Bright Ideas is a story about a yuppie couple's fight to get their toddler into the best preschool, and Ethelyn Friend played a mother who succeeded. The woman is so smug, bitchy and professionally successful that you know she won't survive the first act. But Friend was riveting while her character lived, a slinking, posing pencil stroke of concentrated loathsomeness. And even playing dead, Friend kept raking in the laughs.
Ed Baierlein may be the most interesting, subtle, intelligent and multi-layered actor in Denver -- a role he's played for more than two decades. In Alan Ayckbourn's hilarious comedy Relatively Speaking, which he also directed, Baierlein played the male half of what seemed at first like a very conventional English couple. But we soon discovered that what these people felt for each other wasn't affection, or even the mutual acceptance of a couple of old codgers who'd been rubbing along together for ages. No, it was dislike. It amused him to cheat on her; it amused her to trip him up. Ed Baierlein played Philip like an elephant riding a bicycle through a minefield strewn with his own lies. He was scheming, but also perpetually baffled: mildly baffled, struck-dumb baffled, oh-my-God-I've-just-realized-what-this-means baffled or raging in furious, impotent bafflement. And underneath it all there was a shiver -- just a shiver -- of genuine nastiness.
Who but Sallie Diamond -- Ed Baierlein's real-life wife -- could play opposite him in Relatively Speaking? In the face of all her husband's blustering, she stood her ground and gave as good as she got. With her fluting voice, dithery gestures and impeccably timed slow comic takes, Diamond was a hoot, whether she was explaining why she failed to buy marmalade or plotting Philip's downfall.
Directed by David McClendon for the intimate Jones Theatre at the Denver Center, Lobby Hero was an impeccable production of a charming play, one with just enough substance and insight to keep the viewer from going away hungry. The four quirky characters were played to perfection by Rick Stear, Bill Christ, January Murelli and Terrence Riggins, whose portrait of a rigid, lonely man revealed an almost tragic dimension. Add Kevin Copenhaver's costumes, Charles R. MacLeod's warm lighting and Robert Mark Morgan's meticulously beautiful set -- in which every detail cohered, from the light sconces to the dead leaves at the edge of the sidewalk -- and it was a recipe for pure pleasure.
Ben Hammer is living proof that the Method approach to acting is still one of the most effective imaginable. His interpretation of the title character in Visiting Mr. Green was rich and grounded, and it made the production soar. Hammer was so deeply immersed in the character that he didn't have to say a word to communicate what he was feeling; his face and body did it for him. His silences expressed a world of pain, love and experience. In the play's very last scene, the set of Hammer's shoulders alone was eloquent -- even before he spoke the two quietly vibrating words that ended the evening.
Jamie Horton spent much of the past year working in New York, and from the moment he stepped on stage in John Brown's Body, we all realized how much we'd missed him. His John Brown was stunningly authoritative, a rock-hard, unreasoning, narrow, immovable, plainspoken man who seemed simultaneously contemptible and heroic. This larger-than-life characterization reminded us that historical heroes are often far from admirable; many are men who cannot entertain contradiction and who have an unshakable sense of their own implacable rightness.
In this excellent production, Randy Moore played Theodore Middleton, the schoolmaster husband of one of the sisters. Middleton was a boring man who had only to open his mouth to send the other characters fleeing. Nonetheless, he loved his mocking, angry, miserably unhappy wife. He even found his own odd little way of comforting her when she was prostrate with sorrow after parting with the man she really loved. Moore's portrayal of Middleton was solemn, touching and sincere with, every now and then, a moment of genuine, if muffled, tragic grandeur.
Claire is the shallow sister of the moody, brilliant heroine, Catherine, in David Auburn's Proof, and she could easily be played as the villain. But C. Kelly Leo brought the character to scintillating, multi-faceted life. Though you hated many of Claire's words and actions, Leo made sure you understood their source. You could tell this woman loved her crazy sister and venerated her father, but who wouldn't yearn for a conventional life after growing up with two family members who were so deeply and exclusively bonded to each other? Leo didn't downplay the character's banality, either. Her Claire masked concerns with a high-pitched voice and a smile like that of a professional airline stewardess. And she brought a terrific, controlled humor to the play. Not many actresses could bring down the house with the line "Maybe Hal would like a bagel?"
Last spring, William Hahn played Max in Martin Sherman's Bent, a harrowing drama that revealed the plight of homosexuals in Hitler's extermination camps. At the play's opening, Max lived for booze, cocaine and easy sex. By the second act, his lover had been beaten to death in front of him, and he was in Dachau. He began a friendship with another prisoner and, despite their circumstances, the relationship deepened. The men joked and argued; they even found a way to make love without touching. The play could be seen as an affirmation of the power of love, but that's not really how Hahn played it. He gave evil its due with a characterization that was both caustic and soul-deep, and the result was shattering.
In Three Tall Women, Patty Mintz Figel played a very old woman whose mind and body deteriorated in front of us. The woman was angry, paranoid, agitated, incontinent, ungrateful and hell to take care of. She rambled about the past. She was a racist, though she barely understood her own racist comments or the revulsion they aroused in others. Figel held nothing back as she portrayed this wretched soul sorting through her own ruined life. She whined and grumbled; she shook with palsy. Later, Figel played the same woman at a younger age, more poised but not a whit more likeable. It was a performance that took real courage.

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