By Lynn Venhaus

A triumph in the ‘new normal’ was a sight for weary eyes when Stray Dog Theatre boldly went where no one else has in regional professional theater to produce an intimate, absorbing “Lobby Hero” by Kenneth Lonergan.

With live theater being one of the harshest casualties of the pandemic, watching any kind of online production has been such a welcome respite from the world’s troubles. I have enjoyed all the creative attempts to produce art, from clever Zoom plays to a mash-up of archival footage and musical acts, to radio plays and staged readings. I admire the efforts that artists are willing to take, to make art accessible through digital media. As someone who is leery of crowds during the public health crisis, being able to stay connected to people I admire for their willingness to take risks and see what happens has been a great joy. After all, theater fans cannot live on “Hamilton” replays alone on Disney Plus.

So, after shutting their doors for the remainder of the 2020 season in May, Stray Dog Theatre came up with an unconventional plan to take the four actors already cast in the drama, put them into innovative pods for their safety, space them apart at the Tower Grove Abbey, record it and make a video link available through a service. It sounded exciting because we could see it after all – and without crowd restrictions or safety worries.

The play had been scheduled for June and was one of my most anticipated shows of the season (big Lonergan fan). For the new venture, free reservations could be made to see it July 27 – 31 and people were given 72 hours in which to view it, but the cut-off was 11:59 p.m. on the last night. This audio-visual recording was made possible through arrangements with Dramatists Play Service and the playwright, and donations could be accepted. Everything was seamless – reservation confirmed, link emailed, quick connection, and then, magic happened.

The play takes place in the lobby of a Manhattan apartment building. Four people’s lives intersect through their work – two security guards and two police officers on the night shift, and then are drawn into a murder investigation. These three men and one woman have distinct personalities that emerge, ordinary people who must confront moral dilemmas and ethical behavior through conflicts with each other. Lonergan is so good at revealing layers and the late-night conversations have a genuine intimacy.

Lobby Hero at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo by Justin Been

What a finely tuned quartet the performers were: Jeremy Goldmeier as Jeff, a hapless regular joe, just trying to find his way in the world but usually unlucky in life; Abraham Shaw as William, Jeff’s strict supervisor, frustrated by the failure that surrounds him – his knucklehead employee and his troublemaker brother (unseen), when all he is trying to do is succeed; Stephen Peirick as Bill, an obnoxious married police officer who abuses his power and thinks he deserves respect as a big shot; and Eileen Engel as Dawn, a rookie officer enamored with Bill but also trying to prove that she fits in to a macho man’s world.

They each have various degrees of ambition, and that is transparent. Their feelings will become apparent as they talk to each other, from initially shooting the breeze to thornier statements as details of a murder unfold. A nurse with three young children has been brutally raped and killed by a group of thugs. William’s brother is a suspect. How far will he go to protect him? Talkative and lonely, Jeff has taken a shine to Dawn, but she is enamored with Bill, until evidence of sexual misconduct is revealed. Dawn’s only been on the force for three months and has a lot to learn.

It was if I was sitting in a pew, the four well-rehearsed actors seamless in conveying multi-dimensional characters. The smart, sharp ensemble delivered dialogue-dense exchanges that went from casual to probing, puzzling to skeptical, pleasant to peeved. Loyalties swiftly shifted. Director and Artistic Director Gary F. Bell escalated the growing tensions well and shrewdly moved the players around. The fade technique worked well as exits.

With its relevance to today’s social issues, you would not realize it was a generation removed, written in 2000. And Goldmeier – in what might be his best work – makes us see every tic of his turmoil. He wants to do the right thing – but is he capable? He is intimidated by blustery Bill, who likes to throw his weight around, and wants desperately to please his boss. When William confides in Jeff, they seem to become friends.

The actors worked so well together, building the emotional energy Bell was seeking. Peirick plays well against type, being an entitled jerk, while Engel holds her own with the guys, talking tough with a torrent of profanity. She’s tiny but mighty in navigating her way in an obvious man’s world.

