Thursday, October 13, 2011

NUTS • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Ooo, I love a good courtroom drama.  And there's a fine one going on right now at the Gaslight Theater, kicking off St. Louis Actors’ Studio's season.  Possibly best known for its 1987 film adaptation starring Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss, Tom Topor's NUTS… you know what I mean… opened as a play off-off Broadway in 1979 and transferred to Broadway the next year.  The play all takes place inside a courtroom in New York's Bellevue Hospital, and although the play itself can seem a bit static at times, the dynamic performances from the high-caliber cast within it are anything but.  It’s three acts with two intermissions, but once the first act gets going, the rest of the show flies by.

The play begins on the day of Claudia Faith Draper's sanity hearing (a compelling Lara Buck).  She's a high-priced call girl who has been indicted for manslaughter.  She claims she killed one of her clients in self-defense, but the state is trying to have her declared mentally unfit to stand trial.  The state's witness, her arrogant psychiatrist Dr. Rosenthal (Steve Callahan), has determined that Claudia is a paranoid schizophrenic and should be hospitalized for her own good, and for the good of the state.  Her mother and stepfather, Rose and Arthur Kirk (Donna Weinsting & John Contini), fearing that the details of Claudia's profession would be exposed in an embarrassing public trial, side with the state.  Claudia insists that she's completely sane, and is equipped with an explicit understanding of the law.  She knows that if she is denied the right to stand trial, because of the way New York's "Mental Hygiene Law" works, she could possibly be committed for up to 17 years.  Claudia is going up against the system, and even though she has the help of her public defender, Aaron Levinsky (William Roth), she seems pretty much on her own.

Donna Weinsting (Rose Kirk), John Contini* (Arthur Kirk),
Bob Harvey (Judge Murdoch), Rachel Visocan (The Recorder),
Steve Callahan (Dr. Rosenthal), Lara Buck* (Caludia Faith Draper),
Keith Thompson (Officer Harry Haggerty),
Alan McClintock (Franklin Macmillan)
and William Roth (Aaron Levinsky).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Dr. Rosenthal is the first to take the stand, and Claudia’s erratic behavior during his testimony really doesn’t help her case much.  She antagonizes him through much of it, insisting that the medicine they have her on is poisoning her, and that she's got a legitimate reason to be paranoid.  Steve Callahan's Rosenthal is sufficiently smug and pompous as the state's witness, and his ideas about what constitutes mental stability and individual rights are truly a little frightening.

The second act brings Claudia's mother and stepfather to the stand, and Donna Weinsting and John Contini both ramp up the proceedings with incredibly layered performances.  It’s obvious their relationship with Claudia is a strained one, and Rose glances at her daughter across the room as if she is looking at a stranger, not able to determine when things went wrong, and wondering what happened to her little girl.  The self-important Arthur Kirk, the kind of man who thinks marriage is a "deal", starts off steady, but once Claudia's attorney suggests that their relationship was perhaps closer than it should have been, he begins to unravel on the stand.  Arthur ends up looking pretty pathetic with his checkbook out, trying to buy his way out of the indiscretions he's revealed.

We finally get to hear from Claudia in the final act, and Lara Buck gets to let loose with a perfectly delivered monologue.  She talks about her parents, her failed marriage, and how she's been able to make a living for herself since her divorce.  Her parents listen, horrified, as Claudia rattles off all of the services she provides, but it's clear that while she's outspoken and doesn't mince her words, she may very well be one of the sanest people in the room.

Donna Weinsting (Rose Kirk), Steve Callahan (Dr. Rosenthal),
William Roth (Aaron Levinsky), Bob Harvey (Judge Murdoch),
Rachel Visocan (The Recorder) and John Contini* (Arthur Kirk).
Photo credit: John Lamb
In addition to the remarkable performances from Buck, Weinsting, Contini and Callahan, William Roth does a good job as Aaron Levinsky, building steam as the hearing unfolds.  Alan McClintock's prosecuting attorney, Franklin Macmillan, starts off quite sure of himself, but finds this case might not be as cut-and-dry as he expected.  Bob Harvey's Judge Murdoch presides over the hearing with a quiet authority, and the cast is rounded out by Keith Thompson as Officer Haggerty, and Rachel Visocan as the court recorder.  These two don't get to say much, with the exception of a brief epilogue delivered by the court recorder.  The handsome and sizable courtroom set, designed by Cristie Johnson with lighting by Sean M. Savoie, miraculously doesn't make the Gaslight's small stage seem cramped at all.

All nine of the players are onstage the whole time, and under Milt Zoth's excellent direction, watching all of the reactions to the happenings in the room, was fascinating.  Everyone is distinctively engaged throughout -- the same way you'll be if you check out this show.  This is one you don't want to miss.


Written by Tom Topor
Directed by Milt Zoth
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through October 23 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Keith Thompson (Officer Harry Haggerty), William Roth (Aaron Levinsky), Alan McClintock (Franklin Macmillan), Donna Weinsting (Rose Kirk), John Contini* (Arthur Kirk), Steve Callahan (Dr. Rosenthal), Rachel Visocan (The Recorder), Bob Harvey (Judge Murdoch) and Lara Buck* (Claudia Faith Draper).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Costume design by Jennifer “JC” Krajicek; scenic design by Cristie Johnston; lighting design by Sean M. Savoie; sound design by Robin Weatherall; stage manager, Amy Paige.

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