years before World War I, Rattigan’s play is based on the true story of George Archer-Shee, a young naval cadet expelled from college for stealing a five-shilling postal order. In the real-life version as in Rattigan’s reimagining, the cadet’s family throws its full weight behind his defense, recruiting Britain’s top lawyer and exhausting their emotional and financial resources in the process.

Though it is not part of the story, it should not be lost on audiences that Archer-Shee died at 19 years old in the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 — and likely would have met the same fate whether he was guilty or not.

None of that seems to have been lost on director Brian Cavanagh, whose handsome and well-cast production emphasizes the play’s baked-in sense of dread about the war while maintaining a light dusting of humor, a comfortable pace and even a few flickers of romance.

Archer-Shee in Rattigan’s version becomes the slightly older Ronnie Winslow (Collan Zimmerman), who arrives on a rainy afternoon at his family’s modest home in west London to break the news.

It goes over poorly with everyone, not least Ronnie’s disconcertingly imperious father Arthur (Robert Rutland). Nonetheless, all are convinced of his innocence, and immediately launch a campaign to prove it. Against that backdrop, a secondary storyline involving the independent-minded Winslow daughter Catherine (Kate LoConti) and her fiancé John (Ben Michael Moran) unfolds.

Instrumental in that fight is the participation of Sir Robert Morton (Matt Witten), a barrister of supreme arrogance and opposition member of Parliament based on Sir Edward Carson. With his help, the case rises to national prominence and the outcome eventually pleases all.

To contemporary ears, the plot of Rattigan’s play hardly sounds compelling. Who should care about such a petty theft by such an inconsequential figure? The characters make that point themselves often enough to make audiences wonder whether there isn’t something bigger at stake.

Rattigan, who wrote the play after two devastating world wars had claimed countless Ronnie Winslows, clearly believes there is: the rule of law and individual liberty.

If all of this sounds impossibly academic, it is a testament both to Rattigan’s clever script and to these performers that it rarely seems that way onstage.

As Arthur Winslow, who conducts himself as a military officer who learned fatherly affection from a manual, Rutland gives a marvelous, idiosyncratic performance. Witten’s rendering of Sir Robert Morton stops itself two centimeters shy of over-the-top, which is just right.

LoConti, as Catherine, delivers Rattigan’s version of “The New Woman” with confidence, attitude and grace. She is especially affecting in a touching scene with Todd Benzin, who plays a family solicitor with an incurable crush on Catherine.

As the wayward Winslow brother Dickie, Kevin Craig is irresistibly funny. No one in this cast seems more at more in his character’s skin or on this stage. (One can imagine him being just as comfortable, say, at the Shaw Festival.) And fine turns come also from Lisa Ludwig as the Winslow family housekeeper, Pamela Rose Mangus as Winslow matriarch Grace, Ben Michael Moran as the cartoonishly gallant John.

As always, Tom Makar’s deceptively unobtrusive sound design both pushes the action along and hints at the rumblings of dread that underlie the play. Dyan Burlingame’s set, in concert with Cavanagh’s lighting design and Dixon Reynolds’ ruddy costumes, complete the picture with period-perfect touches.

Also true to the period, however, there are some touches of sexism that future productions would do well do avoid or at least reposition. They include the female reporter Miss Barnes (Gianna Palermo), who arrives to do a piece on the Winslow affair but becomes idiotically distracted by the curtains. The romantic sparks forming between Catherine and Morton need a better explanation than Morton’s apparently irresistible charm, since Catherine is a committed suffragette and Morton opposes her right to vote.

View these drawbacks as vestiges of the times, and it’s easy to see “The Winslow Boy” becomes a compelling piece of history, a story about the bonds of family and a warning about what we stand to lose should another global conflict arise.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com
Theater Review
3.5 stars (out of four)

“Kelly and Kelley … create fireworks” – Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News

In Irish Classical’s ‘Seedbed,’ a dangerous idea grows in a claustrophobic setting
by Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News

If you were thinking about retirement, take a look at the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s production of “The Seedbed.”
You might reconsider.

