THE BASICS: MISERY, a play by William Goldman, adapted from the 1987 psychological horror thriller novel by Stephen King, directed by Brian Cavanagh, starring Adriano Gatto as Paul, Steven Brachmann as Buster (the sheriff), and Kavinoky Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell as Annie (aka “the Kathy Bates role”) runs through November 20, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. at D’Youville’s Kavinoky Theatre (716) 829-7668. kavinokytheatre.com Runtime: 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission (full-service bar in the lounge)
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The play version of the beloved Stephen King classic novel and movie follows successful romance novelist Paul Sheldon, who is rescued from a car crash by his “Number One Fan,” Annie Wilkes, and wakes up captive in her secluded home. Having killed off the heroine, “Misery Chastain” in what he thought would be the final novel in the series, Annie, the former nurse, and a very lonely woman, is miserable. And so, as she forces Paul to write a new “Misery” novel, he quickly realizes Annie has no intention of letting him go anywhere.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Everyone who’s seen the movie adaptation starring Kathy Bates and James Caan remembers, if nothing else, the “hobbling” scene. You know it’s coming and this play delivers. When we heard the “thud” of a very real sledgehammer first hit the very real wood of the stage floor, and realized that it was not a foam rubber prop, we jumped. Not the only “jump scene” (as they call them in movies) on stage during this thriller.
Fun (?) fact: Adriano Gatto lies in the very same bed and Loraine O’Donnell swings the very same sledgehammer used by Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in the 2015 Broadway production of MISERY.
Also, like the Broadway production, the Kavinoky uses a revolving stage (Set Design by David King), allowing us to see an exterior of Annie’s home, her kitchen, a living room, and the bedroom where Paul the writer is recovering. I was surprised at how smoothly the stage revolved. It’s a very classy job of set construction. Also, note how over time, the set changes, particularly the kitchen. As Annie’s mind deteriorates, her kitchen walls become mold-ridden, dishes pile up in the sink, and the floor is littered with garbage bags that should be taken out to the trash.
In one of life’s little “meta moments” on the way to the theater as it happened we were listening to NPR “Fresh Air” program host Terry Gross interview Stephen King, who explained how he loves to trap his protagonists in small spaces (the Trenton family in the car in “Kujo,” or the family trapped in the hotel in “The Shining,” or Andy Dufresne trapped in prison in “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). So trapping the author Paul Sheldon in a remote farmhouse in order to build the tension is vintage Stephen King. The man has skills.
It was great to see these two experienced hands, Adriano Gatto and Loraine O’Donnell, playing cat and mouse with each other. More and more I’ve come to appreciate the subtle yet unmistakable power of those “Ten Thousand Hours” of practicing a craft.
And a shout-out to the stand-bys, Don Gervasi for Mr. Gatto, Marie Costa for Ms O’Donnell, and Kodi James for Mr. Brachmann. The Kavinoky has suffered along with every other theater, in Buffalo, Niagara on the Lake, Stratford, Broadway, you name it, from Covid. Stand-bys are an extra expense that the theaters have to take on, but, as an audience member, I appreciate it. In fact, I’ll never forget my first Covid cancellation was, as it happened, at the Kavinoky in March of 2020 for INDECENT. As I approached the door to walk in a number of actors were walking out. The play had been shut down.
I’d give the production elements and the acting and direction four Buffalos, but at the end of the day, MISERY is a fine thriller, but as a meaningful work of art, I’d give it three. So let’s average it out to Three and a Half Buffalos for this one.
THE CHOSEN, a play adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok from the novel by Chaim Potok, directed by Jewish Repertory Theater (JRT) Artistic Director Saul Elkin, starring Ray Boucher, Sam Fesmire, Max Goldhirsch, Tom Loughlin, and David Lundy, presented by Jewish Repertory Theater, opened on November 3 and runs through November 20, Thursdays 7:30, Saturdays 3:30pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 2:00pm. 2640 N Forest Rd, Getzville, NY. 716-688-4033 jewishrepertorytheatre.org Runtime: a little over 2 hours including one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: For their 20th anniversary season, JRT returns to one of their first produced shows. This stage adaptation of the novel “The Chosen” which also became a movie (which the JRT is screening on Monday, November 14 at 7 pm, see note below) is the story of two teenage boys, two fathers, and two very different Jewish communities— “five blocks and a world apart” —in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1940s. While outside the borough world events rage on – WWII, the revelation of the Holocaust, and the rise of Zionism, – THE CHOSEN, in the end, is an intimate story of fathers and sons. Reuven Malter, from a more modern orthodox school and Danny Saunders, from a very strict ultra-orthodox Hasidic yeshiva, are both very intelligent young men. During a heated baseball game between their rival yeshivas, Danny hits a line drive into Reuven’s eye, and, in the hospital, a surprising bond of mutual respect begins.
