Monday, March 26, 2018

187 (2017-2018): Review: THE STONE WITCH (seen March 24, 2018)

“Where the Wild Things Aren’t”

Veteran actor Dan Lauria brings his burly talents to the role of Simon Grindberg, world-famous children’s book author and illustrator, in Shem Bitterman’s The Stone Witch, originally produced by the Berkshire Theatre Group and now at the Westside Theatre. He makes a valiant but flailing stab at embodying the gruff, depressed, artistically blocked artist, a role seemingly inspired by the late Maurice Sendak.

Dan Lauria. Photo: Russ Rowland.
It doesn’t take long before you begin checking your watch, waiting for this glum, unfunny, three-character cliché about artistic inspiration and generational jealousy to run the course of its hour and a half upon the stage.
Dan Lauria. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Director Steve Zuckerman’s physically attractive production takes place within Simon’s country home, designed by Yael Pardess with Sendak-like animal cutouts loafing on the beams and large upstage windows exposing the looming forest outside. The windows also allow numerous video projections to be seen. Designed by Brad Petersen and often featuring illustrations by Pardess, these images help illustrate the torment raging in Simon’s fevered brain, but they too run into problems.
Rupak Ginn, Dan Lauria. Photo: Russ Rowland.
In the first scene, the only one taking place somewhere other than the house, an office space is suggested down left. There, the sleekly fashionable (thanks to costumer Mimi Maxmen) HarperCollins editor Clair Forloni (Carolyn McCormick, a good actress in a hollow role) interviews 30-year-old artist-writer, Peter Chandler (Rupak Ginn, earnest), a second generation Indian, for a job. His ethnicity, however, plays barely any role in what ensues.

The job he lands, for a $10K fee, is to help Simon, his idol, produce the book he contracted for a dozen years ago, and which Clair desperately wants to publish in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first book. The assignment, which requires that Peter take no credit for the final result produced, turns out to be far more difficult than the overeager Peter counted on.
Dan Lauria, Rupak Ginn. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Simon, played by Lauria with Jewish-inflected intonations and shoulder shrugs, like a bargain-basement Zero Mostel (who would have been perfect for the role), is something of an overbearing ogre. One moment he’s paternally charming, the next cruelly insulting, the next perceptive and wise, the next physically dangerous (a gun comes into play), the next self-pitying, the next talking to invisible people (he turns out to have a Holocaust backstory, oy vey).
Dan Lauria. Photo: Russ Rowland.
One keeps expecting the play to be about some mental problem from which he’s suffering—is it dementia, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia? But, no, this apparently is just Simon being Simon, eccentricity masquerading as insanity. Even the script’s designating his lines not by his name but by “The Great Man” suggests that Bitterman considers his obnoxiousness the quaint, forgivable behavior of a genius.

It’s therefore impossible not to wonder why Clair—who pops in every now and then when she’s “in the neighborhood”—thinks he’s capable of producing a commercial blockbuster or why Peter, whom Simon insists on belittling as “Peter-Peter,” doesn’t flee and let the money be damned.
Dan Lauria, Cyntha McCormick. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The play’s title comes from a children’s book Peter himself has been working on, and the plot spends large amounts of time circling around the issue of whether Simon, who at first dismisses it as worthless, will pass it off as his own work. When Clair finally reads it, her thrilled reaction is what you’d expect from someone discovering the successor to Harry Potter. This is a 337-word book, be it noted, less than a page of single-spaced typing.
Dan Lauria, Rupak Ginn. Photo: Cynthia McCormick.
This is just one example of Bitterman’s forced playwriting. Despite the realistic conventions of the writing and acting, none of it rings true. One example occurs when, following a ridiculous scene of stripping off their clothes (not a pretty sight), Simon and Peter come back from a swim in their underwear, towel off, and put on their slacks over what must still be soaking-wet skivvies. 
Cynthia McCormick. Photo: Russ Rowland.
As noted above, the book’s illustrations, drawn by set designer Pardess, provide much of the visual interest. Plays about great fictional artists are always on risky ground if they have to reveal the character’s work. Pardess’s drawings are superficially satisfactory but no more, resembling a cross between manga and fantasy comic art; in no way is the word “masterpiece” even remotely justified.
Rupak Ginn. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Not that a children’s book with 10 pages and 338 words (one more than The Stone Witch) can’t be a masterpiece. Think Where the Wild Things Are, for example. The Stone Witch is not where the wild things are.


Westside Theatre
407 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through June 15