Theater Review: ‘12ness’ a fascinating, compelling world premiere
“12ness” tells the story of the apparently little-known and unlikely friendship between American songwriter George Gershwin and avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg.
The Crowded Kitchen Players production of the comedy-drama, written by Charlie Barnett and directed by George B. Miller, with assistant director Kate Scuffle, continues in its world premiere through June 18 as part of the “IceHouse Tonight Series” at the Charles A. Brown IceHouse, Bethlehem.
Barnett, a musician-composer (TV’s “Weeds”; the jazz group, Chaise Lounge) created the scenes as a whole-cloth invention of the Gershwin-Schoenberg dialogue, which volleys back and forth not unlike their spirited contests on the tennis court. The banter, the disagreements, the humor, and especially the insights into composing music are fascinating and alone make the play worth seeing.
The dinner scene at the Schoenbergs’ Hollywood home is especially rich. What’s more, Barnett connotes Hollywood of the mid- to late-1930s with references to the Hollywood Bowl, going to the beach and the movie business.
There’s much to recommend in this fine production. Notably, Miller directs the cast self-assuredly, specifically and deftly, not unlike a skilled coach who ups the game of all the players.
The play’s title is derived from Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional technique that uses 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Schoenberg’s atonal music influenced generations of composers.
Gershwin’s best-known compositions are “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), “An American in Paris” (1928), and the opera, “Porgy and Bess” (1935). He composed for Broadway shows with his brother, Ira Gershwin. He wrote the music for the movie, “Shall We Dance” (1937), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Robert Salsburg plays Arnold Schoenberg with a gruff, bear-like, domineering countenance that, by turns, reveals somewhat of a teddy bear underneath. Salsburg is in fine Austrian accent, commanding the stage with a presence that demands attention.
Ryan MacNamara is a revelation as George Gershwin, capably capturing the songwriter’s whimsy, humility and unbridled optimistic energy even in the face of crippling headaches, sounds that he hears in his head, and a deteriorating cognitive ability and growing neurological disorder.
Gershwin’s sponsorship of Schoenberg’s escape from Nazi Germany became the foundation of the unusual friendship, which lasted but a year (the play is set in Hollywood, 1936-37) before a brain tumor took Gershwin’s life at age 38.
Salsburg and MacNamara give as good as they get and not only on the tennis court. Their interplay is compelling. Schoenberg can’t fathom the inspiration ability of Gershwin. Neither can Gershwin figure out Schoenberg’s approach to composing, which involved incredibly detailed preparation.
Schoenberg on his own work: ”a legitimate composition.” Schoenberg on Gershwin: “Did you ever work at writing anything?”
Gershwin on his own inspiration: “truth from chaos.” Gershwin on Schoenberg, “If you don’t ever have that egads moment, I feel sorry for you.”
Stephanie Gawlas Walsh plays Ginger Rogers, at the time Gershwin’s girlfriend. Walsh warms up to the role, especially in a scene with Salsburg, where, if not Fred and Ginger, Arnold and Ginger discover their “resonant frequencies.” The scene opens the play up, as well as Schoenberg, to the world’s possibilities.
Syd Stauffer plays Gertrud Schoenberg, whose scene with Gershwin sets up an interesting dynamic between them and also reveals a sadness at the core of her marriage. Stauffer gets to elaborate on her marital state and her own aspirations in a monologue that is one of the play’s anchors.
Miller employs some neat stage craft, such as a cinematic freeze-frame during double dialogue scenes between Gertrud Schoenberg and George Gershwin and Ginger Rogers and Arnold Schoenberg.
Also, the audience moves from the large theater area downstairs at the IceHouse for the tennis court scenes to the intimate upstairs theater area for the Schoenberg dining room scene.
The tennis court is cleverly symbolized and the dining room is realistic in the set design by Michael Schofield. Costume designer Kate Scuffle outfits each character in clothes that befit each personality, as does the hair design by Kim Danish. Nora Oswald did the composers’ portraits.
The sound design by Ara Barlieb, who also did the lighting design, utilizes speaker placement and the large theater area to provide a ghost-like rendition of Gershwin’s “But Not For Me” (from “Girl Crazy,” 1930), as well as the concluding song, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (from “Oh Kay,” 1926). The tennis match is replicated with the sound of tennis ball meeting racket and court (ominously later heard as the ticking clock sound in Gershwin’s mind).
“12ness,” produced by Barlieb and Pamela McLean Wallace, co-founders of Crowded Kitchen Players, deserves additional productions in the Lehigh Valley and beyond.
“12ness,” 8 p.m. June 16, and 17, and 2 p.m. June 18, the Charles A. Brown Ice House, 56 River St., Sand Island, Bethlehem. Tickets: ckplayers.com; 610-395-7176