THE BASICS: THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS, a play by Buffalo’s Mark Humphrey presented by (the new) Navigation Theatre Company, starring Monish Bhattacharyya, Timothy Costaglia, Suzie Hibbard, Tim Kennedy, and Victor Morales runs through November 16, Thursdays and Fridays at 8, and Saturdays at 5 at what’s now called the “Compass Performing Arts Center” 545 Elmwood Avenue near Utica (“the old TheaterLoft”) (697-0837) kindnessofstrangers gets you to the very user-friendly “Brown Paper Tickets.” Runtime: Only 90 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: We meet four travelers trapped in a bar during a blizzard. Along with Billy the bar owner (Tim Kennedy) we listen in on the lives of Peter (Monish Bhattacharyya), who’s a producer of porn films; Frank (Victor Morales), who has cancer; Jackie (Timothy Coseglia) a Hollywood actor whose career is on the skids ever since he was accused of being involved in his ex-wife’s murder; and Linda (Suzie Hibbard) Jackie’s assistant, known for her ability to “fix things.”
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It’s a classic set-up: stranded travelers confined to a small space, used effectively by many, including William Inge in BUS STOP or in any number of Agatha Christie plays. It keeps things focused and is a device that local playwright Humphrey has used before, as seen in the 2017 ART production of his play ROOMMATES where a loan-shark, his “muscle” (played by Victor Morales), and his debtor spend an intense night in a small room.
The title of the play THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS comes from a line delivered by the character Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ play A STREEETCAR NAMED DESIRE: “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” There are two key “kindnesses” in this play, both very dramatic moments, one involving Frank, the cancer patient, a kindness offered to Jackie, the Hollywood star, and one involving Billy, the bar owner, offered to Jackie’s assistant, Linda. Enough about that. No spoilers here.
When playwrights use the tired old gag of one person saying something slightly ambiguous, and the other person responding with “What?” I am annoyed at this waste of our time. And I was almost there when one of the characters complains “What are we, Abbot and Costello?” (referring to the classic “Who’s on First?”routine, which never gets old). It was a delicious “meta” or “gotcha” moment for playwright Humphrey. Good one.
If there’s one thing set designers seem to excel at creating on stage, it’s bars/taverns/honky-tonks, you name it, and we’ve had some good ones over the last several years.
If there’s one thing set designers seem to excel at creating on stage, it’s bars/taverns/honky-tonks, you name it, and we’ve had some good ones over the last several years. From DIXIE LONGATE’S one-woman show at Shea’s Smith, to ONCE at MusicalFare, to ONCE IN MY LIFETIME back at the Smith, to THE UNDENIABLE SOUND OF RIGHT NOW at Road Less Traveled, to THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS, every one of these has or had bar sets so realistic that you could almost smell the stale beer on the bar mats and the scented urine-cakes in the men’s rooms.
Kudos to Matthew LaChiusa and Daniel Coseglia for the design of this watering hole which effectively covers the large width of the stage at 545 Elmwood Avenue. It’s a weird stage that has caused problems for other productions. If you have actors on the far left and right, it’s distracting, but if you have nothing there, that’s also odd. LaChiusa and Coseglia overcome this problem by placing a light-colored love seat on the audience’s far left and two light colored suitcases on our far right, and then all the action takes place between them. Another problem with that stage has been the way it sucks up sound, so if you have any mush-mouthed or weak voiced actors (or the heating system gets too loud) you can miss dialog. That was not the case at THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS.
Matthew LaChiusa and his former organization, American Repertory Theater (ART), got into hot water last season when it came to light that the company had been producing plays for which they had not paid the rights. For those wondering about rights issues with LaChiusa’s new venture, the “Navigation Theatre Company,” the playbill announces on the front cover in very large type: “THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS is presented through special arrangement with Mark Humphrey. All authorized performance materials also supplied by Mark Humphrey.”
So LaChiusa, who in the past has produced award winning shows, has been keeping a low profile this past year. Here, he not only designed the set, but also the lighting, and also directed as if he were saying, indirectly, “I’m back and this is what I can do.” After the play I asked how he created a couple of key moments on stage where the actors (and we in the audience) react to a verbal bombshell that has just been dropped and you could hear a pin drop. He graciously said it was all in the skill of the actors he got to work with.
And what a fine cast. I was not familiar with comparatively younger Timothy Coseglia who strutted around as the Hollywood actor Jackie with great finesse, never becoming a cartoon of what we think of when we say “Hollywood.” He didn’t preen, but you could tell he was full of himself. In a credit to his talent, when Coseglia, who in real life is a great guy, first appeared on stage as Jackie, all I could think was “that guy is a real a**hole.” Now that’s acting.
A tip of the hat to actor John F Kennedy who came on board at the last minute to replace an ailing actor. Off book for only three days and suffering from a chest cold himself, Kennedy’s an old hand and, it was observed, timed his coughs so as not to step on anybody else’s lines. These older actors, Bhattacharyya, Kennedy, and Morales brought a nice level of “old guys” comfort to this play about stranded travelers setting up a satisfying contrast to the younger and more excitable Jackie and his equally excitable assistant Linda, played by Suzie Hibbard.
We want more Coseglia and Hibbard! So does the Navigation Theatre Company, which has already signed them up (along with Kennedy and others) for the premier of James Marzo’s SOMETHING WICKED which will be on stage from April 16 to May 2, 2020. It’s part of Buffalo’s history based on the true story of the three Thayer Brothers who murdered James Love and were publicly hanged before a crowd of over 20,000 in Buffalo’s Niagara Square in June of 1825 (the year of the opening of the Erie Canal).
It’s a real family affair at the CPAC, with yet another Coseglia (Maura) acting as Assistant Director and Stage Manager. The music on the sound system before the show and during intermission was a well curated, listenable mix of songs from the 70s (Blondie) and 80s (Pet Shop Boys) to the current decade with Houndmouth’s “Sedona” – “Hey little Hollywood / You’re gone but you’re not forgot / You got the cash but your credit’s no good / You flipped the script, you shot the plot….” I think somebody up there in the sound booth knows what she’s doing.
And so did the playwright, director, cast, and the rest of the crew.
UP NEXT: The Compass Performing Arts Center (the 545 Elmwood venue) will host a production by a new theater company calling itself First Look Buffalo which will present the WNY premier of Ron Kiler’s COPS AND FRIENDS OF COPS January 10 through February 2, 2020. And, as mentioned, James Marzo’s SOMETHING WICKED will be presented by the Navigation Theatre Company at 545 Elmwood from April 16 to May 2, 2020.
*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!