So what was the cause of all that raucous laughter coming from tiny Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus last weekend? We suspected Marvin Harold Cheiten — poet, writer, playwright, and frequent contributor to U.S. 1’s Summer Fiction issue — who was producing another one of his own plays at the theater.
While U.S. 1 does not normally review plays that are no longer running (and this one ran for four days only) we were curious, and asked a reviewer to pay a visit.
The tone of the production of Princeton resident and author Marvin Cheiten’s comedy, “Miss Connections,” staged at the Hamilton Murray Theater last weekend, August 17 to 20, is apparent from the moment an unseen voice asks the audience to turn off all audible devices: “The ringing of cell phones is important in this play, and we’d like to be sure all the ringing comes from the stage.”
“Miss Connections” is set in present day Princeton. All the action takes place, according to the program, in the “commodious living room of Lily Brown’s absurdly large Princeton home,” presumably on the west side of town.
The play opens with a wonderful stage picture: the soles of the feet of someone lying on the floor and talking on the telephone. This is Lily’s teen-aged daughter, Thalia. We learn that Lily’s husband and Thalia’s father, Tom Brown, deserted the family some eight years ago and has not been heard from since. Lily has recently taken up with Rex Worthy, whom Thalia finds obnoxious.
Lily, who comes from a wealthy Princeton family, spends much of her energy (and money) working for noble causes. It is through her efforts on behalf of such causes, most recently the Poison Sumac Children’s Hospital, that she has met Rex. (One of her husband’s concerns, apparently, was that although his wife’s charitable work was sincere, the social aspects of doing good seemed somehow more important than the good being done.)
Much to everyone but the audience’s surprise, Tom Brown returns. Tom loves his daughter and seems to feel guilty about having left her, but he found himself put off by what he saw as hypocrisy in the local scene. Tom, whom we are supposed to see as a hippie — we can tell this from his clothing, his manner, and his speech patterns — has been spending most of the time since he took off in Dafur, where his work to fight hunger and illness provides an obvious contrast to the causes that his wife and Rex are involved in.
For reasons that may be no stronger than the fact that his wife seems to be in love with the man, Tom gets the idea that Rex is probably not on the up and up. With a great deal of help from Thalia, who turns out to be willing to bend a few rules in the interests of her cause, Tom discovers that his suspicions are justified. Rex is unmasked, though he never explicitly acknowledges his guilt; he flees, and the others return to their pre-Tom’s-desertion arrangements. Tom and his daughter are happily reunited, as are — presumably, though it’s not entirely clear why, considering some of Lily’s statements — Tom and his wife.
Thalia was delightfully played by Joanne Nosuchinsky, a charming actress who, as a rising college freshman, is probably not that much older than her character. Scott Van Tuyl, one of the two Equity actors in the cast, played Rex; Alexandra Tobia was Lily. Joe Whelski, the other Equity actor, who has a varied background in theater, films, and TV, played Tom with skill and charm.
Lily’s first-act conversation with Thalia is interrupted by the arrival of Letitia Thimbleweight (played by Claudia Stoy, who was seen in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Peter Shaffer’s “Black Comedy” last month), an overwrought poet who is a friend of Lily’s. Letitia does not serve a structural role in the plot but is rather the vessel that carries playwright Cheiten’s message about the irony of what happens when those who are dedicated to nonviolence and the natural world turn destructive when another part of the natural world threatens their part. In the second act this nature lover appears with a loaded shotgun to do away with the deer who have eaten her flowers and caused her to crash her Hummer.
Dan Berkowitz, who directed Cheiten’s darker “Zenobia” at the same theater last summer, flew in from California to direct this production (U.S. 1, August 16). It is clear why Cheiten is happy to have Berkowitz on board: this is definitely a director who knows what he is doing. Letitia was properly off the wall, and except for Lily, who sometimes seemed in over her head, the actors succeeded in conveying what we have to assume is what the playwright wanted. The audience seemed very happy and clearly enjoyed Cheiten’s jokes.
Physically this was a handsome production that managed to achieve its ends without going in for any let’s-shock-the-audience notions. That set designer Matthew Campbell conveyed such a strong sense of size and space on a stage the size of the Hamilton Murray’s, is no small feat, and the handsome furniture was arranged to give the director opportunities for a variety of stage pictures. Marie Miller’s costumes were able to strengthen our understanding of the characters without calling out, “Notice me, please.” Chris Gorzelnick’s lighting was visually pleasing and helped clarify the action.