Theater Review - Without a hitch

When should you see a play?

Asked by Entertainment Weekly how long it takes for a show to hit its stride, Laura Linney, playing opposite Liam Neeson in The Crucible on Broadway, says, "I think it takes about three months for it to jell."

That should come as bad news to members of the Atlanta theater community, as three months is often longer than the combined rehearsal period and performance run of most local productions. Different rules obviously apply on Broadway, especially with shows featuring movie stars, but live theater performed anywhere takes a little time to find its sea legs.

As a potential theatergoer, you want the most bang for your buck. The actors, script, sets and costumes may be the same on any given night, but subtle, significant factors also influence the quality of an evening. To paraphrase Animal Farm, all play productions are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Opening night has the biggest sense of event and probably incites the greatest rush of adrenaline in the actors and crew. But it also can be overrated, as the most confident performances and most nuanced characterizations are more likely to come later in the run. Opening night is also more likely to start late, with long curtain speeches to thank sponsors and make announcements: On A Delicate Balance's opening night at 7 Stages, the play itself didn't start until more than 20 minutes after the announced curtain time of eight o'clock.

A premiere night audience usually includes friends, relatives and well-wishers of the cast and crew, making it more likely to be an enthusiastic crowd — which is always preferable to a sluggish, unresponsive one. But there are trade-offs in having a dynamic audience. I've seen shows where actors had their own personal cheering sections, barking with laughter at every expression or utterance. People should enjoy themselves at the theater, but when vocal reactions are all out of proportion to the intent of a show, they can work against the rhythms that the cast and director have painstakingly developed. With friends like these ...

As a reviewer, I've been specifically asked not to attend the second night performance. The reason being it's difficult for the actors to build up to the same energy level immediately after the high of opening night. For the ideal combination of polished performance and energy level, the second and even third weekends are generally regarded as the ideal. But beware of the first show of the week. If you go on a Thursday and the house has been dark since Sunday, the performance may be about getting up to speed.

A rote quality can seep into a play as it gets deep into the run. I have a friend who doesn't like to wait past the fourth weekend to see plays. But the actors themselves can continuously find new things. As a set changer for an Athens Town and Gown production of The Real Thing, I recall that the leads were most pleased with their final performances. Perhaps closing night, with its mixture of release and nostalgia, is an underrated time to see a play.

Public Appearance: It's always a fun surprise to recognize Atlanta stage actors in locally produced commercials, like Chris Ekholm and Jeff Portell's amusing spots for the Georgia State Lottery. But it was startling indeed to glance up at an ad for Total Liquidation Tile and Carpet and see Chick Starley crooning about the store's low prices.

Starley, the fictitious alter ego of Chris Blair, is the washed-up action-movie star who hosts the annual Chick 'n Boozy's Fun-Time Holiday Specials at Dad's Garage Theatre. Blair says he was cast in the commercial as a kind of Fred Astaire song-and-dance man, but he pitched the idea of doing it as a lounge singer. "They didn't have any idea who Chick Starley was, but they went with the idea," says Blair, who has already shot a second spot. What I love about it is that it's exactly the kind of thing that Chick Starley would be doing if he were real."

SET DESIGN: Due to construction delays, Onstage Atlanta will postpone the opening of its new performing space at 2597 N. Decatur Road in Suburban Plaza for a week. Blue Plate Special: Della's Diner IV, the theater's inaugural production in the new playhouse, will now begin July 12.

Changing Room: Two new theater organizations have evolved from older ones. Montica Pes, one of the co-founders of Rogue Planet, is now the artistic director of VisionQuest Theater, which presented Fool for Love in the spring. As part of its periodic "Raw Works" program of staged readings, VisionQuest will present The Devil and Ben Jones July 14-16 at Red Chair Theater, and will offer a full production of the play during the First Glance Festival Oct. 18-Nov. 3.

The First Glance Festival also will see Fast Blast Dramarama, the first full production from Working Title Playwrights, founded by former members of the playwriting group Blue Machine. Working Title has been holding public readings of its members' works, most recently at Dad's Garage last week, with more planned for September and November.

Entrances: The New Black Playwrights Festival will be held July 14-16 at Actor's Express. The festival will present Under Fire, a one-man show about the Buffalo soldiers by Atlanta's Anthony Irons, and The Widening Sea and the Welcoming Maelstrom by North Carolina's Akil Wingate.

Off-Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.??

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