The First Houlihan Review!
"Chastity & Destruction"
Unbeknownst to you all, I am sure (and here I am already fulfilling my obligations as an educator in my first sentence, and beginning a review with a nifty, if somewhat underutilized word), there is a long tradition in the theatre world of celebrating the first review ever produced of a play written (or wrighten, as it perhaps ought to be!) by a great dramatist. I have heard tell that Shakespeare’s first review was written, under the title, “I Sure Did Like it,” by Bacon, or perhaps paid for with slabs of this meat, I forget which; Ibsen’s first review was written by a man who objected so violently to a play’s meaning that the author had a minute copy printed and placed in a doll’s house pm every stage set to bring him luck; and, searching the memory banks for a third such example, Shaw’s “Pygmalion” was reviewed by a Covent Garden “flower-girl” who announced very loudly (it was picked up by a gramophone-like contraption in the vicinity) that it, and I quote, “was a load of old codswallop!” – which, I suppose, is what you are thinking of this review, so far.
Well, I want it announced far and wide that I have written (well, wait until I have finished at least) the First Ever Review of a Houlihan play. This is a far more important accomplishment, in my book, than the excellence of the plays themselves, which merely required incredible labor and creativity on the part of the playwright, the actors, and crew. For, in order for a review to pass into posterity as such a triumph, a “First Review” (FR), the reviewer needs to have people agree with her or him that the plays are excellent and worthy of having an FR written about them, and s/he needs to delineate what was so good about them, once again in order for the FR to have any great staying power. After all, if the reviewer doesn’t persuade you of the play’s value then you may not fork over the $6 to go to the play and her or his chance at Reviewing Immortality (RI) may disappear in a puff of smoke.
So, with my difficult task laid out before me, let me tell you why Noah Houlihan deserves a First Review. Noah is not your average student. We have seen him perform many times before from his bit part in “Sueno”, his bittier parts in “The Odyssey”, through his lead roles in “Pinter at Play” (including a legitimate English accent) and “Desire Under the Elms”. The guy can act! But he also is very funny. He often used to do the stand-up routine to commence Theatre Club performances, songfests, Nights of Sex, and the like, and even was pronounced, and I may get the official title wrong here, one of the funniest students in New Jersey, when he won a state-wide college contest. But, there is more. He is the first student ever to have his plays performed by the Stockton Theatre Company. The option is always available for budding student playwrights to submit a proposal to the Theatre faculty for consideration, but Noah’s plays are the first to come through this rigorous process of evaluation. The Company has a great reputation to uphold, and so it needs to be very careful about what it selects and allows to move forward to production.
Once the Company made its decision, the plays were put through a laborious editing process including umpteen re-writes (all part of Noah’s Senior Project). The plays were workshopped almost interminably and, by the end of this process, two extremely polished scripts emerged. The two plays, linked by theme perhaps – they are plays on (though not necessarily about) religion – are very different in almost all regards. The first, “Doors”, is serious. It begins with the question, if there are so many religions then many people may actually be wrong about what they believe in; what do they do when they reach the Pearly Gates – or, in this case, two rather non-descript gray doors – and are confronted with the fact that they have been wrong? Will they stay faithful to the religion that they have now learned was a mistake and pass through the one door, or will they be tempted to dive through the other door in an act of conversion and contrition? The premise may not sound promising, but it is held together very nicely with some great acting, so that it works very well and ends up being an interesting and thought-provoking short play. Praise must go to the actors for their work in this performance – Lane Jackson as the lead (Sam) and Lauren Jackson, as his guardian angel. Sam is a man who has just been shot by mistake, and Lane is excellent at conveying the central quandary of a person forced to make a decision in the face of his own monumental errors; Lauren, meanwhile, has developed a presence on stage that is simultaneously comforting and creepy – it is no wonder that Sam hasn’t a clue what to do even with his guardian angel’s help. The other small parts are taken by Ramon Lewis, Katie LoRè, Michael Meinberg, Kristin Nielsen, Jason Benjamin, and Alice Servellon, and they all complement the excellent performances of the two leads very professionally indeed.
The second play, “Chastity and Destruction”, is a romp through the lives of the young and unattached world of the student and the recent apartment-inhabiting graduate. It is probably just your average day when one roommate is trying to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend with a night of passionate love making, while another roommate is planning to bring the world to an end with some ritual sacrifice on the living room floor. Noah’s comedic sensibility (his comic touch even) is really drawn on for some great lines, and many incredibly funny situations. My only concern as an actor would be trying not to crack up on stage in all the hilarity. Fortunately, the always joshing Patrick Judd (Josh) and Jaaron Boger (Kevin) have been given license to take everything to the limit and not look back, so when they fall about laughing, it only stokes the devil’s flames. But Joe Heim, as the roommate Sabin, really has to keep things together with a level of seriousness that only makes the play funnier in direct proportion to his seriousness. Joe does a brilliant job bringing a grunginess and nerdiness to the performance that is great fun to watch. I am certain, or about as certain as a First Reviewer can be, that any students who come to this play will find it funny and at points may have to wipe away the tears from laughing so much – and I am not just trying to build the box office! To finish out the great acting, Jessica Fricano as Mary, Josh’s love interest, is wonderful, as she invariably has been in Stockton productions. Jason Benjamin, is excellent again, and it has to be said that if he messes up his performance as a dead man in the first play, he at least gets the opportunity to improve in the second one. Lane Jackson paid me not to mention that he is the other cult member in the play (the one who doesn’t reveal his identity), but I took the money as payment for this review and included his name anyway!
No performance can survive on the work of a playwright and actors alone. Fortunately, the members of the Stockton Theatre crew were all splendid once more. Noah did his own directing, but received an assist from Stephanie Kingsbury. Set design, very nicely conceived and particularly with the apartment (since I can’t speak for the Pearly Gates), an accurate rendering of the typical student digs, was done by Josh Wallendels. They were assisted further by Caitlin MacDonald (costume design & stage manager), Patrick McMullen (lighting design), Jessica Fricano (sound design), and David Strototi (properties design). The leadership and assistance coming from the Stockton Theatre Program faculty and staff, Pam Hendrick, Mark Mallett, Dan Niccum, and Danny Wright, is also very evident and much appreciated. Shepherding Noah through all the stages of writing and producing his play, must have taken faith and commitment, and to have it end up as the subject of a First Review, is surely icing on the cake! No? Oh well.
Thanks to one and all for their work on this fantastic production. Please make every effort to support this play, it certainly deserves it. And I do believe that you will enjoy going immensely.
First Reviewer of Houlihan