Bryan Delaney’s strange and solemn four-hander, which opened March 11 in the Andrews Theatre in a production directed by Greg Natale, is in part a study in the psychological effects of too much spare time. It is also a poetic exploration of three family members’ inexorable journeys away from one another and toward the terrifying unknown.

The Dublin-born Delaney, whose play “The Cobbler” received its world premiere from the Irish Classical 2005, has carefully constructed his own alluring, imagistic style from the grand traditions of Irish drama. His avowed influences include Abbey Theater stalwarts J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey, but his work also contains also dark echoes of the claustrophobic settings and twisted characters of Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson.

“The Seedbed,” with a funereal set by Paul Bostaph, gloomy lighting by Brian Cavanagh and a subtly unsettling sound design by Tom Makar, may as well be set in an actual bog. It opens with a strangely cheery exchange between Thomas (Chris Kelly) and his wife Hannah (Kirsten Tripp Kelley) that is so totally at odds with the play’s subterranean visual mood that we quickly realize it is a façade.
“We’re really good, aren’t we?” Hannah asks her husband with characteristic quiet desperation, as Thomas prattles on about his grand plans for a trip to Paris or Venice.

They are not good. As it turns out.

In fact, as a visit from their 18-year-old daughter Maggie (Arianne Davidow) and her newly acquired fiancé Mick (Eric Rawski) soon demonstrates, they are about as far from good as a semi-nuclear family can be. Maggie is Hannah’s biological daughter from a different father, but she and Thomas have raised her as their own.

These conditions have allowed for a certain idea to be born in Hannah’s head about the nature of Thomas’ affections for Maggie. (Strangely enough, the same setup drives the action of “A View From the Bridge,” now running in the Kavinoky Theatre.)
Whether that idea has any basis in reality will remain murky in this review, but suffice it to say that this dangerous notion undergoes a series of florid mutations in the mind of each character. The result is a wild psychological ride which demonstrates the power of the human imagination to shape reality and turn its darkest impulses into darker deeds.

As for imagination, Delaney has plenty to spare. He based the play on three abstract images: a house overgrown with plants, a castle caretaker carrying a birdcage and an overheard argument between a woman and her husband. The power of those seemingly disparate ideas suffuses the play, which flutters with avian imagery and poetry about the growth of gardens mirrored by the over-watered psychological fantasies in which its characters engage.

Delaney’s writing shines particularly well in Thomas’ dialogue. In one terrifying scene, Thomas acts out an insane pantomime involving a cup of sour milk and a cookie as everyone else — audience included — looks on with amusement, then dismay, then horror.
“My husband has a slightly lunatic side,” Hannah remarks as she tries to explain his behavior to Mick, an Englishman twice Maggie’s age. But Mick has his own shade of lunacy, and Hannah her own. The only one who seems to have it slightly together is Maggie, and she becomes the play’s hero — the one we root for to escape.

Rawski’s character is not exactly a cipher, but his presence feels too often mandated by the structural demands of the well-made play rather than organically emerging from the situation at hand. He acts as some sort of unhinged psychological version of Sherlock Holmes, picking his way, Cumberbatch-like, across the perilous mental landscape of characters who have been marinating far too long in their own miseries.
While the gloom and claustrophobia of the play can sometimes seem a bit too much to bear, the dynamic central performances of Kelly and Kelley — two of Buffalo’s very finest actors — make it all but impossible to lose attention. On their own, each of them delivers an astoundingly sensitive performance. Together, they create fireworks. Kelly, particularly, in his manic and tragicomic portrayal of a man brought to the edge of his sanity, is riveting.

Davidow also shines as Maggie, the picture of teenage optimism and naïveté sure to meet its match in the disappointment and pessimism of her older caretakers.

