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Christopher Durang's brilliant, disconcerting Turning off the Morning News

Ralph Malachowski

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posted by Ralph Malachowski on May 22, 2018 10:30am | comments

   

Out gay playwright Christopher Durang's new drama Turning off the Morning News is now playing at the intimate Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center.


Directed by the distinguished Artistic Director of the McCarter Emily Mann, Turning off the Morning News, like many plays by Mr. Durang, may be difficult to digest at first glance, until the astute playgoer has time to fully appreciate the playwright’s amazing insights. Mr. Durang has had a spectacular success of late with his last play Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike, which has enjoyed several top-notch productions hereabouts lately. Turning off the Morning News is not as cuddly nor is it as endearing as Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike. Rather, we have the distinct feeling that we in the audience are in for a bumpy ride right from the beginning, when an unkempt, middle-aged man rants at us a bit, then threatens to shoot us all. Fade to black. Many in the audience laughed. They did not laugh at Jimmy (played with great commitment by John Pankow) for long. As an alternative male in the drama, Mr. Durang created Clifford (a startling, controlled performance by Robert Sella), the next-door neighbor who is a diametric opposite to Jimmy. While Jimmy is bipolar, sadistic, and an alcoholic, Clifford, his next-door neighbor, appears to eclipse the late Mr. Rogers in self-control and positive thinking until a turning point slams into us. Rachel Nicks as Selena lives with Clifford, and is throughout the play the composed axis around which the outlandish caperings of other characters spin. Two women furnish much of the outré behavior in Turning off the Morning News. Jenn Harris as Rosalind is the garrulous neighbor who is obsessed with her skin cancer, as she walks about with a pillowcase over her head and clothed from head-to-toe. Kristine Nielsen as Polly acts as the central character. It is she who introduces all the plot lines and most of the characters through her incessant chatter. Is Polly scatter-brained, deeply depressed, brain damaged, or in early stages of Alzheimer’s? Nicholas Podany plays Timmy, a thirteen-year-old played by a 21-year old actor. At one point, Polly (in one surreal moment) states that he was cast because no one wanted to deal with a real thirteen-year-old.

 

The plot is something one cannot easily state. The play begins with Jimmy who for reasons unknown wants to kill people at a shopping mall and then kill himself … maybe, if he feels like it. Polly often calls her son Polly, not Timmy. Clifford and Selena are adults who cohabit, are the best of friends, but are not romantically involved. And many more plot twists until the play takes a completely different direction at the conclusion of this 90-minute play without intermission.

 

I thought, “Has Christopher Durang written a version of a play by Ionesco, or a play by Edward Albee?” I couldn’t help but think how similar Turning off the Morning News was to Albee’s Lady from Dubuque which I saw in my one and only visit to London in 2007 which starred Maggie Smith. In Albee’s play, ridicule and violence ran rampant, and there were guns amid a rather loopy, existential story line. Imagine my surprise when I later read in Robert Sella’s biography that he was in that 2007 production in London at The Haymarket. Sacre Bleu!

 

Turning off the Morning News is a serious, and sometimes funny, new work from one of America’s finest gay playwrights. For an engaging experience, see Turning off the Morning News. For more information, visit www.mccarter.org

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