I am ashamed to admit that this is my first play by the Baltimore Playwright’s Festival. I know of them, I have heard of them, but until Friday night, I had never partaken of their offerings. So I was thrilled to be back on the second floor stage of Fells Point Corner Theater (It has been closed for renovations), and to see Small House, No Secrets, an original musical with book and lyrics by Jody Nusholtz and music and lyrics by SONiA Rutstein. This only runs for two weekends, so if you want to check it out, you have got to hustle.
As a child of the 70s, who grew up in the 80s, the musical selections for pre-show and intermission were some of my favorite pop/alt tunes from that era. As the evening began, the gentleman came out and took his place on the side of the stage to play keyboard accompaniment all night long. I felt is was an oversight to merely list this, with some digging on my part, on the back under Music Director/Accompanist in his bio ONLY on the last page. Sigh. These musicians work hard, sometimes harder than the actors, and I feel it is a travesty to not credit him with the actors or stage crew on page one of the inside cover. I introduced myself during intermission to confirm who he was. He was extremely talented and did not miss a single chord that I could detect. Give him top billing. He spent the most time on stage of anyone!
The play begins with some characters all coming out of various entrances and singing a song called “Picture Perfect.” The lead character is Liz, Annette Mooney Wasno. And she carried the majority of this song blended with others as certain parts pertained to them. The play begins in Massachusetts on Cape Cod, Thanksgiving Day, 2007. Liz and Harry have driven to her cousin Eric’s house for the holiday. He is an artist, a photographer, and he sold a picture to someone who is coming to pick it up today. As the cousins fall back into their routine, the play also shifts back in time to Liz in college. Specifically, her with her roommate Amanda, and how they fell in love. Liz has never admitted or talked about it and has moved on to a relationship with Harry. In fact, one of her anxiety triggers, is that she is positive that Harry is going to propose while at her cousin’s house. And she begs her cousin Eric to intervene and not allow it to happen.
Brandon Richards plays Eric, a younger cousin of Liz’s. His mother died when he was younger, and his father disowned him for being gay, so he went to live with Liz’s parents. So they are like cousins/siblings? Or was it after Liz moved out and went to college? I was a little confused. Brandon’s songs, small flounces, and attention to detail make him a skilled character actor. I believed he was moving on, a struggling artist, and trying to make an effort to live his best life despite his cousin’s weird hang ups.
Annette Mooney Wasno depicts the Liz of 2007 (another actress does the flashbacks as “younger Liz” from college). This character is troubling. She is the lead, yet not fully likable and relatable to the audience. Wasno does a great job of keeping the tempo up and dutifully retreating when needed. I recently read a comment on a thread about dealing with mental illnesses and it said to remember that “they are doing their best.” That sometimes someone else’s best isn’t really great, but we’ve all had days that weren’t our best either. So assume, that this the best they have today and make do with it. I felt very much like Wasno’s Liz was doing her best, but her best needed some help to be better.
Young Liz is portrayed by Molly Mayne. Her adorable and a little too squeaky clean catholic girl persona is in sharp contrast to the Liz seen in the 2007 era (Wasno). I believe these were done intentionally. Someone paid keen attention to making sure the younger versions looked like very viable depictions of the actresses younger selves. But they are so young and naïve and unencumbered! The older ones have put up with everyone’s judgements and bullshit to the point of no return.
Kendra deChantel Keiser plays Amanda of 2007. Her part is small, but her impact is large. She is the former lover and purchaser of the art piece who has searched far and wide for Liz since their tumultuous break-up in college. She is thoughtful, and soulful in song. She sings and plays a woman with a past exceedingly well. Her younger rendition is played by Eva Hellerbach. Hellerbach’s voice is breathtaking. All of her songs made me sit up and take notice. Whether it is her innocence in the part, her knowing eyes, or her crazy good crooning, she nails it!
Rounding out the cast is Harry, played by Dan Collins. His uptight demeanor, and one comedic song about finding love over the Oxford Wrinkle-free rack is spot on. He seems a nerd with heart who is stumbling, well bumbling along half aware of all the intensity and secrets around him. Too fixated on asking everyone he meets, even a stranger, if they believe in love, he is a bit obtuse, but seals the role of comedic characterization.
Director Miriam Bazensky is tasked with not only putting together a play, but one that has flashbacks, and songs infused and she does not shy away from the task. She keeps the play moving briskly, not allowing us, or the characters, to wallow too much in their choices and past, but to move forward and face what is coming.
I get why Nusholtz’s production was picked up by BPF, but I think what really seals the play is the song and lyrics by the exceedingly talented SONiA Rutstein. Do yourself a favor and google her. She was in band called disappear fear before going solo. She has toured Europe and won more accolades and awards than I can list here. I love music, but I am drawn to clever lyrics. As a writer, avid reader, and English teacher; precise word choice, excellent rhymes, and clever uses of figurative language are all the things that make my heart soar. Her lyrics were rather poignant, well-paced and infused to underscore the themes and moments of the play as a whole. The only one I found odd was the “lumberjacks whacking off branches of a tree,” but then I wondered if it was an innuendo that I did not catch.
The play has its moments, but it is overall rather predictable in plot and climax. The only thing I didn’t see coming, and should have, was Harry’s love interest. But with Eric starting the play in a note of trying on Liz’s makeup and belaboring the point of being gay and unaccepted by the family in the past, he sets it up for the dominoes to fall for Liz to admit her own sexuality questions. I found the character of Liz (and her name!) to be a bit hard to associate with. She is not nice to those around her, she is suffering but also just very negative and nasty. I wondered at one point why Eric is so attached to her or Harry? When Harry finally gets to his big moment he says all the things about Liz that I had been thinking the whole time.
And some of the dialogue was a bit pompous and philosophical to be believable as casual conversation. It was beautiful and lyrical, but not really as down to earth as the rest of the play, and songs. I am not sure the tension in the play ever comes to a boil. A good solid simmer yes, but never a boil. Maybe because I was watching (the old cliché you know). I was also a bit disturbed by Eric’s reaction to Liz when she tells the truth. Liz keeps repeating that she was suicidal, because “Catholic girls love Jesus, not other girls.” And he was just like, you lied to me, why is this all about you. I kept thinking, wow, you are cousins, in fact she keeps calling you “cuzzy” which sounded odd repeated too many times, and you two are supposed to be close and this is how you treat her? Maybe this isn’t her problem, maybe she hasn’t been accepted, understood, happy, or listened to in so long she has forgotten what humanity truly has to offer.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go and support new local work. The songs, lyrics, and musical direction is amazing! The play is a bit oversimplified in parts, but there are some twists, some solid acting, and a wonderful message about finding yourself. I say go and get some drinks after to discuss the LBGTQ community and how society as a whole can stop being so judgy, and start treating them like people. (I)
Running time just under two hours with one intermission. Running through March 31st on the second floor stage at Fells Point Corner Theater.