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Before I dive into the "fodder" for this review, I would like to take just a moment to reflect on the presence of a gentleman who in theatre circles across the state is known as a local treasure. He is Ray Dooley, the elder statesman of PlayMakers Rep. Dooley has been brightening the stage at PRC for longer than I have been privileged to see him; he was already a dynamo in the troupe before I ever put my pen to paper to write my first review. Over the years, I have watched as the chameleonesque Dooley has donned many a diverse and challenging number of roles. I have watched him play Master of Ceremonies to a carnival of misfits and assassins, recreate an entire novel's worth of characters and ghosts in A Christmas Carol, and play soldiers both in trenches and, sadly, past their prime and glory. In every single case, he created a skillful, nuanced character whose time on stage was always delightful to behold. He has charmed small children with his magical Nutcracker, frightened them with his cackling Scrooge, and brought many a delighted audience to their feet in response.
His current performance as Henry in Dairyland marks Dooley's 100th performance at PlayMakers. It is a milestone that most actors only aspire to reach; it speaks to his dynamic skill as an actor and his amazing nuances as a performer. It also speaks to his work as a professor and promoter of the theatrical arts. Very few people will ever be able to say they have had 100 performances with a single company. Fewer still can say that they spent their lifetime making people happy. Dooley has managed to do both, and I congratulate him on his prowess and applaud his theatrical skills. And throughout it all, Dooley has remained the most humble and warm-hearted individual you will ever be lucky enough to meet. That is an achievement in itself. My hat is off to you, Mr. Dooley, and please grace us with many more.
Regarding his performance in his 100th PRC show, except for one quick cameo on the phone with the main character, Allie, Dooley's character Henry is confined to Act II of Dairyland. However, I did not realize at first that there is another role Dooley plays in Act I, Sam, Allie's boss' boss. As a result, when Dooley appeared in the show as Sam, for a long moment I was taken aback. I was entirely fooled; I literally did not recognize this man. That is a result of consummate skill as an actor, and Dooley pulled it off with his usual aplomb.
Now, as for what actually happens in PlayMakers' world-premiere production of Heidi Armbruster's Dairyland: The show takes place in two separate locales, the entirety of Act I in NYC and Act II in a small hamlet in Wisconsin. Also, Act I is full of people, like NYC, while Act II, with only two characters in it, Allie (Claire Karpen) and her father, Henry (Dooley), is much sparser. Kinda like Wisconsin in general.
That being said, I wish to digress again. I have spent many an hour watching what happens on the Paul Green Theatre stage, and I have (as one would hope) felt many a number of varied feelings toward what was happening. But on opening night, as Act I of Dairyland unfolded, I was nonplussed for a moment. Something was troubling me and I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I realized I was feeling something I had never before felt in this theater: I was feeling bored. Whatever it was Armbruster was getting at, it wasn't getting to me. I was waiting for all this folderol to be done and the show to begin.
We saw Allie having problems: problems with her date, an attorney named Jonathan (Dan Toot); problems with her ex, Declan (Khalil LeSaldo); problems with her boss, who just happens to be her ex; and problems with her associate, Sunshine (Emily Bosco). Sunshine is also a food critic, like Allie, but she covers a particular area of food called "farm-to-table," which fits very well with her disposition. It is utterly snobbish, it is overpriced, it is over-rated, and it gives Allie gas. Allie, you see, spent her first ten years on a farm, watching as her father and his field hands brought in the crops, raised the animals, and fed the nation. This farm-to-table business was a crock, and Allie knew it very well. One of the things that snobbish farm-to-table eaters enjoyed was something called "grass-fed beef." But, Allie knew that there is no such thing as beef that isn't grass-fed; it's what cows eat. The grass in the fields or the hay in the barn – it's all grass. So what the deuce are these people all talking about? This put Allie at odds with everyone in her company, because farm-to-table is a staple in NYC, and Allie's "ill-conceived" attempts to undermine it were not going to be tolerated. When the entire first act ends with Allie blowing up on cable TV – in front of all of NYC – she is fired. So what does a young, unattached, unemployed gal in NYC do? Exactly. She goes home.
As I watched, through the intermission, as an army of people changed the set from NYC to Wisconsin (exactly how they do it you must see for yourself), I was actually sad. Never before had I had such trouble getting into a PRC play. None of this seemed to be getting through to me. Allie's problems were so-what, big-deal, who-cares? I wasn't getting it. Whatever was going on up there, it didn't seem to be getting over the footlights.
Allie hadn't seen her dad since mom died, ten years ago. She hadn't been on the farm since mom and dad separated, twenty years ago. Now, suddenly, she finds herself needing both. But it isn't easy, for either of them. Allie's modus operandi up until now has been to be confrontational, and Henry isn't having it. He can give as good as he gets. So, for the first couple of scenes, they fight. It isn't until Patches, Henry's prize cow, is ready to calve that the two find themselves working feverishly together, trying to save the stuck calf and Patches, too.
Act II had the answer to Act I. Finally. Now I was getting it. But it was a real shame that it took almost to the end of the play for this thing to finally hang together. I think Armbruster has some real work to do; this is not a finished product. Even with an exceptional cast directed by PRC's Producing Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch, Dairyland was not quite ready for primetime. The entirety of Act I passed without a single thing to grab me. I was restless, I was bored, I was ready to move on. Of all the emotions to evoke in the viewer, these are not the ones desired. So I am afraid it needs to be back to the drawing board for Ms. Armbruster. If some real work isn't put into getting Act I more accessible to an audience, then Dairyland might have a very short lifespan.
Dairyland continues at PlayMakers through Sunday, November 3. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.