Off-Off-Broadway Theater Review: DEAR MR. ROSAN (777 Theatre)

by Paul Birchall on October 24, 2013

in Theater-New York

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DEPRESSING DEPRESSION ERA DRAMA

What a time!  Folks standing on line for charity handouts, companies closing down, destitution and despair all around.  Surprise, though, we’re not talking about nowadays – we’re talking about the Great Depression of the 1930s, the subject of playwright Danielle M. Velkoff’s well-intentioned but clumsy period drama.  It’s an interesting idea for a play to attempt to draw some parallels between the two eras – the Great Depression vs. the Great Recession – but this play’s writing lacks the intellectual vigor, heft, and artistic creativity either to make its point convincingly or to traduce any genuine emotions.

George mails the letter

Yes, the play takes place midway through the Great Depression, where jobs are scarce and folks spend all day waiting on the soup kitchen line for a watery bowl of filthy broth to take home to their family.  Kindly husband George (Brough Hansen) is desperately trying to keep his company afloat, but is forced to fire his beloved secretary (Pamela Stewart Ehn).  This doesn’t stop his company bleeding cash, though, and soon George is on the bread line and looking for day labor gigs.

George and Ruth

Meanwhile, George’s doting wife Alice (Laura King) is intrigued by a newspaper article, in which a wealthy man is offering impoverished folks free money if they will only write to him with their sad luck stories.  George scoffs at the idea, and instead teams up with his ne’er do well brother in law Harold (Alex Fast), who spends his nights at a sleazy speakeasy, full of gamblers, floozies, and gangsters.  Nothing good will come of this, and, sure enough, bad things do.  However, after George hits bottom, he takes up his pen and writes a sad letter to the rich guy that just might wring cash from his wealthy heart.

George and Mary

Velkoff’s play opens with attempts at heavy social realism, but then segues into a cliché-laden attempt to awkwardly craft the sentimentality and folksy charm of a Frank Capra It’s a Wonderful Life fairy tale.  To the piece’s credit, the goings on are occasionally interrupted by some truly delightful musical numbers, choreographed by Tamra Paselk from Erica Jacobs music, which mostly take place in the environs of the sinister speakeasy George and Henry repair to nightly.  These musical interludes, production numbers intentionally created to resemble flapper numbers of the era, are decidedly charming.  It’s just a pity that the piece doesn’t offer enough of them to offset the incredibly clumsy book.  This should be a musical with a few narrative interludes, not a torpid drama with a couple of songs in the middle.

Mary Parris, Kianna Moye, Andi Bohs, Sarah Foster, Amanda Jane Snyder, Brianne Mavis, Grace McGookey and Alexandra Bailey in DEAR MR. ROSAN.

Unfortunately, Velkoff’s writing skills are not up to the challenges she sets herself, and the piece is heavy and stilted, with labored, overlong dialogue exchanges and heavy-handed characterizations.  Part of the play’s problem is structural:  A lot of the story simply doesn’t make sense.  George owns a company that hasn’t folded – why is he going to soup kitchens and getting day labor gigs?  The piece’s attempts to wring charm and whimsy are downright clumsy.  The play ends with a development that’s supposed to be sweet, but (without giving it away, in case you get caught in a rainstorm on 48th street and have no choice but to take refuge in the theater to see this lamentable piece) the moment is cheesy and unintentionally disturbing, as everyone on stage acts joyful to a situation that’s inconsequential at best.

Trip for Biscuits

Velkoff does herself no favors with her leaden staging, either:  The piece’s ponderously paced line readings are full of pauses that craft a mood of sappy, unearned mawkishness.  Really, the entire ensemble would have been better off performing a play by Clifford Odets, perhaps, or even O’Neill, instead of the choppy, stiff material that’s offered here.  However, even then, performances are uneven, at best.  Hansen looks like the perfect leading man, but his acting is strangely wooden and unemotive.  He moves awkwardly, and makes a peculiarly unsympathetic hero to say the least — his reactions to the Depression Era travails come across as the grumpy mewling of a frat boy who has missed out on a keg party.

George Hartman

King is somewhat more appealing as his doting, unbelievably supportive wife – and a nice turn is offered by Ehn as George’s sad-fated secretary.  Yet, some of the acting work by some of the supporting performers is alarmingly rough.  Once again, Volkoff is at fault here:  If the show’s pace had been intensified, and portions of the extraneous dialogue trimmed, the show’s overall impression might have indeed been less, well, Depressing.