And, like so many key turning points, it comes down to secrets and lies. In 1808, Sir Walter Scott wrote “oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” and it still holds true today. Stories unravel, truths unfold, betrayals sever relationships and life gets rather messy for each of the four. They learn the hard way that there are consequences to actions.

Justin Been has proven he is quite a visionary and his remarkable technical skills were on display again. As associate artistic director and production manager, he added imaginative touches, through music and modern graphics. He evoked the location with black-and-white scenes of New York City. He and Bell had come up with the pod idea, executed by set designer Josh Smith.

 “Lobby Hero” was produced off-Broadway in 2001, after Lonergan had been Oscar-nominated for the screenplay to “You Can Count on Me.” Lonergan would finally make it to Broadway in 2014 with “This Is Our Youth,” a Steppenwolf revival of his 1996 play starring Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. I was fortunate to see it at the Cort Theatre then, a memorable experience. Lonergan has a knack for creating vivid roles through conversations, and the gifted actors didn’t miss a beat in crafting familiar, relatable characters. After winning the Oscar for his “Manchester by the Sea” original screenplay in 2016, Lonergan oversaw a remount of  “Lobby Hero” in March 2018 at the newly renovated Hayes Theatre on Broadway, starring Michael Cera as awkward Jeff and Brian Tyree Henry as stern William (both Tony Award nominees), Chris Evans (yes, Captain America) as the compromised police officer Bill and Bel Powley as feisty Dawn.

Stray Dog hopes to be back with their season in February 2021, if all is safe to do so. They may even return virtually with another innovative project. “Lobby Hero” was a perfect choice to stage the inventive way they did.

If you need information, contact them directly by email at [email protected] or by phone at (314) 865-1995.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Oh, that puppy love. American playwright A.R. Gurney’s absurd comedy “Sylvia” presents
a marital conflict caused by a pretty pooch. In this case, the mutt takes on
human form and talks in perfect English. To buy into the conceit is to believe
the female fur child in its interaction with her male best friend, and it’s apparent
they are a tad too close.

That’s the premise in this drawing-room comedy, originally set in the 1980s, which first appeared off-Broadway in 1995, starred Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford in a limited Broadway engagement in 2015 and has become a favorite of adventurous theater troupes and dog lovers everywhere.

In Stray Dog Theatre’s production, energetic Susie Lawrence is expressive as the preening and prancing puppy that Greg takes a shine to in NYC’s Central Park. Wearing knee pads and modern girlie outfits, Sylvia — the name’s on her tag — happily makes herself at home in an Upper West Side apartment where an empty-nest couple have started the second chapter of their life, now that the kids are grown.

Kate and Greg are a cookie-cutter WASP pair, married 22 years. Likeable Kay Love and Tim Naegelin are the longtime married couple whose relationship begins to unravel when the dog comes between them. Is he just going through a mid-life crisis or does the obsession signal more? It could be construed as a romantic triangle on the icky side.

The trouble with the husband and wife characters is that
they’re bland. And there is not much to like about the generic one-note Kate,
who is back to work teaching and working on a master’s degree in English. Irritated
the minute she’s introduced, Kate takes an immediate dislike to the dog and
tried to veto it becoming part of the family. She refers to the dog as Saliva,
which is no longer funny after the first reference.
Greg appears adrift and gains no sympathy as he does nothing to repair things
with his wife. He has lost his mojo as a financial analyst after the kids left.
He doesn’t much like his job, quarrels with his boss, and starts spending more
and more time doting on Sylvia. Playing with a dog outdoors is healthy for all,
right?

Well, not exactly, because the affection becomes creepy when Greg would rather be with the flirty dog than with humans. And it’s the only time vanilla Greg lights up.

Kate doesn’t ring true about her all-consuming hatred of the dog right away, while Greg’s bizarre behavior would alarm a therapist much quicker than when he eventually gets to one. Kate’s aggravation at the dog should grow as Sylvia chews shoes, sheds all over the couch, leaves puddles and encroaches on her personal space. The exasperation needed to build, not be at the same level as the beginning.

Photo by John LambAs the therapist in the second act, a New Age eccentric named Leslie who purposely does not want to be defined by any gender, Melissa Harlow is a hoot – and the visual sight gag of her tacky velour purple top and gold-print black palazzo pants is as amusing as her goofy accent, not unlike Martin Short as the wedding planner in “Father of the Bride.”

In fact, with her comic flair Harlow steals the whole shebang portraying three characters, two in the first act. Experienced at interactive comedy shows and mystery dinner theater where she works in St. Louis, she is the breakout star here.

Melissa Harlow and Kay Love. Photo by John Lamb

Laugh-out-loud funny as Phyllis, a typical but high-strung socialite who becomes unnerved by Sylvia’s over-enthusiastic greeting, Harlow had the audience howling as she became more agitated and unglued. The gifted comic actress recalls the classic sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show” or “Saturday Night Live.”

Her first character, Tom, is a ‘bro,’ a guy in the park who shares way too much information with Greg about interpersonal relationships and dog psychology.

Harlow is believable as all three – and it’s customary for one person to play them all. She brightened every scene she’s in, for as two acts progress in nearly two and a half hours, the play gets repetitive and somewhat tedious. Gurney could have tied everything up in a one-act because basically it’s an extended one-joke play and drags getting to its predictable conclusion.

Because she’s so animated, Lawrence is in contrast with the dull couple. That’s why Harlow’s antics are such a bright spot as well.

In the larger picture, Gurney, famous for his piercing look at the privileged Manhattanites in such works as “The Cocktail Hour” and “The Dining Room,” is making a bigger statement about humans’ desperate need to connect in an impersonal world, even if it’s with an animal.

Now that rings true. Gurney, whose best-known play is “Love Letters,” inexplicably falls back on tired clichés. The play could have benefited from more biting wit and frank social analysis.

Director Gary F. Bell has updated its time, now in 2000. He makes use of the Tower Grove Abbey’s small confines well, allowing frisky Lawrence to scamper about in scenic designer Miles Bledsoe’s suitable living quarters interior, with interesting skyline pieces as background.

Without opening up the play, it could be claustrophic. The outdoor scenes help change the scenery.

Bell dedicated the show to his own canine companion, Oliver Ogden Bell, and includes some choice quotes in the program as director’s notes, including this gem from John Steinbeck: “I’ve seen a  look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.”

No one is credited with sound, but the selection of music interludes is always pitch-perfect, whether it was Bell or Associate Artistic Director Justin Been. Use of the Cole Porter song, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” which is included with the script, is a lovely rendition because the cast has good voices.

If you are a ‘dog person,’ you might not mind the contrasts in tone, or the depicted fantasy. “Sylvia” is one of those plays that divides people, depending on their point of view. The cast and crew put forth a terrific effort, but to me, the playwright barks up the wrong tree.

Tim Naegelin and Susie Laawrence. Photo by John LambStray Dog Theatre presented “Sylvia” June 6 –
June 22 at the Tower Grove Abbey. For more information about the professional
theater troupe and their new season, which starts in August, visit
www.straydogtheatre.org

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
For a rooting-tooting time at the theater, head yonder to the Tower Grove Abbey, where wacky hi-jinx are afoot in the Southern-fried “The Robber Bridegroom.”
Stray Dog Theatre’s colorful cast realizes that many people are unfamiliar with this mid-1970s musical based on Eudora Welty’s first novella, which is adapted from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, so they are eager to please, and work overtime to charm the crowd.
The goofy story, set in 18th century Mississippi, is not fooling anybody but the ensemble, who have so much fun with this campy tall tale of mistaken identities and nefarious motives.

In 1795, the hero-outlaw Jamie Lockhart (Phil Leveling) swaggers in to Rodney, Miss., looking for his next swindle. As his alter-ego, he is The Robber in the Woods, a Robin Hood-like figure who disguises himself with berry juice.
He’s unrecognizable to Rosamund (Dawn Schmid), the beautiful daughter of the richest planter, Clement Musgrove (Jeffrey Wright). They fall in love during the charade, which leads to hilarious complications.
Mix in an evil stepmother, the overbearing Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling); a mischievous bandit Little Harp (Logan Willmore); his brother Big Harp (Kevin O’Brien), who is only a head in a briefcase these days; a pea-brained flunky named Goat (Bryce Miller); his sister Airie (Christen Ringhausen); and a talking raven (Susie Lawrence), and these zesty ingredients create farcical nonsense.
Rounding out the rambunctious ensemble is Chris Ceradsky, Shannon Lampkin and Rachel Sexson as residents of Rodney.
Director Justin Been has inventively staged the show to bring out the cast’s playful nature, and swiftly spins the action in a captivating piece of “story theater.”
The clever Tony Award-nominated book and lyrics are written by Alfred Uhry, who later became famous for his “Atlanta Trilogy” – the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Tony Award for Best Play in 1997; and the Tony-nominated libretto to “Parade” in 1998.
The bluegrass-tinged music score is by Uhry’s frequent collaborator, Robert Waldman, and music director and pianist Jennifer Buchheit’s work captures its lively spirit. Her exceptional band gets the show off to a rollicking start and keeps up the momentum throughout – fine work by Steven Frisbee on fiddle, Mallory Golden on fiddle and mandolin; Michael Kuba on banjo, cello and guitar; Marty Lasovica on guitar, and M. Joshua Ryan on acoustic bass and bass ukulele.
Choreographer Mike Hodges freshens up old-timey western dances and gives the ensemble a chance to kick up their heels in their period-appropriate garb designed by SDT’s artistic director Gary F. Bell.
The entire cast speaks in exaggerated Southern drawls and projects the show’s light-heartedness out of the gate with “Once Upon the Natchez Trace.” They remain exuberant in “Flop Eared Mule,” “Goodbye Salome” and “Leather Britches.”
The harmonious ensemble’s “Deeper in the Woods” is a lush, ethereal ballad that shifts into a full-fledged romance between Jamie and Rosamund, while “Where, Oh Where” is a foot-stomping number featuring everyone’s nimble voices.
Impressive newcomers Logan Willmore, as Jamie’s rival Little Harp, and Bryce Miller, as the imbecile Goat, display slick comic timing that accentuates the breezy romp. Their duet, “Poor Tied Up Darlin’” is a hoot, with assist from a game Christen Ringhausen.
Versatile Kevin O’Brien is funny as the talking head Big Harp, and both he and Miller are hilarious in “Two Heads.”
Veterans Phil Leveling, Dawn Schmid and Jeffrey M. Wright superbly inhabit their characters.
As the rascally Jamie, Leveling is well-suited to the role both in acting and singing, as his range is spot-on for the vocal demands. He’s appealing in his introduction, “Steal with Style.”
The jaunty role isn’t demanding but allows for mischief-making. In 1977, Barry Bostwick won a Tony as Lead Actor in a Musical for the ’76 Broadway run while in 2016, Steven Pasquale won a Lucille Lortel Award for the Roundabout Theatre off-Broadway revival.
Leveling and Schmid blend beautifully in song, including “Love Stolen.” They have some oomph in their chemistry as a romantic comedy coupling.
Schmid’s positive approach and her beaming smile project a spirit of adventure. No damsel in distress, she shines in “Rosamund’s Dream” and “Nothin’ Up.” In the archetypal fairy-tale princess way, she tussles with Dowling, who wants the golden daughter out of the way.
Dowling has a field day mugging malicious intentions as the over-the-top Salome, spewing venom in “The Pricklepear Bloom.”
Wright plays a blustery rich guy who misses his first wife and puts his daughter on a pedestal. Even though his second wife is a pain, Musgrove’s a people-pleaser and can’t shift gears. Wearing a loud checkered suit, Wright just has a ball cavorting as this gaudy character.
The quartet of Jamie, Musgrove, Rosamund and Salome have fun frolicking in “Marriage is Riches.”
The roots music imbues a feel-good quality while the cast appears to be having a swell time like friends around a campfire.
It is that conviviality one will remember soon after the story fades.
Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Robber Bridegroom” Aug. 2 -18, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, Aug. 12 matinee at 2 p.m. and a Wednesday, Aug. 15 performance at 8 p.m. added, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, 63104. For tickets or more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org

Photos by John Lamb