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Little Theater of Alexandria Heaven Can Wait

By • Feb 28th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Heaven Can Wait
Little Theater of Alexandria
Little Theater of Alexandria, Alexandria, VA
Through March 17th
2:45 with two intermissions
$17-$20
Reviewed February 26th, 2012

This 1938 script by Harry Segall had enough legs to be the source of two movies: “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” in 1941, starring Robert Montgomery, and 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait,” starring Warren Beatty. Both were nominated for several Oscars and won some. Judging by the current production of the original play at Little Theater of Alexandria (LTA), HCW‘s legs have become tired and creaky. In this presentation, the play shows all of its 74 years.

This is not the fault of the designers and technical staff. The costumes are varied and appropriate to the characters and period (e.g., a femme fatale red dress for Julia Farnsworth, a natty blue blazer for Mr. Jordan, though bellhop outfits for Mr. Jordan’s assistants seemed a bit odd). The trio of sets is the production’s high point. The play begins with a shiny metallic conveyance for transporting the recently deceased to their eternal reward, to which is added some sci-fi sound and shimmering red and silver light effects. This gives way to a realistic mansion living room, decorated with furniture that fits the period and wall art that, for the most part, is believable in the house of a wealthy 1930s banker. The best is saved for last, as the house set swings around to create a dark and gritty boxing dressing room. The moves between different settings go smoothly and quickly.

The difficulty comes with what happens on the sets. A 2-hour 45-minute three-act period piece using many of the conventions of the well-made drawing room comedy/mystery, HCW‘s pace feels labored. Stock characters of the genre, like gossipy servants and a blustery detective, add to the impression of an over-the-hill script. Even the use of a boxer as the male lead helps to age the piece, since boxing has long since stopped being the first-tier sport it was in pre-World War II days. (Beatty made a smart choice in changing the leading character’s sport to football for the 1978 movie.)

The show’s premise – promising boxer finds his way to the championship and, incidentally, true love through being transplanted into a series of bodies – is thin. Readers of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” may recall his insight that hell is a bureaucracy. In the world of HCW, heaven too is a bureaucracy, in which, as in all bureaucracies, mistakes are made with great inconvenience to those affected. But this is a comedy, so the effects of celestial bungling have to be made funny. It’s not easy.

Making the body-switching plot, with all its contrivances and coincidences, credible and amusing is all the more difficult when, in many scenes, lines are delivered in a presentational fashion straight out to the audience. Mr. Jordan (Cal Whitehurst) delivers his lines clearly in a fine voice, but his focus is directly downstage, as though to an invisible radio microphone. Leading man Joe Pendleton (Brandon DeGroat), villains Julia Farnsworth (Hanna Wolf) and Tony Abbot (Steve Lada), and Pendleton’s girlfriend Bette Logan (Melissa Berkowitz) periodically suffer from the same affliction. I don’t know whether this approach to acting may have seemed normal to theater goers when the play first appeared; today it feels tedious, and it certainly inhibits reactions among characters that are key to successful comedy.

Because he does allow himself to interact with and react to other characters, and shows a good sense of timing besides, John Shackleford as Max Levene, Pendleton’s trainer, provides the day’s best comedy. He is particularly funny as he attempts to communicate with the invisible Mr. Jordan in various scenes.

DeGroat’s Pendleton is physically energetic, as befits a young boxer, but the extreme naiveté he projects is hard to credit even allowing for the period in which the show is set. He does a nice, rather subtle character shift in the final scene as he becomes a different boxer. His romance with Berkowitz’s too-petulant and frequently unresponsive Bette Logan is not believable, in part because their physical interaction is limited to a peck on the cheek and an A-frame hug. There is similarly little heat between the two villains, who are supposed to be passionately enough connected to commit murder. Special credit should go to co-producer Mary Alaya-Bush, who stepped into the role of Messenger 7013 on very short notice when veteran character actor Will Monahan took ill opening weekend.

Theater conventions have changed a great deal in the past three-quarters of a century. A show so fixed in its own time and style of play construction as HCW may not be able to play successfully in 2012 at all. It certainly cannot succeed without a considerably higher level of performance than in the current LTA production.

Director’s Notes

I remember many years ago, when I was in graduate school, seeing the marquee at the Circle Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue–showing as usual a double feature–and one of the films was “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” with Robert Montgomery (Elizabeth’s dad) and Claude Rains. It went on to win two Academy Awards, one for Best Original Story and the other for Best Screenplay. I thoroughly enjoyed it and noticed that it was based on a play called Heaven Can Wait. I remember at the time feeling, “I’d really love to direct this play someday.”

And now the Little Theatre of Alexandria-my wonderful theater home since 1968-has given me that opportunity. I also feel blessed to have two wonderful producers, who have put together an amazing team that has assisted in making this production possible.

