The Thrill of the Familiar

More often than not, I try to introduce CityBeat readers to new plays and writers. We see quite a few such shows locally thanks to Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (ETC), the Cincinnati Playhouse and Know Theatre. In fact, looking at American Theatr

More often than not, I try to introduce CityBeat readers to new plays and writers. We see quite a few such shows locally thanks to Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (ETC), the Cincinnati Playhouse and Know Theatre. In fact, looking at American Theatre’s list of 2012-2013’s “Top 10” most-produced plays, six have already been presented locally. The most produced show of the year, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, opened ETC’s season. Last season ETC presented three other titles from the list: The Whipping Man, next to normal and Time Stands Still. Last season also offered Red at the Playhouse and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at Know. (In fact, a photo from the latter is in American Theatre.)

But what keeps people going to theater are shows with familiar titles. American Theatre does not include productions of any of Shakespeare’s works or holiday productions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in its annual list, since they would swamp all the others, even hot new titles that have had recent Broadway exposure. 

But it’s the thrill of the familiar that brings audiences back to the theater. Northern Kentucky University just finished a production of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You, a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy from 1937. UC’s College-Conservatory of Music staged it in 2009, and the Playhouse included it in its 2010-11 season. 

So it should come as no surprise when theaters bring out works that audiences know well and love. It’s the same phenomenon that draws audiences to midnight cinematic showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or back for the umpteenth presentation of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), works so familiar people can say lines along with the actors.

Perhaps the granddaddy of such works is Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Despite more than four centuries of performance (its first staging was around 1595), the appeal of the “star-crossed lovers” never diminishes. Shakespeare’s play has inspired many retellings — the musical West Side Story, a classic in its own right, is the story of Verona’s feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, modernized to Puerto Rican and white gangs in Manhattan in the 1950s — yet the original has lost none of its luster.

So it’s onstage again at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, opening Friday (through Nov. 11). There’s an added benefit with this production: Since CSC employs actors who enact various roles throughout a season and year after year, you can see performers playing an array of parts. Sara Clark is Juliet and Ian Bond plays Romeo in the current production. If you regularly attend CSC productions, you saw them as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice in 2011 and as Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility last season. That’s another form of familiarity that draws audiences back to enjoy the potency of two fine actors working together.

Meanwhile at the Cincinnati Playhouse, we’re about to see a classic work by Neil Simon, Brighton Beach Memoirs, first staged in 1983. This is the first-ever production of a script by Simon at the Playhouse. In its 53rd season, it’s finally presenting one of America’s most beloved playwrights. (There’s a Broadway theater named after him, for heaven’s sake.) His shows are the staples of pop culture, translated into films and TV series. His early comedies are staples of community theaters, where Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys are regularly produced.

But Simon’s “mature” shows from the 1980s, full of autobiographical nostalgia, are truly heartfelt works of powerful theater. It will be a pleasure to see the Playhouse stage this story of Eugene Morris Jerome, age 15, who lives in close quarters with his extended family in 1937 (coincidentally the year that You Can’t Take It with You won its Pulitzer Prize). While the daily dramas of Eugene’s parents, brother, cousins and aunt swirl around him, he dreams of playing for the Yankees — when he’s not thinking about girls or setting the table for dinner. 

New Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison chose the show for his first season because “Simon is an American master, and Brighton Beach Memoirs is his masterpiece. When I learned that Simon had never been done at the Playhouse, I knew this play would be a welcome addition to the season. It’s a moving and sincere play, spiced with the comic wit that we expect from the playwright.” 

So while Simon is a “new” playwright to the Playhouse, his works are just the kind of classics audiences love.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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