Theatre Review of Rails
Rails, by Tom Kenaston and Tom Paitson Kelly
A musical reading at the York Theatre, New York
December 13, 2013
An essay review by Scott Klavan
New York is the Big Town these days for staged readings, script-in-hand performances of theatrical works-in-progress. Every night, it seems, there are theaters, large and small, presenting actors sitting or standing behind music stands, entering and exiting, but mostly just physically still, reading new plays in various stages of development. Every year, there are several hundred of these one-night shows around the city; ticket prices are low, suggested donations to the theater, or completely free. Audiences are sometimes asked for their responses to the show, either in person after the performance, or online or by mail. To be sure, this kind of presentation is common in other cities across the country.
In some ways, this is a positive trend, of course, as it gives good actors a chance to work on new pieces, for brief rehearsal periods, for some pay, investing a limited amount of effort and time, showing their skill to a crowd; gives audiences an opportunity to see top-flight performers, and provocative, fresh and interesting material, in a relaxed environment for little or no charge; and playwrights the experience of having their plays discussed, rehearsed and improved by quality players and directors, then shown in front of an audience, which may give feedback for further rewrites. The ultimate hope for the writer, the dangling rabbit in the dog-race, is that the theater will soon commit money and energy and people to mount a full production of their show.
And this is where the vast amount of readings becomes a little doubtful and sad. The number of readings is large; actual productions, in this day of fiscal tightening and shrinking audiences, is comparatively tiny. A playwright, teased by the reading, is left, like Catherine in The Heiress, with the tremulous wish of an actual mainstage show; hopes have been lifted, only to grow smaller and smaller as time passes, and the theater-suitor moves on to other projects. Perhaps, further readings of the show are in store, but, even then, more often than not, no palpable result is to be had; those hopes, raised higher, have further to fall. (This is the “Development Hell” often decried by today’s theater writers, diluting the enjoyment of the plethora of readings.)
The playwright then gets, if not already received, the unavoidable letter from the theater asking for a donation. You are now an iron-clad member of the Mailing List, and this may prompt cynical- realistic?- internal questioning: Did they really like it, at all? Or was I being used? Was it all a bunch of bullshit, just to get my dough, to help the productions of the already established playwrights the theater is really focusing on? In fact, the whole process has bred a new kind of mutant playwright: the Readings Writer. He or she is an artist who only gets his or her work shown as part of this script-in-hand culture; these writers will likely never, ever get their pieces produced on any mainstage. The “readings writers” are fairly easy to spot. Their plays grow gradually more ambitious and unreasonable; fantastic, complex tales that would be incredibly expensive, even impossible, to stage. But, sadly, they never will be, so why not go for broke?
Friday, December 13 was lucky for the composer Tom Kenaston and librettist Tom Paitson Kelly (both shared the Lyrics credit) as they had their musical Rails presented for the first time in public in the long-running Developmental Reading Series at the York Theatre, in their appealing space at 54th St., in east mid-town. (This location is an anomaly; not usually a theater area, it’s mostly for finance, shopping and eating. The York is housed in the same building as a beautiful modern church, St. Peter’s, which also hosts productions.)
A seasoned and spirited cast of six, veterans of Off- and On Broadway—including the tremendous Paul Anthony Stewart and Jessica Grove—performed a series of roles in the reading, directed by York mainstay David Glenn Armstrong. The story begins in 1987, when elderly Midwesterner Maggie begins a descent into dementia, and her beleaguered caretaker-grandson recounts the stories of her early life. We see Maggie’s Irish parents, young at the turn of the 19th-20th century, come to America chasing a dream; there are aspirations and fumbles, as the idealistic father Patrick (Robb Sapp) and practical mother Mary (Grove) mess up jobs in the east and land in the Midwest, Terre Haute, Indiana, where Mary gives birth to Maggie. Later, a 20ish Maggie marries local man Frank (Kilty Reidy). But he turns out to be sexually conflicted, dressing as a woman on business trips to New York; the marriage dissolves. Maggie (Louisa Flaningam) is left alone in Terre Haute, raising Frank’s child, dreaming of a better future, perhaps in Chicago, watching the parade pass by. Throughout, the whole family has been traveling by train around the country, taking risks, or avoiding them, and Maggie, stuck in Terre Haute, sits at the railway station fantasizing about the travelers and their colorful trips, bemoaning her own timid American life.
Rails has a lot of potential, and, in its current, early state, much work is needed to be done to make it viable. Maggie herself is left out of most of the on-stage story, an odd choice, since it makes it hard to get into and care about her plight. Early scenes of the Irish immigrants are lively and even delightful, as artistic, impractical Patrick flounders and Mary’s lucky talent, depicted in the song “I Speak French,” saves the family from penury. But a middle section portraying Maggie’s father Frank’s sexual problems, wherein his female alter ego taunts and torments him, is blatant and misguided. With his feminine side singing to Frank “Hand Over The Pants,” it pounds the idea too hard, and takes up too much stage-time, further drifting from and obscuring Maggie’s story and any other theme or plot of the piece.
But the final third revolving around World War II, with Maggie grown into a grasping, unsatisfied Midwestern lady, waiting with her daughter for her young husband, badly wounded in the War, to arrive at the train station, is strong and deeply moving. (Here, Klea Blackhurst, playing another Terre Haute mother come to the station to meet the coffin of her hero son killed in battle, acts with a profoundly affecting subtlety, the single best moment in the piece.) Songs such as “Take Our Time,” illustrating the young traumatized marrieds’ plans for the future, and Maggie’s “Standing On The Platform,” point up the incisive theme of a railroad station, where some people take the train to adventure and progress, and others are left behind, seeing their loved ones off on their journey.
Rails opens and closes with Maggie suffering from dementia and about to be placed into a convalescent home, dealing with her devoted grandson (Stewart) who has put aside his own dreams of being a writer to care for his grandmother. However, since the current culture may have reached its surfeit of shows about age and Alzheimer’s, and since this section is not as effective as scenes of Maggie simply sitting on the platform, watching and waiting, perhaps this is where the piece might better begin and end, with the unifying theme sharpened within.
But will the talented Kenaston & Paitson Kelly get the attention and commitment they need and deserve, to turn Rails into a full-fledged Off-On Broadway musical? Who knows? Certainly, doing readings is better than doing nothing with new plays and musicals. It provides exposure for the work of playwrights and actors, promotion for theaters, and affordable, rough-hewn entertainment for audiences. The York calls itself “the only theatre in New York City- and one of the very few in the world- dedicated to developing and fully producing new musicals…” and this is probably true. Considering that readings like this are somewhat thrown together, the Rails performance was terrific, and included bloopers- such as actors mispronouncing Yiddish words during the immigrant section, and missing a few entrances and cues- which received big laughs in a genuinely understanding and warm-hearted way. The York does regularly produce full productions. Upcoming is Love, Linda, the story of Mrs. Cole Porter, featuring music by her husband, directed by veteran Richard Maltby, Jr.; a retrospective of the work of Sheldon Harnick; a musical biography of South Pacific star Mary Martin. But will these shows be partially or fully funded by well-heeled celebrities, and/or feature recognizable star names and subjects such as Porter and Martin, both common practices to draw a crowd in competitive New York? Will other, less well-connected playwrights be left out? For all of the skill, generosity and dedication evinced by the first-rate York series, for all of the enjoyment produced by this and other readings, will the playwrights of Rails, and similar writers, find a genuine avenue for a mainstage show? Or will they be left on the platform, watching their train of dreams move down the tracks, into the diminishing, impossible future?
Scott Klavan, our new theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. He has performed on Broadway and in many off-Broadway and regional productions. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.