Food Line

photos by Michael de Vera

Dear Mr. Rosan
Purple Threads Theatre Ensemble
part of the 2nd Annual Kitchen Riots Festival
777 Theatre, 777 Eighth Avenue, 2nd Floor
closed on October 20, 2013
for more info, visit http://www.purplethreads.org

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

World January 15, 2014 at 8:37 pm

Dear Mr. Birchall:

Regarding your review of “Dear Mr. Rosan”, I was there every night and thought the play was good. A question for you. If this effort was so down in the dirt, why were you assigned to review it? It says something about you, doesn’t it? By the way, I’ve reviewed many of your past efforts and think there’s a bunch of them that would be not only labeled torpid but also would not provide literary shelter to a reader who got caught in the proverbial rain of editorial wordsmiths on 48th Street or elsewhere.

Simply put, there’s a difference between being a critic and being a douche. You Sir have crossed that line. Brough Hansen has a world of talent within him and owes you a punch in the nose. Laura King and Alex Fast have bright futures in front of them. As do others in the play. As for your #1 target, the script penned by the skilled Ms. Velkoff, it was certainly well-intentioned and did not deserve the copious flow of poison from your pen. While “Dear Mr. Rosan” needed editing and some TLC repair for sure, many people thought the show was damned good. I suppose it’s a credit to you that you liked the hoochy-coochy dancers or maybe this was just the banana speaking from your pocket.

OK. Were there problems with the production and the script and the acting? There sure were. It was definitely an effort of a ensemble that had few bucks behind them and clearly many of the cast were just starting out or helping out as the case may have been. The limitations of the theater made the scene changes almost comic. But you knew all that and could have taken the High Road for this feel-good effort in your review and added a touch of gentleness and encouragement instead of your rip across the throat. But of course douches don’t do that. And neither do cowards. I know that “it’s your job” and all that Mr. Birchall, but the moniker of sappy, unearned mawkishness goes both ways, doesn’t it?

After Mr. Hansen has cupped you around a little, I’d like my turn.

Happy New Year,
World
New York City, NY
January 15, 2014

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Tony Frankel January 16, 2014 at 9:29 am

Let me see if I get this straight, Mr. “World.” Are you basically saying you agree with Mr. Birchall’s assessment of the show, but that he should have encouraged but not discouraged mediocrity (as he saw it)? Stage and Cinema does not exist in a world of Oprah, where everyone gets a trophy just for being on the team.

In a turn of hypocrisy, you critique Mr. Birchall in a worse manner than he used for the review (he uses “wooden,” “clumsy” and even “lamentable”; you refer to the critic as a “douche”). Stage and Cinema was INVITED to review the show, and somehow you think that the critic is not allowed to express a forthright opinion in his way — but you can? I also find your physical threats disturbing, especially from a someone who doesn’t use his real name. Who’s the real coward here?

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Paul Birchall January 16, 2014 at 10:28 am

I stand by my review quite proudly. But I am so sorry that you had to see the thing every night! What an ordeal! You must be one dedicated parent or sweetheart of someone in the show. If I had to see “Mr. Rosan” every night of its run, I must confess that I too would be pig-bitin’ mad to the point of irrationality.

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World January 16, 2014 at 12:32 pm

To Mr. Frankel and Mr. Birchall:

Have read both of your comments today. Gentlemen, there was a lot of tongue in cheek in my “review” of Mr. Birchall’s review. Mr. Frankel, if you did not pick up on that, I am sorry. I just thought Mr. Birchall went overboard a bit with his comments and I wanted to do the same in reply to make a point. To that extent that I was out of line, I apologize to him and all that were offended. Obviously Mr. Birchall had a job to do and he did it whether he was invited into the house or scurried in from a driving rain for shelter. Actually I enjoyed his writing and agreed with him on a number of points. Certainly I thought his rejoinder to my own version of the poison pen was excellent. This was not life and death, only a stage play. I think he understood that and took the High Road in reply to my comments which were not fair to him in retrospect.

And while I appreciate what you had to say Mr. Frankel, I have to disagree with your supposition that both critic and reader are not on equal footing in terms of the right to speak their respective minds. The review and reviewer are as subject to criticism as is the play itself. And in my opinion, the sum total of the leading man being called “wooden”, “awkward”, “unsympathetic”, “unemotive”, “unsympathetic”, “grumpy”, and “a frat boy who has missed out on a keg party” crossed the line of fair comment. Obviously my use of the vulgar “D” word also was on the wrong side of that fence but do you think that maybe I was trying to make a point? I thought this writer piled on a very talented young actor for no good reason. In my opinion, a bit more restraint was in order even if he did not care for the performance.

And the punch in the nose thing was only a term of art. No threats intended. Mr. Birchall seemed to understand it and adorned me in his retort only with the medal of “irrationality” that I would suggest a late night foray on this site will do to you.

Again, my apologies for abusing the literary license. I thought a point needed to be made.

Again, bona fide best wishes for the New Year.

World
New York City, NY
January 16, 2014

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