“‘Minding Frankie’ is a feel-good, heartwarming, laugh through the tears holiday treat at ICTC”

Review by Peter Hall, Buffalo Rising
November 15, 2017

THE BASICS: MINDING FRANKIE, a play by Shay Linehan [say LIN-uh-han] adapted from the novel by Maeve Binchy, presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, directed by Chris Kelly, a “two-hander” starring Kristen Tripp Kelley and Christian Brandjes in a variety of roles, runs through November 26, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 & 7:30 and Sundays at 2 at the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main Street (853-ICTC). Full service bar in the “Chris O’Neill lounge”www.irishclassicaltheatre.com Runtime: a touch over two hours with one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Noel Lynch is a Dublin drunk barely holding on to his job as a clerk in a building materials warehouse when he gets a call to go to the hospital to see Stella, a woman he spent a few days with at an outdoor music festival. Puzzled, he shows up, and it turns out she has cancer, she’s dying, and she’s pregnant, and he’s the father. She has chosen him to take care of (“mind”) the soon-to-be-born daughter “Frankie.” At first, reluctantly, but then fiercely, he agrees. Meanwhile, the embittered spinster social worker, Moira Tierney, wants Frankie to be adopted by responsible friends of hers who will then make Moira Frankie’s godmother.  Complications ensue in this “laugh through the tears” Irish comedy.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Right from the start this play is a winner. Now, just as it takes a village, or at least a Dublin street, to raise a child, it takes as many to produce a show, so singling anyone out is not to diminish any other element. Having said that, Kristen Tripp Kelley, who always delivers a professional performance, is on a whole other level here. Seamlessly moving from portrayals of the dying Stella to the uptight Moira, and others in-between as needed (including wonderful moments as Noel’s dad, and later as Malachi, Noel’s AA sponsor) Kelley’s acting chops get a workout and she’s up for it. Oh yes; yes she is. Christian Brandjes plays the drunk, Noel, and many other characters, too, so ably that having only two actors was enough for me.

A lot of ICTC’s shows are a bit gritty, the people are mean and do not seek redemption, and the laughs and tears are hard won, often leaving me wondering: “Could we please just have a nice play that tugs at the heartstrings and lets us walk out of the theater feeling good about the world?” Well, I got my wish. That play is called MINDING FRANKIE.


“Minding Frankie” celebrates an ordinary man as quietly heroic … a rich, warm tale.

Review by Willy Rogue Donaldson
Published Monday, November 13, 2017

Here we are in modern Ireland, where we see Noel Lynch is drinking his way to oblivion in yet another pub. He hasn’t been thrown out of this one like he has at many others- Whoops! He was just thrown out again! Into a sizeable puddle!

Later we see him at home when he gets a strange phone call from someone he barely knows. Uh oh, no man is an island, and no man wants to get this phone call.

We watch events unfold over two acts with wonder and chuckles. When my companion Miss Pickwicker wondered why genetics wasn’t brought onto the scene, I pointed out the first act takes place over twenty years ago. The ending comes with a huge smile, followed by much applause.

The two characters are played by two of Buffalo’s best actors in a very smooth production Directed by Chris Kelly. It is a very physical play with continuous action, with few breaks between many short scenes. This means the actors have to establish the difference between scenes very quickly and have no time to catch their breath. Even tho they are seldom running, it is still a strenuous undertaking. And Chris Kelly has made it seem seamless, with everything running smoothly the first weekend.   And withal the scenes are oriented in different directions for theater in the round- a fine direction of movement.

The set consists of blown up children’s blocks, which are moved adroitly between scenes, and the few props are pulled out from within them. A very attractive Set Designed by Paul Bostaph. Some missing elements are suggested by the actors’ movements.

Christian Brandjes tucks another masterful portrayal under his belt with his character Noel Lynch. He takes him from a drunkard to a solid warm character in the play, proving himself again and again on the slippery slope.

