REVIEW: "The Siegel"
Finding a soulmate at the newly formed "Lightbulb Project"
By ANTHONY CHASE
In case you needed any proof beyond the headlines that people are insane, what would you say about opening a brand-new theater company on the coldest night of a Buffalo winter in the middle of a pandemic? Sometimes you take a gamble, and the gods smile down. That was certainly the case for the newly created “Lightbulb Project,” which opened their inaugural show, “The Siegel” by Michael Mitnick, on the Mainstage of Alleyway Theatre last night.
Opening opposite an unusual lot of downtown fare, including a stellar “Waiting for Godot” at Irish Classical Theatre, and the opening night of “Puffs,” a Harry Potter escapade by O’Connell & Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre, “Lightbulb” pulled in a bit of the audience that got all dressed but had nowhere to go when Audra cancelled (again) at Shea’s 710 Main. (Covid-19: the gift that keeps on taking). And so, "Lightbulb" attracted a respectable crowd for its quirky tale of romantic misadventure.
It’s a respectable production of a marvelously amusing play, with an excellent cast, directed by company founder, Lucas Lloyd.
For me, one of the distinctive lines of 20th century drama sums up the dilemma of "The Siegel." You know the game: “Give one line of dialogue from which true fans can instantly identify the film”? “You can’t handle the truth.” “I’ll have what she’s having.” “Put your lips together and blow.”
For me, one (well many) of the all-time great lines of comic dialogue comes from the immortal Mae West. In her play, “Diamond Lil,” made into the film “She Done Him Wrong,” the captain of the city mission is dismayed by the promiscuity of the Mae West character. He asks her, “Haven’t you ever met a man who could make you happy?” to which she responds, without hesitation, “Sure! Lots of times!”
“The Siegel” explores one of the great myths of romance: that we are all searching for our one and only soulmate, a bashert. Ethan insists that Alice is his one and only, and he preys on any doubts she might have, about him, about her life, and about her current boyfriend, to convince her of the same. He is a sweet and endearing man, imbued with palpable vulnerability. He is also inarguably manipulative and possibly the devil incarnate.
The title of this deliciously lowbrow play is, of course, a reference to Anton Chekhov’s very highbrow, “The Seagull,” wherein Konstantin pines for Nina who pines for Trigorin. In Mitnick’s play, Ethan Siegel is in love with Alice, who is in love with Nelson. Adding to the comic complication, Ethan and Alice used to date, but he dumped her two years ago. Now he wants her back. In fact, he wants to marry her immediately, and he is relentless.
Ethan is forever asking characters to answer unreasonable questions truthfully. The problem is that superficial and immediate truths do not necessarily reveal eternal truths. It is also true that sustaining relationships is not necessarily an activity built on truth.
The casting is, without question, the strongest attribute of this production. Michael Mack brings the requisite sweetness and endearing vulnerability to Ethan. Even in the character’s most maddening moments of manipulation, he is adorably funny.
Amanda Borowski navigates the contradictory amalgam of confidence, insecurity, bemusement, outrage, and bewilderment that is Alice with comic brilliance.
Add to the mix, two stars of Buffalo comedy, Lisa Vitrano and David Mitchell as Alice’s parents, Deborah and Ron. The couple are deployed by the playwright to demonstrate a marriage that is sustained, stable, and loving, despite some significant incompatibilities, areas of mistrust, and a history of noteworthy betrayals. This is a house built on forgiveness, blissful ignorance, and studied forgetfulness, as much as love. The interplay between Vitrano as sane and stable Deborah and Mitchell as bottled up but ever ready to break loose Ron makes for many of the evening’s highlights. The truth seems to be that sanity and stability are sometimes founded on the truly insane.
Mitnick has a gift for piercing the contemporary behaviors that facilitate self-deception and the manipulation of others. Watch for the relentless text messaging games. Who texts whom, when, and how often? What is the meaning of lipstick or the little black dress? Is jealousy a manifestation of love, or merely insecurity? There are elements of Sheridan or Congreve in the way personal interactions are filtered through superficial social priorities in this play.
Elliott Fox provides wonderful laughs and insights as Alice’s current boyfriend, Nelson, a man who will be hoist on the petard of his own self-confidence. Phoebe Wright gives a skillful performance with her brief but significant appearance late in the proceedings.
At times I did wish that the many locations of the play had not been staged so literally. This added dead time during the transitions between scenes. The decision also sometimes relegated important moments to awkward locations. Most significantly, the play’s most powerful reversal, at the end of the play, was played way upstage, far from the audience, diminishing its power.
Put all this aside, however, and the terrific acting and the delicious script leave us with a playful and provocative evening of theatrical pleasure! And as you leave at the end of the evening, you might ask yourself, “Have I ever met someone who could make me truly happy?” Don’t be surprised if your answer turns out to be, “Sure! Lot’s of times!”