Reagan Republicans at Sea in the Desert

ODC performance-Brooke, Polly, Trip
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Bruce caricatureBruce the Blog Reviews Theater
BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act


(From left) Family Feud: Malachy Cleary as Lyman Wyeth, Davy Raphaely as Trip Wyeth, Colleen Zenk as Polly Wyeth, Brenda Withers as Brooke Wyeth, Peggy J. Scott as Aunt Silda Grauman. All photos by Rana Faure

When the stage lights come up on actress Brenda Withers as Other Desert Cities begins, she intones, “This endless sunshine. It’s so predictable.”

In those few words, writer Jon Robin Baitz packs layers of symbolism. On the surface, the sunshine is synonymous with therapeutic and geriatric Palm Springs, Calif., where the story is set, at Christmas 2004.

As familiar as I am with Armonk’s Whippoorwill Hall, both from the audience as a patron and from the stage as an actor, I barely recognized it after the magical transformation wrought by Hudson Stage scenic designer David L. Arsenault.

His gleaming set is a stunner, with a dreamy backdrop of floor-to-ceiling picture windows peering into the mountains and palms of the California desert as if you could not only touch but smell their earthy fragrance.


Lyman has a hear-to-heart with recovering daughter Brooke.

About that symbolism that Baitz baits us with: Where the Wyeth family is concerned, “endless sunshine” is about to be eclipsed by a cloud that rains down the kind of recrimination and resentment that rips apart the closest of families.

As for “predictable”… all I have to say is Ha! I dare you to predict where this story ends up. It’s as much mystery as high dudgeon drama.

The only thing that would have made this beautifully balanced, by turns light-and-dark entertainment more intriguing is if I was sitting next to a Reagan Republican (RR), or even in back or in front of one, to observe that person’s reactions.

For all I know, the silver fox who sat in front of me was an RR, though I suspect his hair was too lengthy and artsy to fit that profile.

No matter. I was more than satisfied watching the Reagan Republicans on stage, led by paterfamilias Lyman Wyeth (Malachy Cleary), a retired Hollywood B-movie star whose loyalty to the Grand Old Party earned him a coveted U.S. ambassadorship.

ODC scenic design

Hudson Stage scenic designer David L. Arsenault’s stunning set will make you believe you’re watching this compelling drama in Palm Springs, California, with the desert and majestic mountains right outside the picture windows.

If Lyman’s career arc sounds more than vaguely familiar — even presidential — you’re as right as he is to the right. He served under President Reagan, and is married to Nancy Reagan-worshipping Polly (Colleen Zenk).

Somewhat ironically, she’s a retired screenwriter, a vocation not brimming with right-wing females. Polly and sister Silda Grauman (Peggy J. Scott) were creative partners in the craft of turning out light comedies.

That explains the zingers that the quick-witted Mr. Baitz plants on their equally sharp tongues. Those are some garrulous genes they inherited.

Silda, though, would rather be righteous than right and doesn’t subscribe to her sister’s politics of pretension and bully-pulpit persuasion.

“You’re not Texan,” Silda chides Polly. “You’re a Jew.” A Jew sporting a Christmas tree, the better to hang with the blue bloods and mask her true bloodline. “Telling the truth is a very expensive hobby,” Polly warns whomever is listening.

Even the high-style home interior on stage conjured by Mr. Arsenault has a Wrightness about it–a vintage Frank Lloyd Wright Palm Springs moderne abode. It’s a gorgeous piece of stagecraft that also is coolly functional, with a sunken living room, a majestic fieldstone fireplace, and a tidy little bar that gets plenty of visits from this contentious clan, thirsting for self-medication.

The storyline by Mr. Baitz revolves around the privileged and proud Wyeth family, which includes children Brooke (Brenda Withers), a newly-successful novelist; Trip (Davy Raphaely), producer of a popular reality series, “Jury of Your Peers”; and a black sheep son, Henry, who fell in with an underground cult of anti-war domestic terrorists that blew up a recruiting office, claiming the life of a homeless veteran.

Disconsolate, Henry went off the deep end, literally, with evidence that he drowned himself by jumping off a ferry into icy waters. A suicide note was left behind.

ODC performance-Brooke, Polly, Trip

Polly is all dolled up to go shopping, while her kids Brooke and Trip are content to hang out and renew sibling acquaintances.

As the play unfolds, Brooke is welcomed back by the brood after years of hospitalization for drug addiction and depression. Her brother’s descent into oblivion became too much for her to handle. Now that she’s in full recovery, Brooke has what she thinks is exciting news: she just finished a new book.

The good news quickly turns sour when Brooke elaborates that it’s a tell-all memoir about her high-and-mighty family. The carefully nurtured veneer worn by the preening Polly and status-conscious Lyman is about to be shattered by their “leftie” daughter. It’s a tough way to find out how much mightier is the pen than the sword.

Jon Baitz proves that adage himself with razor-sharp observations that slice open nuggets of wisdom and withering criticism. “Families are terrified by their weakest member,” says Polly. “This is America. We get warm and fuzzy about war,” says Silda.

She’s not finished either: “These people driven by fear have taken ownership of an entire country just to protect the way things were,” Silda says of the Palm Springs $1000-a-plate benefit set that are Polly’s and Lyman’s bosom buddies.

Polly is so horrified by the prospect of family secrets being laid bare in the book — which will ostracize her and Lyman from their ultra-conservative friends — that she threatens never to speak to her daughter again. Silda, like an angel on the shoulder, urges Brooke not to back down: “Fight on. You have ideas. They only have fear.”

Brenda Withers’ Brooke is a relentless fireball of energy that drives the narrative and spars spiritedly with her Ice Queen mother Polly. Colleen Zenk told me in an interview that she didn’t audition for that role. Director Dan Foster offered it to her, telling Ms. Zenk’s agent he never had seen a better match between character and actor.

The actress amply fulfills Mr. Foster’s perceptive instincts with a powerful performance. A veteran of more than 30 years’ standing on legendary soap opera As the World Turns (as Barbara Ryan), Ms. Zenk’s rigid posture and haughty attitude signal what Polly avers is the “way to live… order, precision, discipline.”

Yet, we also are not blind to the deep, deep hurt that hides behind her veil of posing and carefully manicured pride.

Brooke and Aunt Silda see life differently. They fire back that Polly and her kind have no time for compassion but plenty of time to indulge in intolerance. Silda castigates her for the “zealots who have overtaken your party.”

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Colleen Zenk says hello after the opening performance to Bruce “The Blog” Apar.

Malachy Cleary is outstanding as Lyman, who can kid about his best talent being the death scenes in his movies, yet still hold his own with the others, even though his mouth is not as fast on the draw as his gunslinger and gumshoe characters. Lyman arguably is the most authentic and level-headed of the bunch, taking life as it comes and enjoying it while he can, in “hail fellow well met” Reaganesque fashion.

Rounding out an impressively solid cast is young Davy Raphaely as the laconic, Manhattan Millennial, Trip. He has his mother’s charm and bluntness plus his father’s sangfroid casualness.

Along with sardonic Silda, the pair form a Greek chorus that serves as a reality check for the others. Aunt and nephew stay at just enough of a remove to comment on the proceedings without getting too wrapped up in — or warped by — the bitter brawling.

Credit cerebral director Dan Foster with shading the tragedy and comedy adroitly enough to remind us that, as with all things in life, none of these characters has a monopoly on the truth or right or wrong.

Trip puts it perfectly: “All what will have mattered when you take your last breath is how you loved.”

How you lived is left to others to decide.


Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar, also known as Bruce The Blog, is Chief Content Officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner agency.  He also owns APAR All-Media, a Hudson Valley marketing agency that works with The Winery at St. George, Yorktown Feast of San Gennaro, Jefferson Valley Mall, Yorktown Stage, Axial Theatre, Armonk Players and others. Follow him on Hudson Valley WXYZ on Facebook, Twitter & YouTube. Reach him at bapar@pinpointmarketingdesign.com or (914) 275-6887


Hudson Stage Presents
Other Desert Cities
by Jon Robin Baitz

Through Oct. 31
Whippoorwill Hall
Kent Place
Armonk, New York 10504

For ticket information… 
Visit Website

A Show that Floats my Boat

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Bruce caricatureBruce the Blog Reviews Theater
BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act


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Michael James Leslie (as Joe, center) and Ensemble perform “Ol’ Man River.”

Westchester Broadway Theatre calls its current production of Showboat, a landmark Broadway musical stuffed with tuneful standards, “Our most spectacular production in years!

The only thing that bothers me about that boast is they beat me to it!

I’ve seen a lot of the mainstage productions at this regional dinner-theatre and I couldn’t agree more. This impeccably staged two-plus hours of top-deck entertainment knows how to float your boat, as the admiring audience made clear at curtain call with waves of cheers.   

No sooner does this Showboat pull into dock than you are buoyed by the energy, talent and high-stepping professionalism that washes across the stage with every exquisitely-penned and expertly-delivered number. There are more of those in this historic musical than in any 10 lesser Broadway shows combined.


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The large cast of ‘Showboat.’

As long ago as Showboat was written and premiered — early 20th Century — part of its brilliant simplicity is that it feels fresh and full of life as ever.

From the poignant torch song “Bill” to the soaring romantic ballad “You Are Love” to the upbeat comic relief of “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” the unforgettable score by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II has legs longer than the bevy of Ziegfeld showgirls.

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Julie (Sarah Hanlon) center and Ensemble perform “Can’t Help Lovin’ that Man of Mine.”

Showboat enjoys a unique place in musical theater history. It is the first musical of note — produced by no less a legend than Florenz Ziegfeld himself — to depart from the lighter-than-air plots that defined musicals of the day.

Until Showboat paddled into town — to widespread acclaim from critics and theater-goers alike — the books (stories) written for musicals were as mind-numbing as “boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl.” (Think 42nd Street or Anything Goes.)

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Sarah Hanlon (as Julie Laverne) and Eric Briarley (as Steven Baker).

Showboat changed all that. Based on a novel by celebrated writer Edna Ferber (who also wrote “Giant” — movie starring James Dean — and “So Big”), it spans five decades and three generations of family, from the late 19th Century to the 1920s. Under the firm hand of director Richard Stafford, the staging is smart and dramatic at every turn, with the passage of years smoothly and clearly conveyed to the audience.

Subject matter previously considered out of bounds for a musical comedy– namely racial intolerance — is what anchors Showboat. We learn of mixed-race marriage, broken dreams, and abandonment, all handled tastefully, and with just enough gravitas to make a point and move swiftly ahead.

From the shores of the MIssissippi River to Chicago to Broadway, we see show folk, dock workers and others struggling, falling in and out of love, and staying one step ahead of the law.

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Amanda Pulcini (as Ellie May Chipley) and Daniel Scott Walton (as Frank Schultz) perform “Goodbye My Lady Love.”

There’s no heavy-handed preaching or self-righteous moralizing here. There’s also never a dull moment. Ultimate credit for striking a perfect balance of story, song and acting goes to Mr. Stafford, whose mounting of this classic is as accomplished as anything we’ve seen at this venue.

As rakish Gaylord Ravenal, a riverboat gambler who weds the daughter of the showboat’s Captain Andy, John Preator brings strong acting and a rapturous tenor.

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John Preator (as Gaylord Ravenal) and Bonnie Fraser (as Magnolia Hawks) Perform “Only Make Believe.”

The goosebumps come out when bass baritone Michael James Leslie (as dock worker Joe) stands center stage to sing “Ol’ Man River,” and bring down the house. It is a bravura performance that rings in your head long after the show ends.

Also deserving special mention is Jamie Ross as Cap’n Andy Hawks and Karen Murphy as his wife Parthy; Bonnie Fraser as their songstress daughter Magnolia; Amanda Pulcini and  Daniel Scott Walton as vaudevillian duo Ellie May and Frank Schultz; Inga Ballard as Joe’s wife Queenie; and Sarah Hanlon and Eric Briarley as showboat headliners Julie LaVerne and Steven Baker.

Showboat-Charleston ensemble

The ensemble performs the Charleston


Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar, also known as Bruce The Blog, is Chief Content Officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner agency.  He also owns APAR All-Media, a Hudson Valley marketing agency that works with The Winery at St. George, Yorktown Feast of San Gennaro, Jefferson Valley Mall, Yorktown Stage, Axial Theatre, Armonk Players and others. Follow him on Hudson Valley WXYZ on Facebook, Twitter & YouTube. Reach him at bapar@pinpointmarketingdesign.com or (914) 275-6887.


Facts & Figures from Westchester Broadway Theatre

Reservations Call (914)-592-2222 Also at  www.BroadwayTheatre.com   

Group Reservations Discounts for Groups of 20 or More: Call 592-2225.

Luxury Boxes Call 592-8730, for private parties of 6 to 22. Enjoy dining and theatre in an elegant private box. Additional features include an expanded dinner menu, hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, private powder room, and Luxury Box reserved parking. Additional cost, call for details.    

Ticket Prices Dinner & Show range between $56 and $84 PLUS TAX depending on the performances chosen. Beverage Service & Gratuities are not included in the ticket price. Discounts are available for children, students, and senior citizens at selected performances. Also check the website for on-going Special Offers! More news at: www.BroadwayTheatre.com

WBT Mainstage Schedule

Showboat – Sept 24 to Nov 29 2015 and returns Dec 30 to Jan 31, 2016

Tim and Scrooge– Dec 3 to Dec 27

Always Patsy Cline – Feb 4 to Feb 28

Man Of La Mancha– Mar 3 to May 1

Happy Days – May 5 to July 17

The Million Dollar Quartet –July 21 to Sept 11

Saturday Night Fever – Sept 15 to Nov 2