It never fails to thrill me how attending events at Chautauqua Institution makes me feel connected to the great world outside our own small community.
I've recently returned from a visit to New York City, where I attended two plays which are running there off-Broadway. Both of those plays saw a stage for the first time at the Bratton Family Theater at Chautauqua as part of the New Play Workshops. I also had a chance to have a number of conversations with working theater professionals who started, early in their careers, at Chautauqua, and who are now appearing successfully in New York's demanding atmosphere.
Isn't there a popular song which says, ''If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere?''
Television star David Hyde Pierce, center, plays a successful editor who works surrounded by employees who can't live up to his standards in Molly Smith Metzler's play “Close Up Space,” which has recently transferred from the Chautauqua Theater Company to New York City. Shown with him are Jessica Di Giovanni and Michael Chernus.
Let me start by telling you about the plays, and then the people. There's a lot more, which will have to wait until next week, but I'm overflowing with things I can share with you.
Before I do, let me remind readers that the term ''off-Broadway'' refers to theaters which have fewer seats for the audience than do the traditional Broadway theaters. It does not have anything to do with where the theater is located.
CLOSE UP SPACE
''Close Up Space'' introduced Chautauquans to playwright Molly Smith Metzler, who returned in the 2011 season with a second new play, called ''Carve.''
The play dealt with a successful publisher named Paul, who has a reputation as one of the most successful in the business, although he is demanding and unyielding.
Paul's personal life had suffered a horrible blow, some years before the play begins, when his creative and wonderfully talented wife committed suicide.
Nearly crushed by the loss, Paul has withdrawn into a life of rigid devotion to rules and policies. Since his teenage daughter Harper reminds him of his failures with his late wife, he has sent her off to a progression of boarding schools, which he convinces himself are the best way of guaranteeing her success in life, away from whatever it was, in living with him, which made his wife wish to die, while shielding himself from the painful memories which Harper forces him to confront.
The play begins when Harper decides that she will confront her father and end her life of plush exile by getting herself expelled from boarding school and coming to his office unannounced to have it all out.
The playwright's general approach seems to be to provide endless outrageous details, usually very funny, which soften the hard facts behind it all. She provides Paul with a student intern who is overwhelmingly naive about human interactions, a bestselling author so ego-driven as to defy belief, and an office manager so spaced-out, he very much reminds one of the zany writers in the ''30 Rock'' television series. No one would get away with being that ''out of it,'' so the audience is supposed to accept that - like Harper - they're being coddled in humor so they can face the hard facts.
Probably we're strong enough to accept the play's subject without quite so much outrageousness. Harper decides, for example, that if she is going to be exiled, she's going to dress like a Russian, and to storm around with a Russian flag, speaking only Russian. Her revenge on her father includes making friends with street people which she brings into his office to steal every single thing, to the last paper clip.
It's too much. But its heart is in the right place, and it reminds us much that we probably already know about the pain of life and the way we often try to hide from pain by hurting or by pushing away others.
David Hyde Pierce, probably best known for portraying Niles Crane in the long-lived television series ''Frasier,'' brings his famous talent for scorn and disdain to bear in the role of Paul. But he also shows us a man who knows he's fighting the wrong people with the wrong weapons and who struggles to find the right ones, before it's too late.
Firecracker Rosie Perez is miscast as Paul's bestselling author, and the hints of romance between her character and Paul just don't strike any sparks.
Michael Chernus, who has graced stages at Chautauqua himself, is enjoyable as the goofy office assistant, and is so likeable we were almost ready to accept him as ever having possibly been hired in a big-money industry.
The play has recently ended its run at the Manhattan Theatre Club, in the beautiful small theater at New York City Center Stage. Todd Rosenthal's elaborate and beautiful design certainly brought some realism to the zany script, and reminded us how much was accomplished with so little at Chautauqua.
Director Leigh Silverman seems to have just allowed the play to zip off in various directions, rather than encourage it to rein in its excesses and emphasize its powerful core.
If you go to theater to evaluate and appreciate the professionalism involved, it was possible to have a wonderful time at ''Close Up Space.'' I did. Anyone who went to be amused without needing to engage probably didn't.
''Rx'' by Kate Fodor, started at Chautauqua as an indictment of Big Pharma, the pharmaceutical industry. Like Ms. Fodor's earlier Chautauqua effort ''100 Saints You Should Know,'' which also transferred to New York and which we also covered both at Chautauqua and in New York City, the play's great strength is its generous respect for the humanity, behind most of the behavior we all display.
Ms. Fodor started her life as a writer, as a journalist, covering developments and realities in the industry which produces our medicines and health-related products and equipment.
One thing which clearly troubled her about her experience, she told me back then, was the realization that anything the industry cured meant that they had a short stream of income from the patient or his insurance, until the condition was cured, and then nothing more. It was more profitable to produce medications which were attractive to people whose lives weren't in danger, so they could continue buying them for decades.