We learn that both boys study the Torah (the printed Bible) and the Talmud (the evolving guide to Jewish philosophy, laws, and rules of conduct). Danny studies more intensely, partly because he has a photographic memory and can devour pages at a time, but mostly because his father never talks to him except during those times when they discuss the Talmud. Danny is expected to succeed his father as rabbi and Tzadik (“most holy one” and leader of the congregation) but he wants to study psychology at a university. Reuven is expected to become a university professor, but he wants to become a rabbi.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Because of the small space and the small stage which thrusts itself into the audience at the JRT out in Getzville, plays often feel more intense and tend to stay with me longer than plays where we see the actors beyond the footlights. At the JRT, I always feel like the proverbial “fly on the wall” and part of the drama. If you’ve never been out to the JRT, look up 2640 N Forest Rd. and you’ll see that it’s only about 20 minutes away from you. And if you’re not Jewish, remember that this is not a synagogue, it’s a legit theater housed in a community center where hundreds go to work out and swim. As the Jewish Community Center says on its website: “We warmly welcome people of all ages, faiths, and ethnicities as members of the JCC. Our goals are family-focused, inclusive, and supportive of anyone’s needs. We are a community for everyone.” You don’t have to join anything. Just buy a ticket. So, everyone, if you want a tight little dramatic story, THE CHOSEN is for you.
Another reason to go is to see the direction of Saul Elkin, co-founder of the JRT (and founder of Shakespeare in Delaware Park) who is a first-generation American (his parents were Russian and Romanian immigrants) and who grew up speaking Yiddish and appearing as a youth in Yiddish theater. Saul is a treasured link to a bygone culture.
And talk about experience! The talent on stage includes lifetime achievement Artie Award winner Tom Loughlin who plays Danny’s father now but 20 years ago played Reuven’s father for JRT, and Artie Award winner David Lundy who plays Reuven’s father. As a father of a boy myself, and perhaps because I’m such a fan of David Lundy, and perhaps because his character is the most reasonable (and don’t we all feel that we’re always the most reasonable person in the room) I felt he added that level of gravitas that held the play together.
The two young men are outstanding. Max Goldhirsch is only a sophomore at Amherst High School but ably presents a repressed Danny, the young man whose hair has peyos (side curls) and whose garments have tzitzit (fringes) representing that he is a Hasidic Jew. Many people will remember Samuel Fesmire from the various OVER THE TAVERN productions in town and also from his Artie Award-winning performance as Christopher, the boy with Autism, in THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. His performance of young Reuven is confident and sure. And Ray Boucher, as the adult Reuven, the narrator, brings that proper level of bemusement we all feel when looking back on our youth.
Here we see the strong hands of Director Elkin and Assistant Director Steve Vaughan in matching up the behavior of younger and older Reuven so that there is no impediment to believing what we see.
We’ve seen works by playwright Aaron Posner before. His MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, also taken from a novel by Chaim Potok, also deals with a young man at odds with his parents and his Hasidic community, and was presented several years ago by JRT. And Posner is also the author of an adaptation of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL as the play STUPID F***ING BIRD, which was presented by American Repertory Theater. If you’re wondering, the play THE CHOSEN follows the novel very, very closely. In fact, perusing a copy of the novel at intermission, it seemed as if the play could have been written with a highlighter, selecting passages for the narrator and dialog for the actors. Sometimes adapting a novel to a play doesn’t work, but here it does. So, however it came to be, it’s a satisfying script and a loving production.
A quick shout-out to David Dwyer for making a useful and believable set on the small stage (without a lot of time wasted on scene changes), with excellent lighting to enhance the story by Brian Cavanagh, era-appropriate costumes by Kari Drozd, and excellent music selections by Tom Makar.
NOTE: On Monday, November 14 at 7:00 pm at 2640 N Forest Rd, Getzville, NY, JCC Cultural Arts invites everyone to a free screening of the award-winning 1981 film adaptation of “The Chosen,” starring Maximillian Schell and Rod Steiger. (Popcorn will be provided!)
*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!