Tuesday, June 30, 2009

At Play in Waterford

The O'Neill Center camps out once more

By Christopher Arnott
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ational Music Theater and National Playwrights Conferences
Through July 26 at the O'Neill Theater Center. $20. 305 Great Neck Rd., Waterford. (860) 443-1238, theoneill.org.

Arriving at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, I had a bit of a Private Benjamin moment. This place is not a theater, it's like summer camp, and I've never been a big camper. ... The kitchen served nothing but carbs. There was nothing but a narrow bed with a small desk in the room. Bathrooms were shared. The first night, I spent a few hours slapping at bugs, then went and slept in my car. I woke up cold and cranky, thinking 'What am I doing here? Forty-eight hours ago I was on Broadway.'"

That's Kristin Chenoweth (of Broadway's Wicked, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and The Apple Tree, not to mention TV's "The West Wing," "Pushing Daisies" and her own sitcom "Kristin") in her autobiography A Little Bit Wicked. It's perhaps the fullest description you'll find in print of the culture shock that can greet city-folk performers when they venture out to the grassy expanse of Waterford, Conn., for one of the Center's distinguished, down-to-earth new-works laboratories.

There's some dramatic license here of course. The O'Neill is a stone's ocean-skip from New London and a reasonable drive from much bigger cities. Its staff and audiences are assuredly theater-savvy. Chenoweth is setting a bleak scene so she can emphasize the thrill when she connects with Andrew Lippa, who became her fast friend and musical director of her concert tours, at that 1997 O'Neill workshop of The Wild Party.

I remember strolling the grounds of the O'Neill in 2002 and chatting with a couple of bleary-eyed New Yorkers who'd been up all night rewriting virtually every page of their unusual new musical following its revelatory first public presentation there. The show was Avenue Q, and you may find it ironic that such an urban-inflected social satire, reliant on the rarefied art of puppetry, could find its voice in the few-frills complex of lawns and barns of Waterford.

Avenue Q returns to Connecticut this October when the Tony-winning Broadway hit's national tour hits both New Haven and Hartford. Meanwhile, one of the show's co-creators, Jeff Whitty, is back at the O'Neill this summer launching another city-soaked, risk-taking musical project, an adaptation of Armistead Maupin's sweet and soapy yet sexually charged 1970s serial novel Tales of the City. Whitty is working with two composers, Jason Sellards (who also did the lyrics) and John Garden. Tales of the City plays the countryside of the O'Neill July 4, 5 and 11 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee July 5.

Tales joins an even further-out new sociosexual musical, Picnic at Hanging Rock (July 1 & 3 at 8 p.m.), adapted by Daniel Zaitchik from the same Joan Lindsay novel about vanishing Victorian schoolgirls which also informed Peter Weir's late-'70s arthouse flick.

Then there's the hallowed O'Neill Playwrights Conference, which has jump-started the professional careers of countless writers and on whose business model Robert Redford based his Sundance Film Institute. This year the Playwrights Conference overlaps with the Music Theater Conference.

(The stand-alone Cabaret Conference ends the O'Neill summer sweat-and-entertain festivities July 29–Aug. 8.)

Playwright highlights include The Language Archive (July 4 at 8:15 p.m., July 5 at 5:15 p.m.) by Julia Cho, whose BFE and Durango were done at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II in 2005 and 2006. Fire Work (July 9 at 8:15 p.m., July 10 at 7:15 p.m.) is by Laurie Gunderson, whose plays frequently have scientific and/or historical underpinnings. And you can add Nilo Cruz to a club that includes August Wilson and Lee Blessing: Pulitzer Prize winners who continue to choose the O'Neill as a summer retreat. Cruz's The Color of Desire (July 11 at 8:15 p.m., July 12 at 3:15 p.m.) is a culture clash/romance between an American businessman and a Cuban actress in 1960 Havana.


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