`Sons of Ulster’


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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

`Avenue Q’

Jim Henson’s Muppets might get apoplexy, or at least

blush a little, if they saw what their second cousins once removed

are doing on "Avenue Q," the wonderful new adult musical that

is considerably more than a stepping stone away from Sesame Street.

The puppets that co-habit with humans in this hilarious new musical

are without exception charming original, witty and lovable. The rampant

sex, paranoia, jealousy and insecurities that prompt some rather serious

goings on in an "outer borough" is obviously too much for

mere humans to handle alone.

So creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Mark (music and lyrics) and Jeff

Whitty (book) have augmented the human element with the most endearing

puppets and humans to grace a stage since "Carnival." This

strictly-for-grownups spoof of Sesame Street follows the fortunes

and misfortunes of the denizens of a really unique neighborhood. There

is Gary Coleman (a ribbing of the real one from "Diff’rent Strokes,"

riotously played as a real person by Natalie Venetia Belcon), a super

of a run-down apartment building who vents about how he was swindled

out of all his money by his parents. Belcon shines in a showstopper

called "Schadenfreude," a sardonic song that echoes the joy

one feels upon seeing the misfortunes of others.

As close as this show get to having a hero is Princeton (John Tartaglia),

a recent college graduate who finds it easier to fall in love than

to find himself, as he sings "I Wish I Could Go Back To College."

The object of his affection is Kate Monster (Stephanie D’Abruzzo)

who hates her teaching job, but dreams of someday running her own

"Monstersory School" for monster children. Also among D’Abruzzo’s

multiple character assignments is playing Lucy, the neighborhood slut/seductress

and Kate’s rival.

Then there is the uneasy tension created between roommates Nicky and

Rod. Although Rick Lyon normally plays Nicky and other characters,

I saw Phoebe Kreutz due to an injury sustained by Lyon during previews.

Lyon, nevertheless supplied the voices. Nicky and Rod’s (Tartaglia)

problem arises with Nicky who is openly gay while Rod is in denial,

as revealed in "My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada," a comic

gem. One of the more inscrutable and lovable characters is a hairy

Trekkie Monster (Kreutz instead of Lyon), whose tenderhearted goodness

and generosity is belied only by his addiction to porno on the Web.

Of the more delightfully dysfunctional characters are Christmas Eve

(Ann Harada) and her live-in lover/would-be stand-up comic Brian (Jordan

Gelber). Harada’s strong voice notable for its thick Japanese accent,

especially in the side-splittingly funny "The More You Ruv Somebody,"

adds to the fun. Even more outrageously funny is Gelber’s solo "I’m

Not Wearing Underwear Today" (no explanation necessary). Into

the mix is a pair of cute but cruel baby bears who hover over the

characters as invisible alter egos and attempt to lead the characters

astray. Going astray has its benefits as when the gathering owns up

to their flaws in "Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist."

The songs, like the theme of the show, resonate with moral and ethical

values. The appeal of this warm-hearted musical lies in its artfully

and fancifully created characters, all of whom learn about life and

love as they share their problems and expose their flaws and weaknesses.

Under Jason Moore’s exuberant direction, and with a score that lifts

one’s spirit (in this time of need), the creatures and creators of

Avenue Q invite you into a truly inviting neighborhood (designed to

expressionistic perfection by Anna Louizos). It’s one you don’t want

to leave. Four stars. Don’t miss.

— Simon Saltzman

Avenue Q, Vineyard Theater, 108 East 15th Street, New

York, 212-432-7250. Tickets $20 to $55.

Top Of Page
`Sons of Ulster’

In Frank McGuinness’ 1985 play, "Observe The Sons

Of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme," now having its American

premiere at Lincoln Center, inexperienced young members of an Irish

Protestant platoon fighting for the British in World War I, are seen

preparing for their first battle. It is on the eve of the Battle of

the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of that long and bloody war.

Here eight not especially compatible volunteers, sharing a bunker,

vent their deepest fears, insecurities, and anger, in heated, soul-baring

conflicts that trigger and expose some very troubling personal histories.

While this rather conventional though tautly written play is set in

1915, one is hard pressed not to relate all that is said and done

to the incendiary present. The various and diverse backgrounds of

the men, their often confounding reasons for enlisting — be it

a sense of service to God and country, a desire to serve their own

romantic notions, or to merely satisfy a hunger to be heroic —

are seen in flashbacks and the present. Under the direction of Nicholas

Martin, the acting of the all-male ensemble is uniformly (no pun intended)

excellent. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,

Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65 Street, New York.

$60. For tickets ($60) call 212-239-6200.

Top Of Page

If one has to endure a course in medieval romance, I

can’t think of anyone with more qualifications to preside over it

than Dublin professor Dr. James Scattergood, beautifully acted by

Brian Murray, whose passion and dedication to his subject is observed

in Anto Howard’s new play (a world premiere production of MCC Theater

at the Samuel Beckett Theater on Theater Row). In this sweet but never

saccharine, play, Scattergood’s influence goes well beyond the merely


Addressing his Trinity College students — in this instance the

audience — as the play begins, he attends to instilling his own

intoxication with chivalrous behavior into their hearts and minds.

One of his more attentive students is Brendan Hillard (T.R. Knight),

who appears particularly in need of the professor’s inspiration. It

seems that Hillard, while academically brilliant, is painfully shy

and handicapped with a severe stutter. He is, however, a whiz at memorizing

the text upon which Scattergood, otherwise known at "Dr. Love"

by his students, uses as a basis for his own philosophy of life and

love. Needing some personal advice from the master, who is already

acknowledged as notorious at the college since an ill-fated affair

there years ago, he goes to the professor’s study.

Hillard, it seems, has gone gaga over Miss Regan (Tari Signor), a

gregarious free spirit whose initial friendliness toward Hillard is

taken as a come-on. Hillard is as desperate to learn the rules and

the right moves of romancing and chivalry from the master, as we are

to listen to Murray pontificate with those luxuriant tones and a sense

of haute grandeur that are the realm of this ever charming actor.

Scattergood, who is rarely without a glass of wine in his hand (Irish,

you know), is delighted and flattered to offer a private tutorial

to this emotionally disturbed young man who is possessed with the

same ardor that spurred him on in his youth.

Scattergood’s support and advice is perhaps too well taken by Hillard,

who has begun to embroider a relationship that could possibly be more

fantasy than fact. If Howard’s rather delightful play includes twists

and turns that have been foreshadowed, they provide ample opportunities

for three fine actors to create a touching experience. Murray, in

particular, embodies the authoritarian scholar with poignancy. The

book-stuffed library (realistically designed by Hugh Landwehr) where

Scattergood teaches his student on the ways of a knight, also becomes

the place where Miss Regan is destined to discover to what extent

she has become the object of Hillard’s desire.

The beauty of the play can be seen in the way Murray appears both

condescending and warm, but sadly without the ability to see though

Hillard’s misguided attempts to win Miss Regan’s heart. Signor has

only two scenes to be interactive, but she does create a character

that is both brash and enticing. Under Doug Hugh’s sensitive direction,

the play moves with polite determination to reflect its romantic themes.

At turns, funny and sad, "Scattergood" is a surprise delight

and a very auspicious debut for its author. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Scattergood, Samuel Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42 Street,

New York, 212-279-4200. $45.

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