Sunday, March 3, 2024

Pygmalion Comes A Courting. STAGE REVIEW: “Half Moon Bay” by John Jiler

In Metamorphoses, Ovid’s narrative poem, we first shook hands with the bachelor Pygmalion, a sculptor who doted on a flawless statue he carved. Thanks to Aphrodite, his ivory girl was brought to life and she has since given birth to an antic strain of male wish fulfillment notions.

L-R: Ivette Dumeng, Ben Gougeon, Brennan Taylor, Jean Goto. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Dramatists have whipped up their own versions, for instance, W. S. Gilbert’s “Pygmalion and Galatea” [1871] and George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” [1912]. Motion pictures that reinterpret this Greek myth include “My Fair Lady” [1964, based on the Broadway musical]; “One Touch of Venus” [1948]; “The Stepford Wives” [1975]; Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” [1995]; and “Ruby Sparks” [2012].

In “Half Moon Bay” by John Jiler we meet Richie (Ben Gougeon), an acclaimed architect who is celebrating his forthcoming marriage with his best man, Tom (Brennan Taylor) and his bride-to-be, Pam (Jean Goto), when he’s completely besotted by the waitress, Alicia, a wide-eyed waif  (Ivette Dumeng).

Foreground: Brennan Taylor. Behind: Ben Gougeon, Jean Goto. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Award winning Richie, who has scaled the pinnacle of success, has recently collaborated with Pam, a landscape gardener, on a newborn project: an environmentally ideal residential Manhattan skyscraper, Skylark. The name riffs on the romantic song (by Hoagy Carmichael  and Johnny Mercer) and, more importantly, on “To a Skylark” by Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who penned these evocative lines:   Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!/ Bird thou never wert,/ That from Heaven, or near it, Pourest thy full heart/ In profuse strains of unpremeditated art./ . . . Teach me half the gladness/ That thy brain must know . . . .

Ben Gougeon as Richie. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Attired in a stiff white uniform that resembles a straitjacket, Alicia’s insufficiencies make her seem like a ditz to Tom and Pam. Richie has a different response to this unworldly female; she strikes him as “unpremeditated art.” He senses, in her chance remark about the moon, a tabula rasa waiting to be filled. Will Alicia impart “half the gladness” that her brain must know?

Ben Gougeon as Richie, the architect; Ivette Dumeng as Alicia, the object of his obsession. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Jean Goto as Pam. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Dazed by Alicia, he schemes. To get her address, he sends her home in a cab. She’s staying at a homeless shelter and this discovery fuels his obsession. The waitress is taking shape in his imagination as a needy creature, a baby bird seeking a proper nest. Gradually, every poignant detail about the mysterious Alicia, that her infant was taken, that medication has blocked her memories, that men have left her scarred, will fascinate Richie, who sees her as “an unvarnished piece of wood.” In other words, he’s decided to become her master builder and create with her.

Ben Gougeon as Richie. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Meanwhile, back in reality, Pam realizes she is carrying a child and she is ecstatic. Pregnant on the first try, when so many of their friends failed or had to seek medical intervention, Pam is glowing as well as gloating. She’s so happy to have (once again) performed well and expects her husband to float on Cloud 9 with her. Instead he reveals his secret fixation to Tom and, eventually, to his wife. Even when his obsession with Alicia threatens to sabotage his marriage and career, he can’t stop himself. His lunacy has consumed him.

L-R: Ben Gougeon and Brennan Taylor. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Actress Ivette Dumeng said her favorite line in the play is: “Because the moon, for all we wax and coo about it, is nothing but a cold, hard, rock. Lifeless, granular, under an always dark sky.” Jiler gives the character Alicia several lines about the cold-hearted orb that rules the night. Often these wild exclamations will pierce the veil of medication that soothes her and makes her seem normal, even cheerful. As Richie explains to Alicia that he will build a cottage for them in Pennsylvania, surrounded by wildflowers, she seems compliant and trusting at first, then a shriek escapes her: “But will I be able to see the moon?” It’s a tense, taut moment, revealing all the dark roads she’s traveled. It’s a difficult role and Dumeng’s performance registers all the nuances of Alicia’s bewilderment, rage, loneliness, and terror.

Jean Goto and Ben Gougeon. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Ben Gougeon as Richie, the architect; Ivette Dumeng as Alicia, the object of his obsession. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
L-R: Ivette Dumeng and Jean Goto. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Actress Jean Goto is excellent as Pam, the wronged wife, and the most physically free of all the characters. Whether she’s embracing her husband, reveling in her pregnancy, or groveling at his feet as she begs him to stay, there is an authenticity of interpretation.

Actor Brennan Taylor is wonderful as Tom, a charming narrator who brings his part to life. He radiates a lightly amused reserve amid the Richie-Pam havoc and has charisma to spare.

Brennan Taylor as Tom. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Actor Ben Gougeon, the sole Actors Equity cast member, is stiff in his role as the obsessed lover and lacks clout where he needs it most — — in every “turning point” moment with Alicia. As one example, Richie is waiting outside the restaurant, until her shift ends.  When he sees her, though we expect to see his face transformed, he registers nothing. Only one time does Alicia initiate and take Richie’s hand but, again, his face remains placid instead of, say, beatific.

Ivette Dumeng as Alicia.  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Ivette Dumeng as Alicia. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Director Margarett Perry keeps the play moving briskly in this minimalistic staging with no furniture nor props and few costume changes.

Debbi Hobson does a solid job with the costume design. I think a fluffy white scarf for Alicia, instead of baby blue, would have emphasized her waif-like persona better.

John Jiler has written wonderfully poetic dialogue and several lines stay with you.

The play had a reading at the Actors Studio Playwrights and Directors Unit, where it was seen by John Patrick Shanley, a member of the advisory board of Nylon Fusion Theatre Company, who recommended it to the troupe for a full production.

Jean Goto as Pam. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Nylon Fusion Theatre has staged the play, running in rep with “Comes a Faery,” at New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, in the month of October.

The run of “Half Moon Bay,” a world premiere, is nearing its end. You can see it on Thurs, 10/22; 2:00 PM Sat, 10/24; 2:00 PM Sun, 10/25. Running time is 90 minutes.

Linda Ann Lo Schiavo
Linda Ann Lo Schiavo
Native New Yorker LindaAnn Loschiavo has been on the staff of L’IDEA since 1996 and coordinated L’IDEA’s 25th Silver Annniversary Extravaganza. Her works for the stage include “Courting Mae West,” which has been seen in New York City theatres and most recently in Melbourne, Australia. Her writing has appeared in “Anti-Italianism: Essays on a Prejudice” [Macmillan, 2011] as well as numerous magazines, literary journals, and newspapers. Her forthcoming book “Flirting with the Fire Gods” will be published by L’IDEA Press later this year. Loschiavo is the Editor for the English Language section of L”IDEA.

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