Variety, December 28, 1993
by Christopher Meeks
Producer Joseph Stern is back, and with a fabulous
production of a little-known gem, George M. Cohan's "TheTavern."
Directed flawlessly by Tony Giordano, and using a
veteran cast and high production values, the play builds in humor,
becoming a wonderful, wacky kind of "Noises Off." Robert Benchley
wrote in Life magazine in 1920 that "one cannot help having a good
time" at the play. The same remains true today.
On a rainy, thunder-filled night at the turn of
this century, a number of people stop at a tavern on the road to
Albany, seeking lodging. The first is a vagabond (Robin Gammell) who
does not remember his name but does know that the tavern keeper (Jim
Haynie) just shot at a woman hiding in the woodshed.
The tavern keeper finds the woman, Violet (Lindsay
Grouse), who's weak from walking and desperately trying to get to the
governor to tell her tale of an earlier abuse. After she's given a
bed, who should appear but the governor (George Murdock), his wife
(Marian Mercer), his daughter (Anna Gunn) and her upper-crust fiance
(Jay Karnes), having been accosted and robbed on the road.
The tale takes off when Violet accuses the fiancé
of wrongdoing, and the vagabond, fond of drama, stirs up the
situation. Add to this a sheriff (Charles Hallahan) and his men, and
Stern, who has been in New York for three years
producing "Law and Order," has managed to woo a mostly veteran group
of actors by double casting, allowing members room to manage their
other professional responsibilities. "There's more talent in this town
than in New York or London," said Stern after the play opening night,
"and we've just needed a way to get them in theater."
The actors, who all rehearsed together, will be
mixed and matched on a nightly basis. In this way, Stern has brought
in the likes of Crouse, Hallahan, Talia Balsam and David Dukes.
The fact is, the approach seems to work well and
seamlessly, with much credit to director Giordano. Even Gammell, who
at first seems miscast as the vagabond — often referred to as "young
man" and admired perhaps romantically by the governor's young
daughter, but who appears too old — wins the audience by his energy
and odd charm. (Cotter Smith alternates in the role.)
Grouse creates a highly convincing Violet, a woman
scorned — and wary. (Penny Fuller is the other Violet.) Hallahan and
Dukes bring a delightful presence as, respectively, the sheriff and
doctor, although they're small, character roles. (James Handy and
Lawrence Pressman play those parts, respectively, on other nights.)
The set design by Neil Peter Jampolis, utterly
impressive for a 99-seat theater, so convincingly evokes rain that one
is surprised at intermission to find it's dry outside. Alan
Armstrong's costume design is lavish, with just one misstep: the
modern-looking rubber boots worn by the confused tavern assistant,
hilariously played by Michael Milhoan on opening night.
Lights by Jane Reisman and sound by Matthew Beville
add well to the whole.
The play runs through Feb. 13 — enough time for
auds to catch different nights for different interpretations.
Los Angeles Times
Double-Cast Gamble Pays Off in Cohan's 'Tavern' at Matrix
by Sylvie Drake
Times Theatre Critic Emeritus
All you have to do is make your way to the Matrix
Theatre on Melrose Avenue to know that producer Joe Stern is back in
town. With bells on.
Who else would dream of putting on George M.
Cohan's hilarious farce, "The Tavern," with two entirely different
casts? Who else would guarantee that no two performances are alike by
seeing that the mix of cast members changes from show to show? And who
else would commandeer a group of players zany enough to submit to such
a cockamamie experiment?
The ones commandeered by Stern and his director,
Tony Giordano (at least as zany as his performers), are not only
distinguished but in many cases well-known. What possessed these
fearless actors to give talent and time to this delectable madness at
a fraction of their usual fee?
It can only be the irresistible challenge of it all
and the strong-arming of Stern (sorely missed in L.A. theater when he
spent the last few years executive producing "Law & Order" in New
After all, this mixing and matching is a
form of Russian roulette: Tonight the chemistry works, tomorrow it
doesn't, on Friday it's so-so, on Sunday it's great. That's the
gamble. And to have sat through two evenings of this very funny
show—each with almost entirely different casts—only confirms the
enormity of the risk.
Separate is not equal, no, but under
Giordano's relentlessly buoyant direction, this "Tavern" is an
education in the importance of alchemy in performance and the
transformation that a production will undergo whenever you change the
slightest component in it.
It is also, however, proof that when you put
quality in, you get quality out. While there were major differences in
the two performances seen, it was never a matter of Good versus Bad,
but of something much more subtle: pressure point changes of shading
and relationship, temperament and character-altogether fascinating to
Most pivotal to the coloring of this farce is the
character of the Vagabond. He is key to a set of mysterious goings-on
at this turn-of-the-century tavern on the road to Albany. Found taking
shelter in the woodshed on a dark and stormy night, this Vagabond
becomes the orchestrator of events in an impromptu Bedlam: from the
strange divagations of a woman named Violet, also found in the
woodshed, to the unscheduled arrival of the State Governor and his
family, held up by highwaymen. Before the night is out, this Vagabond
has ephemerally realigned relationships as fragile as candlelight.
Cotter Smith and Robin Gam-mell play this role, the
former with romantic dash, the latter with a melancholy wisdom of the
ages. There starts a major difference. But there are others. Penny
Fuller is a collapsible shrinking Violet, while Lindsay Crouse is
robust. George Murdock is an apoplectic Governor, Allan Arbus a cool,
aristocratic one. And the Governor's daughter, Virginia, is all curves
and softness as played by Julia Campbell, in contrast to Anna Gunn's
more angular responses.