I am so thankful to have such a fabulous production team: Mary Ayala-Bush, who is also a fantastic performer, and Leighann Behrens executing the production of this play. My favorite designer, John Downing, creating the set; my great duo, Jean and Kit, designing the outstanding costumes; my most wonderful and capable stage manager, Rebecca Patton; Nancy and Liz Owens designing my lights again; the talented David Correia designing our sound again; and our lovely Bobbie Herbst, who is always there to troubleshoot no matter what the problem is, running our props department. I feel so blessed to have my favorite set dressing team on board, Jean and Allen Stuhl and Nancyanne Burton; and all the rest of this fabulous crew. They are a delight to work with. I specially want to thank Jimmy and Mary Hutzler-they have been there for me on so many of my shows. They are also adopted family in my life! Others not to be forgotten are Emma Baskir, Russell Wyland, Doug Olmstead and Maureen Rohn for their assistance in helping us mount this wonderful production.

Photo Gallery

John Shackelford (Max Levene), Brandon DeGroat (Joe Pendleton), and Cal Whitehurst (Mr. Jordan) John Shackelford (Max Levene)and Brandon DeGroat (Joe Pendleton)
John Shackelford (Max Levene), Brandon DeGroat (Joe Pendleton), and Cal Whitehurst (Mr. Jordan)
John Shackelford (Max Levene)and Brandon DeGroat (Joe Pendleton)
Colin Davies (Doctor), Brandon DeGroat (Joe Pendleton), Geoffrey Baskir (Passenger), Michael Gerwin (Williams), Geoffrey Brand (Lefty), and John Shackelford (Max Levene)
Colin Davies (Doctor), Brandon DeGroat (Joe Pendleton), Geoffrey Baskir (Passenger), Michael Gerwin (Williams), Geoffrey Brand (Lefty), and John Shackelford (Max Levene)

Photos by Doug Olmsted

The Cast

  • Joe Pendleton: Brandon DeGroat
  • Mr. Jordan: Cal Whitehurst
  • Messenger 7013: Will Monahan or Mary Ayala-Bush
  • Julia Farnsworth: Hanna Wolf
  • Tony Abbott: Steve Lada
  • Bette Logan: Melissa Berkowitz
  • Max Levene: John Shackelford
  • Mrs. Ames: Lori Bonnette
  • Susie, Maid: Shahina Zahir Ismail
  • Ann, Maid: Chanukah Jane Lilburne
  • Williams: Michael Gerwin
  • First Escort: Shahina Zahir Ismail
  • Second Escort: Chanukah Jane Lilburne
  • Workman/Plainsclothes: P. Spencer Tamney
  • Lefty: Geoffrey Brand
  • Doctor: Colin Davies
  • Passenger/Plainsclothesman: Geoffrey Baskir
  • Ming Toy: Bela Baskir

Production Staff

  • Producers: Leighann Behrens, Mary Ayala-Bush
  • Director: Roland Branford Gomez
  • Assistant Director: Mary Ayala-Bush
  • Stage Manager: Becky Patton
  • Assistant Stage Managers: Kendall Hermsdorf, Jim Hutzler, Eddy Roger Parker, Adrian Steele
  • Set Design and Construction: John Downing
  • Assisted by: Bryce Brockelman, David Doll, Jeff Gathers, Peter Alden Hyde, Chris Mortenson, Ben Norcross, Eddy Roger Parker, Dan Remmers, P. Spencer Tamney, Dave Wolf
  • Lighting Design: Liz Owens, Nancy Owens
  • Costume Design/ Construction: Jean Schlichting, Kit Sibley
  • Sound Design: David Correia
  • Assisted by: Keith Bell, Sean Doyle, Margaret Evans-Joyce, Emily Jonas, Janice Rivera
  • Set Painting: Mary Hutzler
  • Assisted by: Leighann Behrens, Bobbie Herbst, Rebecca Johnson
  • Set Decoration: Nancyanne Burton, Jean and Allen Stuhl
  • Master Electrictian: Ellen Doherty
  • Assisted by: Jim Hartz, Pam Leonowich, Michael J. O’Connor, Doug Olmsted, Nancy Owens, Matthew Rabkin, Kick Schwab, Marg Soroos
  • Property Designer: Bobbie Herbst
  • Assisted by: Rachel Alberts, Kirstin Apker, Maya Brettell, Eileen Casamo,Sherry Clarke, Margaret Snow, Nicole Zuchetto
  • Wardrobe: Heather Norcross
  • Assisted by: Rachel Brown-Glazner, Amanda
  • Jagusiak, Mary Beth Smith-Toomey, Margaret Snow, Annie Vroom
  • Hair & Makeup Design: Chanukah Jane Lilburne
  • Rigging: Russell Wyland
  • Photographer: Doug Olmsted
  • Audition Table: Eileen Casamo, Maria Ciarrocci, Bobbie Herbst, Maureen Rohn, Margaret Snow
  • Audition Photographer: Doug Olmsted
  • Double Tech Dinner: Genie Baskir
  • Opening Night Party: Larry Grey, Robin Parker
  • Assisted by:: The Cast of A Christmas Carol

Disclaimer: Little Theater of Alexandria provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

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