Onstage now at Berkeley Rep are two plays about three real people: one works quite well, and the other not so much because of two hurdles it can't overcome despite the best efforts of its talented cast.
The one that works is George Gershwin Alone, which is and isn't quite an accurate title. A one-man show conceived, written and performed by Hershey Felder with direction by Joel Zwick, it's an hour and a half of sitting in a room with Gershwin while he reminisces about his life, family, friends, collaborators and music, with lots of examples played on a Steinway Grand. The play acts as the third movement, described as a rondo, in a quartet of plays which include movements about Beethoven, Chopin, and a coda based on Leonard Bernstein. Felder's been performing this section around the world since 2000, and he mentioned during the "encore" section that this was to be the last time and I recommend you do.
It's not quite perfect, but it's pretty damn good and it delivers on everything that it should. Felder is a talented impersonator, knows the details of his subject's music and life in minute detail, and is wholly convincing as an actor and musician. My one quibble, and it's a minor one, is his extended solo turn at the piano late in the show which rambled on for too long and in the end seemed to serve no purpose but to fill out some time. That hour and a half was a very good time, but it's what followed which really made it memorable. Returning to the stage for what appeared to be a curtain call, or maybe an encore, turned out to be much, much more. In fact, it's this last part (I won't tell you what it is) that turns out to be the very best part of an already solid show. All I will say is that Felder proceeds to bring the audience into the show itself in a most delightful, honest way. Don't leave when it's over, because it ain't.
I'd also like to give a nod to sound designer Jon Gottleib -- this was the most perfectly miked show I have ever attended, and thank you for having the good sense to not mike the piano (one would think that's a given, but I was appalled to recently attend a piano recital in a music club where a Steinway was miked and it was dreadful. George Gershwin Alone is on the Thrust Stage in Berkeley through July 7th- go see it.
Felder also mentioned from the stage that on Monday, June 17th he would be performing The American Songbook Singalong. He mentioned there were a very few tickets left and I want to strongly recommend that based on what I witnessed this evening if you have the opportunity to attend this that you not miss what sounds like a wonderful evening.
Dear Elizabeth uses actors reading the letters of the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (to one another) as a means to explore aspects known and imagined of their long relationship. Written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Les Waters, with Mary Beth Fisher as Bishop and Tom Neils as Lowell, the assembled talent can't overcome two structural elements which combine to derail the play quickly. The first is that no matter how cleverly one stages it, there is no drama to be wrung from someone reading aloud for two hours to a person who isn't actually in the room (even if the other person is onstage). The result is two people giving a simultaneous one-person show, and a one-person show more often fails than it succeeds because let's face it- most characters just aren't compelling enough to watch for an extended amount of time. There are the rare exceptions (see above, and also I Am My Own Wife or An Iliad as recently seen at Berkeley Rep), but for the most part such plays are likely to end up being krapp. With this particular play, the problem is laid bare when at what should be a pivotal moment the audience is forced to choose whom to watch as each character stands at the opposite end of the stage looking at opposite walls- they are obviously not connecting and thus the audience cannot connect with them- we know not whom to watch, and soon it didn't matter, though there was a lot of play left. This one is only for serious fans of its subjects, at the Roda Theatre through July 7th.
Top photo: Hershey Felder in Gershwin, Alone.