This is theater as superb gamesmanship. Who knows,
once Campbell plays the role with Smith, or Fuller with Gammell, what
unanticipated dimensions may bubble to the surface? This is all pure,
vaudevillian fun and a darn good tale at that, to say nothing of the
sheer thrill of discovery provided by the changing of the actors.
Cohan's broadsides hark back to Moliere's, with the same soft spot for
underdogs and the same dedication to pulverizing cant.
The technical values surrounding the production are
top-notch and they, of course, don't change. Neil Peter
Jampolis has designed a primitive, rained-on tavern of dark wood. The
deafening thunder claps that assail it are by sound designer Matthew
Seville, the interior shadows and blinding flashes of lightning by
Jane Reisman and the motley costumes—rags to riches— by costumer Alan
All of this augurs splendidly for this new company.
Aside from delivering one of the year's most entertaining evenings of
theater in Los Angeles, "The Tavern" offers the dedicated theatergoer
a tantalizing possibility: To see the show in several permutations.
A peek at the cast list that follows should soon
tell you that you can't go too far wrong. It's a gamble, sure, but
cheaper than Las Vegas—and, oh, so much more fun.
Los Angeles Reader
This Tavern Is Worthy of Toasting
New Company Breaks New Ground in Collaboration
by Michael Frym
Yes! Bravo to
Joe Stern and the visionaries breaking profound new ground at the
Matrix while perpetual doomsayers continue to bemoan Los Angeles as a
theatrical wasteland. Au contraire, mon ami; as long as there
are artists willing to take risks as they ply their craft, there will
be that particularly invigorating brand of theater apparent in The
Ideally, theater functions as a cooperative art
form — performers, designers, and technicians filtering their
creativity through the director's concept of the playwright's script.
It's this concerted effort — coupled with the spontaneity of live
performance — that makes the art form so vital. What takes place when
the lights go up is written in sand, and can never be replicated
because the moments onstage will never be precisely the same.
Furthermore, each audience brings a different perspective to the
theater, impacting the performance they view.
Joe Stern and his Matrix Theatre Company take these
precepts to new heights with The Tavern. Besides employing the
usual company of artists necessary for production, each role is played
by two actors. While the practice of double-casting in itself isn't
new, how the two casts are utilized is. The pairs work as a team,
exploring new dimensions of cooperative creativity as they rehearse
and mold their characters. Watching each other work, sharing stage
time during rehearsals, and probing new realizations about their
characters help to sharpen each actor's observation and listening
skills. This teamwork is evident in the tight ensemble work shown on
stage. By the end of the run, the group will have played with every
possible combination of scene partners. Only on the first weekend were
audiences able to see two different set casts; thus, this review is
based on two consecutive and very different performances. There's not
much possibility of this show getting staid or losing its luster.
In The Tavern, playwright George M. Cohan
expertly ties together elements of burlesque, farce, and melodrama
with romance and lyricism that belie his Irish ancestry. The year is
1900; the location, about fifty miles outside of Albany. Lights up on
a tavern's common room, reverberating from the thunder and lightning
of a violent storm. In rushes Zach John Walcutt, Kurt Deutsch), the
son of the inn's proprietor, shaking with fear. He tells his father
(Mitchell Ryan, Jim Haynie) and a serving wench (Marsha Deitlein) that
someone is hiding in the wood shed. Two fugitives from the storm
eventually surface: an enigmatic Vagabond (Cotter Smith, Robin Gammell)
and a mysterious, manic fainting woman (Penny Fuller, Lindsay Grouse).
Efforts to glean any information from the strangers is confounded by
the arrival of an aristocratic entourage: Governor Lamson (Allan Arbus,
George Murdock), his helpful wife (Audra Lindley, Marian Mercer), his
charming daughter Virginia (Julia Campbell, Anna Gunn), and her
stalwart fiance (Daniel McDonald, Jay Karnes). Add to this colorful
crew a sheriff (James Handy, Charles Hallahan) and his men, as well as
a mysterious stranger at the play's end (Lawrence Pressman, David
Dukes), and you have a brilliantly layered insanity that captures your
heart and your funny-bone.
All the actors' performances show meticulous
attention to the details of the characters and should continue to
grow, given the unique environment in which they are creating.
Particularly noticeable in its effect on the play's rhythm are the
stylistic and interpretive dissimilarities of Smith and Gammell as the
verbose Vagabond. While the younger, more romantic Smith is captivated
and titillated by the poetry of the circumstances around him, it is
the dramatics that obsess Gammell. The dynamics of these differences
are astounding, especially in the Vagabond's relationship with
Virginia. The possibility of a romance appears with Smith; moreover,
the audience hopes to see the spark ignite. Gammell's heavy stylism
offers great complexities as it touches a fascination rooted deeply in
Virginia's, and subsequently, her mother's, soul. Both approaches are
valid and work wonderfully. Audiences that experience both of these
actors will receive a rich, rare theatrical treat.
Tony Giordano's inspired direction guides each
actor to a solid characterization. His understanding of Cohan's intent
sports enormous acumen. The top-notch design team (sets, Neil Peter
Jampolis; lights, Jane Reisman; costumes, Alan Armstrong; and sound,
Matthew Beville) complements the cast with the quality of their
"Must see" is an understatement; must experience
would be more appropriate. And to truly appreciate the complete
uniqueness of the project, experience The Tavern twice — once
with each Vagabond.