Kristen Tripp Kelly takes the stage as Moira Tierney, a woman who has a very responsible position as an adoption agency official. She is very wary of this unusual adoption, and thinks at every junction that she has to jump in before Lynch fails to be up to the job. Her important doubt makes her character seem stiff and rather harsh, we learn later what her personal limitations and outlook are.

In the conflicts between these two characters we sense a possible romance to come, they are getting to know each other very well. Does anything come of this? I’ll not give it away, but towards the end, KT Kelly gets a chance to show Moira more attractively.

Did I mention the third and fourth characters onstage? The fourth was played by slight of hand, an onstage unvoiced character. And the third was an important character, Stella, present in full body and voice. The only problem was there was no third actor. So that means KT Kelly played Stella Dickson in the hospital.   Wait a minute, she also played Moira visiting Stella in the hospital. Wha? Dummy? Mirrors? Twins? Watch that scene carefully!!

The play is enhanced by its usage of Irish [Irish English], with characteristic words and phrases which enrich our experience. And it celebrates an ordinary man as interesting and quietly heroic. Here is a most worthy definition of the American slang phrase “man up”.

Go and enjoy a rich warm tale at The Irish Classical Theatre!

“Vivid storytelling, skillful acting, versatile set design” in “Minding Frankie”

Review by Cherie Messore, buffalotheatreguide.com
November 10, 2017

We should all live in the world Maeve Binchy created. Gentle moments are soft as a whisper. Strong emotions are passions with purpose. Hate is usually couched in fear, and while it’s uncomfortable, it’s not vitriolic. And the good guy always wins.

“Minding Frankie” was one of Binchy’s last novels (published two years before her death) and is the only one adapted for the stage, nicely done by Shay Linehan. Irish Classical Theatre’s production is the North American premiere.

Linehan did a fine job scaling back the abundant characters of the novel to this clean and taut production for two actors in multiple tiny roles.

Director Chris Kelly struck gold with his two actors of choice. Christian Brandjes’ dominant role is Noel, the father and minder of infant Frankie, the poor dear, who is born out of wedlock to a terminally ill woman who professes that Noel is the biological dad.

Kristen Tripp Kelley is Frankie’s mom Stella, but for most of show she is Moira, the social worker who is not convinced that Noel, with his love of the drink, is father material. And so it goes.

Turns out Noel can manage just fine, most of the time, with a little help from his extended family of village folk, who appear to the audience only in one-sided dialogue..

Both Brandjes and Kelly shine in their primary roles and their multiple character appearances, too. Kelley’s shift from the disdainful social worker Moira from dying mama Stella is the farthest stretch of all, and she manages this beautifully. Brandjes’ morph from drunk Noel to waiter is charming and deft. Both actors use their voices and body language well, with carefully placed steps and nuances, aided by randomly small props and pieces. Whoever thought a simple plastic rain bonnet was all you needed to change personalities, or a tilt to your wrist can suggest a serving tray? A truly skilled actor can make you see something new in every suggestion.

Skillful acting, versatile set design, simple costumes,  and minimalist props powerfully suggest people, places, and objects here, supporting a sentimental and sweet story. Designer Paul Bostaph’s set is a series of oversized alphabet blocks that shift into a bed, a changing table, and a bar, besides holding teaser props to fold our imaginations into the space and story. A vintage receiver sans cord is the non-cellular phone. Hands curved around air just so suggest holding the wriggly curves of an infant.  I like that this production makes you work along with the actors to make the story very real in your mind’s eye. It’s this subtly vivid storytelling that draws you in and makes you very glad you are there.

Running time is just over two hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“Minding Frankie” runs until November 26, 2017 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Minding Frankie’ at Irish Classical Theatre


“Engaging story telling … a charmingly sensitive production” – ICTC’s “Minding Frankie”

Review by Michael Rabice, broadwayworld.com
November 11, 2017

Engaging story telling is an ancient art and being able to retell someone else’s story can be a challenge– where to put emphases, inflections and pauses, what to include and what to embellish, and how to bring characters to life. Playwright Shay Linehan has adapted Irish author Maeve Binchy’s novel MINDING FRANKIE with thoughtful creativity and Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theatre Company is presenting a charmingly sensitive production at it’s Andrews Theatre.

Linehan is the Playwright in Residence at ICTC and here his success lies in the creative nature in which he chooses to tell a story that encompasses dozens of characters all being played by a single man and woman. MINDING FRANKIE tells of the consequences of a brief not-so-romantic interlude by a single man named Noel, a working class Irishman who is also a mostly down on his luck alcoholic. His personal life is not much to speak of and things get complicated when he receives a phone call from a social worker Moira asking him to urgently come visit a dying past fling in the hospital. Told that he is the father of a soon to be born baby girl named Frankie, he must decide what to do with the child, as the mother will most certainly die of cancer imminently.

This two act, two person play requires and is given caring and thoughtful direction by Chris Kelly. With a simple setting of life sized children’s alphabet blocks and toys chests (designed by Paul Bostaph), Kelly creatively rearranges the blocks and chests in a myriad of configurations to deal with the numerous short scenes that make up the play. He expertly uses the playing area to suggest multiple locales and guides each actor through changes in voice, posture and costumes to inhabit each character with clarity. His stage direction is fluid and essentially choreographed so as the literally map out walking patterns among the boxes so each character enters the next scene with precision.

Christian Brandjes as Noel shines in embodying his inner and outer turmoil of accepting to raise Frankie, while being totally unequipped for such a task. His attempts to convince Social Worker Moira (played by Kristen Tripp Kelley) that he is up to the challenges are constantly dashed. Moira herself has a stake in raising the child. Her plan includes having her friends be the foster parents and she will become the godmother to Frankie.

Ms. Kelley finds many layers in her nuanced portrayal of the lonely and overworked Moira, herself without any prospects of marriage or having a child. With her red hair and excellent Irish accent, Kelley is perfectly cast and subtly shows the desperation in trying to do the right thing for the child while trying to fill a void in her own personal life. Whether she takes on the role of the dying mother, burly bar tender or aging neighbor, her acting choices are clear and well thought. Brandjes and Kelley are at their best in confrontation scenes, and there are many, as Moira trails Noel wherever he goes and frequently drops in at his apartment in attempts to find him unfit. Mr. Brandjes is delightful in his scenes with the newborn Frankie, pantomiming with conviction and often hilarity. His exasperation and humor offer a nice balance to the uptight nature of Ms. Kelley’s role. After Frankie is in his care he is challenged with the notion that he may not be her father and paternity testing comes in to play, further questioning Frankie’s placement.

MINDING FRANKIE at first does not cry out for a stage production. The story is straight forward and the twist and turns are few, often playing out more like an episodic television script. Luckily the artistic merits of all involved in this production elevate the material to a much higher ground and by the play’s conclusion that effective art of great story telling draws the audience in. The ending is as satisfyingly placid as reading the last paragraph of a newly found short story.

MINDING FRANKIE runs through November 26, 2017 at the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Andrews Theatre. Contact irishclassical.com for more information


“well-placed wisdom … gentle storytelling” in “Minding Frankie”

Preview by Cherie Messore, buffalotheatreguide.com –

Maeve Binchy is one Ireland’s most beloved modern novelists. One of her early novels, “Circle of Friends”, was adapted for the silver screen (starring Minnie Driver and Chris O’Donnell) in 1995.  One of her last novels, “Minding Frankie,” (published in 2010, four years before her death) was adapted for the stage, and it will make its US premiere at the Irish Classical Theatre when it opens there on November 3.

Binchy’s novels are renowned for their warmth and charm, with a touch of well-placed wisdom woven into classic and gentle storytelling. Her books read like an Aran knit sweater: cozy, comfortable, maybe a little bit scratchy at times, but you always feel better about wrapping yourself in Binchy’s carefully written world.

For director Chris Kelly, he has the enviable task of crafting the work of playwright Shay Linehan with two venerable ICTC actors, Kristen Tripp Kelley and Christian Brandjes.  The play opened in Dublin earlier this year, and is now touring Ireland. As this was the US premiere, he says, “There aren’t many places or other productions to look in on, to see how others have dealt with the piece. Honestly though, by and large, it’s a really freeing position to be in.”

The original novel was 450 pages long: playwright Linehan “honors the spirit of the work,” says Kelly, in this 90 minute version, which allows it to become its own work, and not merely a segment of the longer piece. Kelly likes Linehan’s treatment, stating, “I think fans will be pleased with the adaptation and the great care we take with Binchy’s world and characters.”

The story is poignant: Noel is an alcoholic, and he unexpectedly becomes the “minder” of baby girl Frankie. His quirky family helps him care for the child, yet he still has to convince a disapproving social worker that this unconventional set up is in the baby’s best interest. Kelly cast Christian Brandjes and Kristen Tripp Kelley as Noel and Moira respectively, but they also portray a variety of other characters to illustrate the rest of Frankie’s extended family. Because they are both “earthy, honest, and versatile actors,” says Kelly, they bring their best to the wealth of characters in this story. Look for a production that’s lively, fun, and while it may be sentimental, there’s nothing wrong with that.

And millions of other Binchy fans around the world agree.

“Minding Frankie” is onstage from November 3-26, 2017 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.

Lunch with Vincent O’Neill, Buffalo Irish Times

by Tim Bohen, Buffalo Irish Times
October 2017

Sitting in the back of Founding Fathers Pub, I waited for Vincent O’Neill who had agreed to get together to talk about the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s upcoming season. O’Neill breezed into the pub, sporting a dark blue blazer. He came over to the table and greeted me with a warm smile. He then placed his order for the daily special: a Pepper Jack Jerk Burger. As the waiter left, O’Neill turned to me: “Say that three times quickly. What a great sobriety test.” As I discovered throughout our time together, it is a love of language and the mesmerizing “magic of words” that makes this Irishman tick.

O’Neill, the co-founder and artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company (ICTC), is excited for the upcoming season, which, for the first time, is comprised entirely of comedies (both light and dark). He explained that a season of comedies made great sense given the current political climate in the US, in which people are yelling at each other. With characteristic Irish wit, he pointed out: “an Irish comedy is a tragedy in any other country.” He related Brendan Behan’s view that the secret of Irish writing is that “you soften them up with comedy, and then when they are weak and vulnerable, you punch them in the gut with a bit of tragedy.”

For those who might be worried about taking such a hit, I asked O’Neill which play he would recommend to someone who might be new to theater. Although each play offers something different, “The Night Alive” by Conor McPherson (March 2-25th, 2018) is “not to be missed.” It is a touching comedy about humanity and redemption for some down-and-out Dubliners. The season opens with Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” (September 15-October 8). In November, fans of best-selling Irish author, Maeve Binchy, will thoroughly enjoy Shay Linehan’s play “Minding Frankie,” which is based on Binchy’s novel by the same title (November 3-26). The winter months offer us W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Constant Wife,” about the vicissitudes of married life in the 1920s (January 19-February 11, 2018), and “The “Awful Truth” by Arthur Richman, which was the inspiration for a movie by the same title starring Cary Grant (April 20-May 13, 2018). Finally, the season closes out with Oscar Wilde’s crowd-pleaser, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (June 1-24, 2018). If you are looking to laugh, this is the year to buy a season membership or try out the ICTC for the first time. You will not be disappointed.

After hearing about the upcoming season, we turned to talk about O’Neill’s life in Ireland before landing in Buffalo. He was raised in Sandycove, a Dublin suburb. His father, a dedicated civil servant, was the youngest of thirteen children born to a poor farmer from West Cork (Castletownbere). His mother (nee Casey) was raised in the inner city of Dublin. As a child Vincent was shy, which is why his parents sent him to drama school at the age of eight. But he started his career, after university at Trinity College in Dublin, teaching Spanish and French at a school run by the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. He quips, “One of the richest orders in Ireland.” He eventually came back to theater where he met French actor and mime Marcel Marceau, an encounter that was life-changing. He went on to act at the prestigious Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Once O’Neill had honed his craft, he was ready to strike out on his own.

O’Neill made his first visit to Buffalo in 1985 when he and his older brother, Chris, performed Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at the old Airways Hotel. He would eventually make Buffalo his home in December 1989. One year later he founded the Irish Classical Theatre with his late brother Chris, Josephine Hogan, and the late James Warde. Their first address was the Calumet building on Chippewa Street, which is where I enjoyed my first ICTC play, “Sea Marks,” starring O’Neill and Hogan. The year was 1993 and I was hooked. Ten years later, January 1999, ICTC moved to its current location, the Andrews Theatre on Main Street. In 27 years, ICTC has entertained tens of thousands of theatergoers, contributing significantly to the arts and culture in Buffalo.

O’Neill is grateful to the Irish-American community in Buffalo, which has warmly embraced the ICTC from the beginning. It was Larry Quinn who was instrumental in securing the location of their Main Street home, and Peter Andrews, a descendant of the Conners family, donated generously for their current theater, bearing their family name. Others such as Joe Crowley and Frank McGuire have been very generous supporters of the theater, and many members of their board of trustees are Irish Americans. O’Neill was also honored to be awarded the Buffalo Irish Center’s “Irishman of the Year” several years ago.

O’Neill feels good about the future of the ICTC. Each season presents him with the happy problem of having too many plays to choose from. “No country in the world [Ireland], per capita, has generated such a wealth of literature, especially dramatic literature.” The impressive Irish and Irish-American canon includes playwrights such as Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Eugene O’Neill and Brian Friel. Add to that contemporary playwrights such as Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh, and Frank McGuiness, as well as emerging talents such as Bryan Delaney. “Scratch an Irishman and you’ll find a writer, you know.”

In fact, O’Neill is one of those writers. Aside from his many duties as artistic director of the ICTC, O’Neill is writing a play with his close friend and fellow countryman, Lawrence Shine, in which they are trying to capture the unique style of language of the residents of a particular neighborhood in Dublin. He is also writing a book on acting in which he hopes to share lessons he learned over the years. He loves teaching acting classes at the University of Buffalo. All of this while working on a performance of Yeats’ poems with Mary Ramsey and Joe Hassett.

As our time together was drawing to a close, I asked O’Neill what he’d be doing if he was not an actor.  Without hesitation he responds, “A writer.” At this point we had to check our parking meters. As we were leaving the bar walking towards our cars, he started talking about Yeats, his favorite poet, followed closely by Patrick Kavanagh. When I told him I’d heard of Kavanagh but not read his work, O’Neill’s Irish eyes lit up, “Oh Tim, you are in for a real adventure!” O’Neill’s love of language and belief in the magic of words is palpable. Partake in the magic and make this your first of many seasons at the Irish Classical Theatre.




Vincent O’Neill to appear at the BIC Sunday, Oct. 29, 3PM

The Buffalo Irish Center welcomes ICTC Artistic Director Vincent O’Neill Sunday, October 29 at 3PM as part of the BIC Speaker Series.  Vincent will read from the works of Frank McCourt including Angela’s Ashes, Teacher and ‘Tis.

His presentation will take place at the Buffalo Irish Center, 245 Abbott Road, Buffalo, in the Claddagh Room.  It will be 45 minutes in length and will be followed by a relaxed discussion period accompanied by “afternoon tea.”

