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NAVIGATORS at Alleyway is so good – a little Sorkin, a little Gurney, a little Wilson in a non-stop 90 minutes

THE BASICS:  NAVIGATORS, the world premiere of a play by Gordon Farrell directed by Neal Radice, starring Chris J Handley, Sandra Roberts, and Tom Owen runs through October 5, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 (September 20 at 8), at the Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley (adjacent to Shea’s) (852-2600). Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Having just left the funeral for his estranged mother, who was a U.S. Senator, we find that her son, E.J., a former District Attorney, has apparently pissed off a lot of people by delivering a eulogy that centered on both his mother’s hypocrisy and on the failings of the American political system in general to protect the poor and disenfranchised. He has now taken up lodging with a sleeping bag in the unheated family boathouse where he is working on an apparently second-rate adventure novel. His younger sister, Maddy, still a willing part of this politically powerful New England family, has come down to the lake to talk to him about his running for his mother’s vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, but E.J. will have none of it. Uncharacteristically, she proposes a moonlight sail in the old family sailboat, apparently with no destination, until they end up at the dock of their Uncle Leo.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: If you miss the television series WEST WING and writer Aaron Sorkin’s smart, snappy dialog about how the political system really works, then you will love NAVIGATORS. If you enjoy watching privileged, powerful WASP families snipe at one another as they do in A.R. Gurney’s plays such as THE COCKTAIL HOUR, then NAVIGATORS will feel like coming home. And if you enjoyed watching actor Chris J Handley in front of a boathouse trying to explain himself to a woman who’s not buying it, as he recently did in Lanford Wilson’s 97 minute TALLEY’S FOLLY at Jewish Repertory Theatre, then NAVIGATORS will give you a pleasant sense of déjà vu.

Sandra Roberts as Maddy tries to understand her brother E.J. | Photo credit Neal Radice

It’s the start of the Alleyway’s 40th Season (founder Neal Radice will be retiring in May, 2020) and this is their 150th production which is a pretty impressive run to date for a company dedicated to producing new plays. Sure, their annual packed-house productions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL (this year December 6-22) help pay the rent, but by and large they stake their fortunes on new works. New, but not completely out of left field. Gordon Farrell (MFA, Yale School of Drama, 1986) is not a new playwright and he has a longstanding relationship with the Alleyway. If you’ve heard the name, perhaps it’s because you were one of the smaller audiences for last season’s closing work, Farrell’s play GIRLS WHO WALKED ON GLASS which brought together a number of women’s voices as presented by a cadre of very brave Buffalo actresses, including Sandra Roberts, who plays “Maddy” in NAVIGATORS.

Or perhaps you heard about last year’s Broadway hit play LIFESPAN OF A FACT by Farrell starring Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, and Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) who played an eager journalism intern whose fact-checking assignment revealed dark secrets. Speaking of journalism and dark secrets…

“Why are the brightest young Americans refusing to go into politics? Asking this question is what led me to write NAVIGATORS,” Farrell said in a recent discussion with Alleyway staff. Per the Alleyway Press Release, Farrell is referring to his observations from the 1990s when those assumed to be the next generation of political leaders made decisions to abandon those expectations and pursue interests in journalism or other private-sector ventures. When asked if he had come up with an answer to his question, Farrell admitted, “No, I still don’t have an answer, but it remains relevant today [in 2019]. My hope is to take the audience on a journey where they will begin to ask the same question themselves. Call me naïve, but I think we deserve better leaders than the batch we’ve been getting lately.”

While it’s rather risky producing new plays, one after the other, in fact, that’s what they do on Broadway all the time.

In the “dialog” (think “talkback”) with the audience on the second night, Director Neal Radice said that while it’s rather risky producing new plays, one after the other, in fact, that’s what they do on Broadway all the time. That’s true, of course, and on Broadway the financial risks are even higher, but even “new” plays and musicals don’t actually begin on Broadway. They are developed in colleges, or regionally, or off-Broadway first. And that’s what’s going on here. In fact, what is on stage at the Alleyway is, we were told, actually a major re-working of a script that Gordon Farrell first sent to Radice way back in 1992. The political landscape has changed drastically since then and so, apparently has the play. In a way, during what I’ll call “Curtain Up! Preview Days” we in the audience were actually part of the refinement process. If you think that plays spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, think again. Plays improve dramatically (pardon the pun) the more they are workshopped, previewed, and re-written. In fact, said Radice, when the playwright himself comes to Buffalo for Curtain Up! Weekend, there will probably be even a few more tweaks here and there.

I have been gently reminded that people who get into comfortable lifestyle grooves tend to stay there. Perhaps you do that with theaters. And if you buy season tickets from any performing arts group, that’s great. Don’t stop. Season tickets holders are important part of any arts organization’s funding. However, if you’d like to branch out a little bit, here’s what you might do:

If you are a Kavinoky Theatre regular and have enjoyed their plays about politics or families, I’m thinking in particular about THE CITY OF CONVERSATION (Washington politics) or THE COCKTAIL HOUR (privileged WASP family), but haven’t considered visiting the more “black box” Alleyway Theatre located in a former bus station, NAVIGATORS is a play to consider attending.

If you regularly attend Jewish Repertory Theatre shows, I’m not going to give any spoilers here, but you will absolutely want to see this play. And not just because last year you saw Chris Handley (and Anne Boucher) in TALLEY’S FOLLY. Besides, your car already knows how to get from Getzville downtown to Shea’s and the Alleyway is right next door (enter on the side of the building, along the alley between Main and Pearl).

And, if you’re a fan of Road Less Traveled Productions (which used to be right across Pearl but now is at 456 Main Street) and remember such plays as FARRAGUT NORTH or more recently DISGRACED, then you’ll like NAVIGATORS, too.

So go!

Lead image: L-R Sandra Roberts as Maddy, Chris Handley as E.J., Tom Owen as Leo | Photo credit Neal Radice

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

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!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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