Treatments for conditions which related to those with higher incomes were more profitable, especially because those with higher incomes were much more likely to have health insurance, so they wouldn't need to pay out of pocket for their meds, but could pass the costs along to their employers' policies.
So, while we struggle with cancer and diabetes and heart disease, the health industry is rewarded for focusing their efforts on treating office anxiety and romantic problems. One can hear ''Brave New World's'' mantra, ''A gram is better than a damn.''
The New York production of ''Rx" is being presented at Primary Stages, and is a hotbed of Chautauquans, both present and past, in addition to its beautiful playwright.
Ethan McSweeny, resident director of the Chautauqua Theater Company, has directed the production. Marin Hinkle, who might be better known to our readers as the mother of the young boy in the television series ''Two and a Half Men'' began her career with the Chautauqua Conservatory. Lee Savage designed the wonderfully attractive and versatile set, which made the play's many, many scene changes easier to deal with, for the audience.
Elizabeth Rich and Paul Niebanck, frequent guest artists at Chautauqua, were also in the cast.
The plot of the play seems to have moved away from an indictment of the industry to a zany love story, colored by the lovers' devotion to solving their problems with a pill, instead of with study and discussion.
We first meet Meena Pierotti - portrayed by Ms. Hinkle - as she is being interviewed by Dr. Phil Grey, a researcher for Schmidt Pharma. She is a candidate to be part of a study of a drug which makes people happier in the face of holding jobs which make them miserable. Meena, for example, is the managing editor of a glossy magazine which deals with the raising of cattle and swine, and she clearly needs some kind of help.
Phil's questions all resemble requests that she give her unhappiness a numerical value. ''On a scale of one to 10, with one being completely miserable and 10 being mildly annoyed ...'' he repeatedly asks. When she points out that such a question needs a context - compared to a person in horrible pain, she's only mildly annoyed, but compared to a person who loves and respects his job, she's miserable - he makes it clear that the whole interview is just satisfying some industry number cruncher, and doesn't matter to either of them, so she should just pick a number.
Soon Meena and Phil are in love, and she is encouraging him to give up his profitable but essentially worthless job and apply for a program with Doctors Without Borders, saving lives and preventing horrible disfigurement in the Third World, yet as long as she needs to keep the mild exhilaration of his drug and he wants to confront his problems with pills, their relationship is truly going nowhere.
Meena's office is near a large department store. She has learned that the department which sells the large, baggy underwear intended for old ladies is usually empty of people, so she goes there when her job makes her so unhappy that she needs to cry. On one visit, she meets an elderly lady who is suffering from breast cancer which has spread because she has neglected caring for herself, and many things begin to fall into place.
The humor is still intended to strike us as exaggerated, but not nearly so much as the previous play. The performance I saw was only the second preview, which means that changes - possibly extensive ones - may still be put into place before it officially opens.
''Rx'' isn't ''King Lear,'' but ''Two Gentlemen of Verona'' isn't ''King Lear,'' either. It's a pleasant and enjoyable evening which can teach us something valid and important about life in our current society. That's a very good thing!
KATE AND MOLLY
I had a rare and wonderful experience during my recent visit. I had lunch with three beautiful women.
Sitting in a small New York cafe, I was joined by Vivienne Benesch, who is artistic director of the Chautauqua Theater Company; by Molly Smith Metzler; and by Kate Fodor.
Nearly every man who walked by our table had a look in his eyes which clearly wondered who this old guy was with the three gorgeous ladies.
Vivienne began by reminding me that in the 2012 season at Chautauqua, the company will be performing ''Fifty Ways'' by Ms. Fodor, which is the first play which has been commissioned for performance here by a contemporary playwright.
I asked her if she could tell me alumni of the Chautauqua Theater program who are currently working in the New York Theater. She quickly named Elizabeth Reasor, who was here in 1996, who is playing the lead in ''How I Learned to Drive'' by Paula Vogel. ''Yosemite'' is a new play at Rattlestick Theater and was written by Daniel Talbot, who was a member of the conservatory at Chautauqua in 2000 and stars Seth Numrich, who was here in 2005.
Numrich left a principal role in the award-winning Lincoln Center production of ''War Horse'' to do the Talbot play.
''Outside People,'' which is now playing at the Vineyard, was written by Zayd Dohm, who wrote the New Play Workshop production of the play ''Sick,'' which played in our county in 2008.
Liz Wisan, who acted here in 2009, is understudying and occasionally going on for Rachel Griffiths of ''Six Feet Under'' fame in the play ''Other Desert Cities,'' which will be officially opening soon.
Traci Thoma, who was here in 1998, is in the cast of the play ''Stick Fly,'' which is now playing on Broadway at the Cort Theatre. And that was just off the top of her head.
Both playwrights began to laugh that it seems that Chautauqua actors have found their way into nearly everything in the city.
Ms. Fodor said that she has found the New Play Workshops, which Chautauqua stages with professional actors, directors, designers and the like, but with actors holding scripts in their hands, so that the playwright can do major re-writes as she sees and hears people actually doing and saying the things she has written.