There’s plenty of pessimism and disappointment in “The Seedbed.” Like many great Irish dramas, Delaney’s play considers the push and pull of home, the pitfalls of staying too long in the nest and the difficulty of leaving at all. Its answer to this eternal question isn’t pretty, but it will certainly leave a mark.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com
Theater Review

“… potent, relevant, well acted” – Mike Keenan, “What Travel Writers Say”

Irish Playwright Bryan Delaney’s Western New York premiere, The Seedbed, suggests imagery that reflects growth – whether it’s fragrant flowers cultivated by Mick, a florist from Amsterdam, or – malignant familial thoughts and desires amidst a troubled triangle – father, mother and daughter in “a house in Ireland,” actually any home in any land.

This compelling drama might equally be called The Elephant in the Room, which seems appropriate now that U.S. politics appears illogical to the rest of the world. The elephant might be Thomas, the steadfast father, portrayed powerfully by Chris Kelly, who cultivates a slow burn with volcanic explosions throughout the play. Or it might be his wife, Hannah, played stoically and convincingly by Kristen Trip Kelley, her red hair burning as brightly as her mounting fear and anxiety, which sparks trouble for all. Or it might be the 18-year-old daughter Maggie, her raw sexual allure and angry acting out captured wonderfully by Arianne Davidow. Finally, it might be young Maggie’s bizarre choice for a mate, middle-aged Mick, the florist, handled adeptly by Eric Rawski whose penchant for honesty causes the family irreparable damage. That’s four elephants if you are counting, in fact a veritable herd.

Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theatre Company is a Western New York gem whose Artistic Director, Vincent O’Neil and Producing Director, Fortunato Pezzimenti regularly stage potent, relevant and well-acted plays in their Andrews Theatre, located directly across Main Street from Shea’s Performing Arts Center in the heart of Buffalo’s Theatre District.

This marks the fourth production of the Season, and Bryan Delaney is already known to Buffalo audiences for his successful play The Cobbler, given its World Premiere by the Irish Classical Theatre Company.

The action begins to broil with the wayward daughter suddenly returning home from Amsterdam to reveal her fiancé, middle-aged Mick, his initial appearance drawing an immediate chuckle from the audience, knowing things will surely get complicated with this incongruous pairing. Coincidentally, Thomas and Hannah uneasily celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary. Their union uneasy with her multiple miscarriages and he, the stepfather, taking on a close relationship with the feral daughter.

The set is spectacularly sparse, and Hannah’s opening anniversary gift to Thomas, two caged sparrows, primes one for the secluded set at the end, a dingy shed filled with a mattress and sexual innuendo suggesting lurid behaviour, and three large bird cages, only one of the four of them, it seems, able to escape from the domestic coop.

On YouTube, prior to the play, I watched Bryan Delaney quote Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri – “A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves…Sick storytellers can make nations sick – Stories can conquer fear. They can make the heart larger.” He also quotes Hamlet – “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

This effectively sums up both the play and contemporary America. The Irish family feud is a bitter struggle between fake news and truth, polarizing the players into absolutist factions unable and unwilling to unite. How prescient of O’Neil and Pezzimenti to stage Delaney’s dark drama now.

Delaney says about the play, “It’s a battleground that takes place over about four days.” He suggests that on the surface, it’s a battle of wills, but deeper down (in the familial seedbed), it’s about how a nasty thought takes root in one’s mind to manifest as a strange mutation, spreading like cancer from one damaged person to the next.

Honest, reliable, down-to-earth, Mick, the affable florist, able to methodically and encyclopedically rhyme off multiple floral names to scold, arouse, amuse and even tease Maggie as they imbibe wine on a couch, acts as our seeing-eye dog, sniffing out the truth from the other three.

The factual explanation of his chance meeting with Maggie and their “midnight swim” in one of Amsterdam’s many canals, sets off bells and whistles in Thomas’s 911 fire station brain and leads to the scorching denouement at the end. Familial body language says it all – Hannah’s abject frozenness, Thomas’s gradually accepting arms and Maggie’s conniving, coiling fingers. It’s enough to make one run out and catch another play by Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee.