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SOLVING THE VALENTINE’S CRISIS: Big Dawg presents show of Vonnegut’s short stories for perfect date night

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“Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love)” is the perfect Valentine’s date for a new love or a couple that has shared a lifetime together.

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Big Dawg Productions opens their 2018 season with “Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love)” by Aaron Posner. The show is adapted from short stories written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.—and it may just be the perfect Valentine’s Day show.

Josh Bailey as Tom Newton narrates an evening at the North Crawford Mask and Wig Club in North Crawford, Connecticut. The first story he and the players recount, “Long Walk to Forever,” concerns Catherine (Whitney Willets) and Newt (Will Polk). Catherine is a week away from her wedding; Newt shows up on her doorstep in Army fatigues. He’s gone AWOL and wants to know if she would take a walk with him. Willets’ Catherine is understandably taken aback and completely uncertain how to respond. No flirtatious coquette, this one; she is serious, yet still thrilled at once.

Polk gives us a man who has had days of planning for this moment, only to get here and not know what to say. Together Willets and Polk are adorable as teenagers trying to figure out how they feel about themselves and maybe each other? It’s a great setup for the evening, as young love brings up awkward nostalgia and raging passion. Somehow we manage to grow relationships into something meaningful that transcends words—amazing!

The second piece, “Who Am I This Time?”, was made into a PBS American Playhouse TV film in 1982 and starred Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon. In the context of the show, it makes the perfect bridge between young love and a mid-life crisis. Tom Newton is pressed into directing “A Streetcar Named Desire” for the Mask and Wig Club because Doris Sawyer (Amanda Young), who usually directs, has to care for her ailing mother. Though Young is prettier and younger than most people think of for a widowed librarian, she hits the mark of bossy stereotype. She uses her powers for good rather than evil, by channeling her need to tell people what to do in community theatre. For as accomplished an actress as Young, this role combines a certain amount of homage to directors she respects, with a few nods to directors who took themselves too seriously. When she tries to draw Helene (Beth Corvino), a beautiful but socially inexperienced young woman, out of her shell, we see multiple dimensions of  Doris’ life. Young reveals a truly multifaceted character.
Helene was one of Tom’s discoveries, and asked the town newcomer to come to auditions.

Auditions are a delight, with Verne Miller (Rich Deike) taking a stab at a role he knows is going to go to his employee, Harry Nash (Anthony Corvino).  Nash was abandoned as a baby on the steps of a Unitarian Universalist church and has never quite found himself. He is a complete blank slate, with no people skills at all—until he is cast in a show—then everything changes. Harry reads with Helene—and he is already in character as Stanley, the visceral pulsing blue-collar sex god that Marlon Brando immortalized first on Broadway then on the silver screen. The shy, quiet, wooden Helene melts in the presence of Harry’s Stanley and gives way to a warm, sexy Stella—who had just been waiting to burst forth.

The Corvinos are married in real life and are both accomplished performers.  It’s no wonder they have great chemistry onstage, but watching them both act as if they have no personality or even notice each other before they take on Stella and Stanley is startling. They manage to pull off the contrast and make the transformation believable and delightful.

One of Tom Stoppard’s more brilliant pieces of writing is “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet,” which continuously abridges Hamlet until the entire play is performed only as a series of the most famous quotes from the show. Well, this cast puts on a “Five Minute Street Car” repeatedly. That alone is worth the price of admission; it is so well-executed and varied to demonstrate differences in each performance of their show, “Street Car.”

The third piece of the evening, “Go Back To Your Precious Wife and Son,”  chronicles the rise and fall of an Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe-like setup. Gloria Hilton (Amanda Young)—an A-List movie star, with all the trappings of celebrity—and her newest husband, George Murra (Steve Rassin), an embittered writer, descend upon the small Connecticut town of North Crawford to make a home. Hilton does not actually exist without unwavering adoration and attention from the press and public. Murra is not proving to be enough of an audience for her insatiable need to be admired, flattered and fawned over. Tom Newton (Josh Bailey) finds himself an unwitting eavesdropper/witness to the final disintegration of their marriage.

Rassin probably turns in his best performance ever as Murra. He worries, debates, pines, regrets, lashes out and thoroughly convinces the audience of his anxiety that has him petrified and unable to move in any direction. Meanwhile, Bailey’s Newton is contrasting Murra’s situation against his own. Katie (Susan Auten), his lovely, stable and supportive wife, is waiting for him at home. Auten gives us an image of what a partnership looks like: When one drops the ball, the other is there to pick it up and carry it. But that doesn’t mean being a doormat. Auten delivers a monologue in letter form to her husband, which details his behavior and the ramifications of his choices. It is a marvelous balance of anger and bewilderment at anything so out of character of him.

The course of true love never did run smooth, but the journey is worthwhile, as Posner and Vonnegut remind us. The script has got a wonderful mix of anxiety, delight, nostalgia, passion and determination. Director Anthony Lawson and the cast pull the humor to the fore but not at the expense of the substance.

Valentine’s Day is an annual crisis for me: trying to find something new and special to share with the love of my life. Everyone else who finds themselves in such a conundrum can look no further: This show is the answer. It is the perfect Valentine’s date for a new love or a couple that has shared a lifetime together.

Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love)
Feb. 8-11, 15-18, 8 p.m. or Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St. • (910) 367-5237

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