Theater Review: “Autumn Stage” — Being and Plenty of Nothingness

By the end, Autumn Stage comes off as a pint-sized No Exit.

A scene from "Autumn Play."

(l to r) Larry Fleishchman, Mary Tierney, and Peter Welch in moment of existential questioning in “Autumn Stage.” Photo: courtesy of Theater for the New City.

By Paul Dervis

New York’s Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival (155 First Avenue, New York, NY) continued this weekend with the World Premiere of Peter Welch’s Autumn Stage (through September 11). The script is billed as an “existentialist comedy about three spiritually disconnected people.” That’s an accurate description, suggesting that this is a play of ideas. Unfortunately there are so many that it becomes, at times, a confusing mess.

The action opens up at night in an outdoor amphitheatre. An old, hunched-up security guard walks across a debris littered stage. The summer season in this upstate vacation village is over; the temporary theater is set to be broken down in quick order. As the guard, MacArthur, picks some random trash off the set, he senses he’s not alone. A mystery man, calling himself Groundhog, peers at him through the darkness.

You see, Groundhog is a lost soul. He is trying to make sense of a life gone awry. And he is convinced that if he had the chance to play Hamlet, or even the starring role in an original piece based on his own experiences, he could right his listless life.

But all MacArthur wants is to hold on to his lousy job, and Groundhog is little more than a nuisance.

As the two go through round after round of bickering. (MacArthur threatens the man with the police. Groundhog pulls out a gun, though he clearly has no intention of using it.) Suddenly, a voice from the back of the house rings loud and clear. She’s the Audience Member, and she demands the show go on. The two on stage don’t believe there is an audience, so she requests the house lights come up. We are revealed to the startled characters.

End of Act One.

The second half of the drama is a Pirandello-esque play within a play. The Audience Member has been cast in the production as the Producer/Director. It turns out that MacArthur is an out of work Equity, AFTRA, SAG actor (his claim to fame is a few guest appearances on TV’s Law & Order). He plays a Cop who is interrogating Groundhog about a crime, a malfeasance that is obviously a manifestation of the man’s guilt. Groundhog, when faced with his own demons, is ready to call it a day, but Audience Member will not let him off so easily.

The thrust of this piece is about the pain of lost dreams and ideals. MacArthur is sixty but has not aged well; he pines for the acting career that never was. After failing to be accepted into Yale Drama School, he is tormented as he watches actors he considers less talented than he go much farther in their careers. He is not only bitter, but desperate. Audience Member, also in her sixties, has lost her beloved husband, and dreams of the child she never had. And Groundhog, if he is telling the truth, made a fortune in Venture Capitalism, but he was such a workaholic that he didn’t see his wife for months at a time. Now she is in a sanitarium.

All three actors bring welcome touches of reality to this fever dream of a night. Larry Fleischman, as the old guard, carries off his figure’s pathos with a subtle intensity. And Mary Tierney (who recently directed Useless Remedies at the Manhattan Repertory Company) is in perpetual motion on the stage. She never stops moving as she whirls around the two dumb-struck men.

The role of Groundhog is performed by the playwright, Peter Welch. He is not as strong a stage presence as Fleischman — at times he struggles to match the energy generated by the older actor. Tierney’s magnetic spin is what holds the characters together.

By the end, the script comes off as a pint-sized No Exit. It is hard to take cosmic concerns seriously through the prism of theater. As much as I love the medium, it’s hardly Purgatory…as least for people who are not thespians!

I spoke with Welch (who has written several other plays that have been produced in New York, as well as a few films) and asked him what motivated this particularly esoteric piece: “This one came from looking back at over 30 years of being a professional artist and wondering if I’ve really learned anything concrete from it.” There are a lot of artists who ask themselves the same question.

Elizabeth Gannon clowning around

Elizabeth Gannon cutting up in “Clown! Do some Ballet!”

I also took in a short piece called Clown! Do some Ballet! (though September 14). It is a one-woman show, created and performed by Elizabeth Gannon (directed by Ilanna Saltzman), that is brave to the point of madness. Gannon wanders onto an empty stage, dressed in what may be one of the more hideous dance outfits ever created, complete with clown nose and rouge. She proceeds to alternate doing dance numbers with some acrobatics and magic tricks. She goes out of her way to look amateurish and dumpy; for example, she does some pratfalls while simultaneously pulling candy, soda, and a hamburger out of her outfit. What is impressive about her show is that she does about 25 minutes of this schtick without ever stopping. Yes, she is intentionally performing badly, but her agility is something to marvel at. (Those who remember TV’s The Gong Show know what I am talking about.) The piece went by in a flash. And you can’t ask more than that from an inept clown act.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe

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