REVIEW: “Tell Me I’m Not Crazy” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

by Barbara Waldinger

Gun control, stay-at-home fathers, working mothers, breast feeding,  immigration, fear of “the other,” white rage, forced retirement, a young child acting out, home invasions.  These are only a few of the contemporary hot-button issues raised in Sharon Rothstein’s world premiere comedy, Tell Me I’m Not Crazy, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.  

Recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, Tell Me I’m Not Crazy was commissioned by WTF, which offered developmental support, including a reading, featuring three of the current actors, in the summer of 2018.  

The Nikos Stage doubles as two residences:  the suburban home of Sol and Diana Koenig (Mark Blum and Jane Kaczmarek) and the cramped city apartment of their son Nate (Mark Feuerstein) and “his wife and life partner” Alisa (Nicole Villamil).  Each couple confronts marital crises, which is why Rothstein’s script refers to the work as: “A Marriage Play.” Sol’s lack of fulfillment, now that he’s been replaced after thirty-years by a younger HR manager, leaves him with too much time on his hands, leading to his obsession with a gun he has purchased over his family’s objections.  Nate’s lack of fulfillment as a stay-at-home dad renders him incapable of coping with the convergence of his wife’s work-related travels and his son’s behavioral problems at school.

Doesn’t sound like a comedy, does it?  But Rothstein’s way of approaching these contemporary problems is through humor.  Although the four actors are more than capable of handling both the humor and the seriousness of their dissolving family relationships, the playwright ultimately tries to juggle too many balls at once.  Any one of the above issues could have been the subject of a drama but mixed together and punctuated by a plethora of (admittedly funny) punch lines, they are given short shrift. The tacked-on solutions don’t feel as though they’ve been earned.

Von Stuelpnagel and his set designer, Alexander Woodward, have accomplished the changeover of locations at astonishing speed, allowing the play to move at a rapid pace, as per the playwright’s wishes.  Stage right features a living room, behind which is a full, raised kitchen with a center island (also serving as part of a shooting range), and a dining room stage left. Set changes include chandeliers raised or lowered, revolving walls, even replacing framed pictures, without a single stagehand in sight.  All of this is visible to the audience as the actors move to their next positions, but not before they look around curiously as they watch the changes take place—a brilliant piece of stage business, as characters (or the actors playing them) react to their modified surroundings. The only accommodation to practicality is that a pile of clean laundry remains on the couch in both sets, and although it fits the young people’s home because they have small children, it feels out of place in the older couple’s house.  But Rothstein sees that pile as essential– a metaphor of everyday life– a sort of prison where the inmates are “stuck for eternity folding it again and again.”  

As the audience enters the theatre, 60s rock music is playing in the parents’ home, and sound designer Palmer Hefferan deftly inserts a variety of music between the scenes, reflecting the tone of each one.   Isabella Byrd’s excellent lighting, sometimes flashing and at others less obtrusive, enhances these moments.

Feuerstein’s Nate is terrific as a father trapped at home with his children, unable to get a job as a photographer to support his family but equally unable to accept his wife’s necessary absence, culminating in her suggestion that they move to another state so she can get a promotion on her job.  He needs to ask his parents for help with his young children but his wife refuses to allow them to visit their grandparents when a handgun is present in their house. As Feuerstein’s options narrow, he reacts with every fiber of his physical and emotional being, until we can see that he’s ready to burst. 

It is always a pleasure to see Jane Kaczmarek, Golden Globe and Emmy award nominee, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.  Here she plays a middle school math teacher who had hoped to spend more time with her husband now that he is retired, but finds that he is uninterested in her sexually, seeming to have replaced her with a passion both for his Glock and fellow gun-owners.  Kaczmarek’s ability to deliver a comic line with perfect timing is both a positive and a negative here because though we’re laughing we’re missing the depth that this actress could have brought to her character in a richer, more complex script.

Mark Blum is effective as Sol, who worked hard all of his life, having struggled to make a good living, “shoving his dreams down into the basement or the garbage” so the children can have theirs, and feeling that it was all in vain because his sacrifices were never appreciated.  Aging and useless, he sees that even his current attempts to protect those he loves are met with ridicule: the tremor in his hand makes him a terrible shot. One wishes that his seemingly disengaged character had been given more opportunities to express his emotions and fears.

Nicole Villamil’s Alisa, a Latina who tries to balance motherhood and career, is furious with her father-in-law, who lays his problems at the feet of “hooligans,” a term he uses to describe criminal illegal immigrants threatening his neighborhood, and, being a rigid Type A personality, doesn’t get along with her mother-in-law either. Villamil, who was not involved in last year’s reading, can use more time to grow into her role.

Though Rothstein has created characters that resonate both with the actors and the audience, she would have been wiser to narrow her focus and to allow the humor to be more organic and less forced.  Still, while the play may be flawed, the director and his cast have turned out first rate work. 

 

Tell Me I’m Not Crazy runs from July 24—August 3.  Tickets may be purchased online at wtfestival.org or call 413-458-3253.  

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents Tell Me I’m Not Crazy  by Sharyn Rothstein.  Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.  Cast: Mark Blum (Sol), Jane Kaczmarek (Diana), Mark Feuerstein (Nate), Nicole Villamil (Alisa).  Scenic Design: Alexander Woodward; Costume Design: Tilly Grimes; Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd; Sound Design:  Palmer Hefferan; Production Stage Manager: Jereme Kyle Lewis.  

Running Time:  one hour 40 minutes, no intermission.  Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA., from July 24; closing August 3.

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