Vincent is a much-acclaimed Theatre professional:  actor, director, producer and writer.  He is also a popular and capable educator:  a Teacher in the Department of Theatre & Dance at the University at Buffalo.

This event is free and open to the public.

Strong Cast makes for superb “Design for Living” – Michael Rabice, BWW

Never afraid of controversy, Noel Coward‘s DESIGN FOR LIVING must have seemed bawdy and shocking in its day. Let’s face it, a menage a trois always elicits controversy. But somehow that master of witty repartee has fashioned a comedy that gets away with bad behavior by wrapping it in his signature complexities of the English language. The result is the highly polished production playing at the Irish Classical Theatre.
This 2017-28 season is being billed as their season of comedies and it is off to a smashing start. Coward’s play revolves around Otto, Leo and Gilda, best friends and secretly best lovers. The three act play allows for inappropriate relations with Gilda and each of the men, often behind the other’s back, but not for long. The three are completely self involved beings who live for their own immediate pleasure, without regard for their actions. As only Coward can do, he pens these fascinatingly wicked characters who would be disliked by society, but somehow enamors the audience with their bad behavior.

Director Katie Mallinson has assembled a brilliant trio of actors that shine individually, but create genuine sparks when in pairs or all together. Irish Classical’s audience favorite Kate LoConti plays Gilda, the frustrated socialite who lives for the “now” moment and doesn’t often contemplate more than a minute in the future. Gilda is prone to lying to cover up her affairs, but ultimately is never happy with any of them. Ms LoConti and Mallinson have studied their scripts, where Gilda is often referred to as various animals– Gilda hops, jumps on furniture, sits on chair by squatting on it, and is a general whirlwind of activity. LoConti is coy and mischievous, reveling in each of her affairs, like a smitten teenager unable to make an “adult” decision.
Adriano Gatto is Otto, an aspiring artist. Mr. Gatto turns in a nuaunced comical performance full of English bluster that is utterly charming. His comfort on stage allows him to shed any pretenses, as he copes with the hand which he has been dealt. His infectious laugh and charismatic presence exuded confidence throughout the evening. Ben Michael Moran completes the trio as Leo, the witty playwright. Mr. Moran appears to the manor-born, full of pomposity and self assurance. His perfect British accent is matched by his elegant air, striking poses and strutting about. When Gatto and Moran finally confront each other regarding their affairs with Gilda, the drama and comedy is priceless. Over endless bottles of liquor the men first feud over their predicament and ultimately end in a drunken “love-ya-man” moment, where they both realize that as a duo they may have the upper hand in claiming Gilda.
Eric Michael Rawski is Ernest, the slightly older art dealer who has befriended all of the three, but sets his own stakes on Gilda. Rawksi embodies the pretentious fop, rich and more level headed than the others. The play’s conclusion offers the trio as one unit now, meaning that Gilda’s new marriage to Ernest must be abandoned. Here Coward seems to belabor Ernest’s exasperation, often reiterating the same language, making the 3 hour drama seem about 10 minutes longer that comfort allows. Happily, these four seasoned actors show such commitment to the text that the comedy never waivers.

Ms. Mallinson’s direction is quick paced and doesn’t allow for too much schtick, so that when it does occur it packs more of a punch. She effortlessly moves the cast along making use of all areas of the stage–not an easy feat for theatre in the round. Costume designer Ann Emo has fashioned lovely period pieces for the ladies that aren’t overdone and handsome men’s furnishings.

Coward’s concept of a modern design for living suggests that there are many ways to choose to live, and a bohemian lifestyle without preconceived notions may be an option for some. His dialogue here is often biting while being thought provoking. In lesser hands, DESIGN FOR LIVING may come off a stale and dated, but this witty production shows what great acting and directing can do to dust off an old standard.

by Michael Rabice, broadwayworld.com, September 29, 2017

“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)