Underbite flies with 'Bird'

Posted: August 23, 2013

PHILADELPHIA's ever-growing theater scene expanded yet again Thursday night with the opening of "Bird in the Window," the first offering from the newly minted Underbite Theatre Company. The group's introduction is yet another example of the kind of DIY energy and determination that seems to inform so much of the local theatrical realm.

"Bird in the Window," which runs through Aug. 31 at Queen Village's Shubin Theatre, is a drama about a college freshman who believes that someone is stalking her. It was written by Shelli Pentimall Bookler, the co-founder and artistic director of the company.

According to Bookler, she and her husband Matt, the Underbite's producer, began seriously thinking about creating such an organization last March. But until May, it was more talk than anything else. Then things ramped up in a major way.

"It actually began because I was finishing my [Master of Fine Arts] program in playwriting at Temple University," explained Bookler, a professor of theater and communications at Bucks County Community College.

"We were initially going to have a graduation party to celebrate. We were planning on hiring a DJ and renting a hall and making an event out of it. And my husband, the brilliant person that he is, said, 'Well, why don't we take all the money that we're [going to spend] on this party and actually produce one of your plays? That seems to be a fitting celebration.' So that's how we decided to do this."

While this kind of let's-put-on-a-show attitude has been a show-biz building block forever, it's certainly a case of easier said than done. But the Booklers happened to get that bug at an especially propitious time in theater history. People she knows in local theater circles advised her that self-production - like the self-publishing of books - is currently a hot trend. One good way to do that, she was told, "is to start your own company," she recalled.

So what was the rush to get a play mounted in a mere three months or so?

"Summer's usually pretty good for me [because of my teaching schedule]," offered Bookler. "I have a lot more time in the summer to devote to something like this. If we waited, we would have literally waited another year. We wanted to get Underbite's name out there and see how this whole process works.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the company's unusual moniker is a tribute to the Booklers' pet.

"It's named after our dog, who is a 'puggle,' a pug-beagle mix," she explained. "He's got a little underbite that we both adore. We were trying to come up with a name, and our dog, Baxter, was sitting there. We looked at him and each other and we said, 'Let's go for it.' "

Shubin Theatre, 407 Bainbridge St., 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Wednesday through Aug. 31, 3 p.m. Sunday, $20, underbitetheatrecompany.org.

Acting clinic at Bucks County Playhouse

Note to the folks at Bucks County Playhouse: Next time you want to pair Marsha Mason and Marilu Henner, don't even bother giving them a script. Just hand them a copy of that day's Daily News and let them read it aloud.

The two showbiz vets are so polished, charismatic and absurdly talented, they can make the police roundup sound like Shakespeare. Which is the best - but far from only - reason to schlep up to New Hope by Sept. 1 to see "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife."

As Marjorie, around whom Charles Busch's R-rated, Neil Simon-ish comedy revolves, the four-times-Oscar-nominated Mason provides a virtuoso performance as the depressed, bored and intellectually frustrated wife of a prominent Manhattan allergist whose life is transformed by the sudden appearance of a childhood playmate. Watching her emote, swoon and thoroughly inhabit Marjorie is to see the actor's craft at its highest level.

And right along with her is Henner. As Lee, a globe-trotting, free-spirited Zelig whose life - or at least the life she describes - makes the "most interesting man in the world" from those beer commercials look like an actuary from Cherry Hill, she exudes smoldering sensuality and energy that becomes a veritable life force for her troubled old friend.

Rounding out the five-character play are a trio of actors who offer the two headliners solid support. David Garrison is strong as the doctor of the title (and Marjorie's husband) who's a little too concerned with saving humanity. Ryan Shams is similarly up to the task in a relatively small, but crucial, role as the couple's apartment-building doorman. And Emily Jon Mitchell is a hoot as Frieda, Marjorie's mother, a bitter old crone who sees the cloud in front of every silver lining, and whose only pleasure in life appears to be speaking - in graphic detail - about her dysfunctional digestive system.

Making Mitchell's turn all the more remarkable is that she was an emergency replacement for original cast member Lynn Cohen, who was stricken with a case of laryngitis. She arrived less than a week ago. As such, at Wednesday's performance, she actually needed to regularly refer to the script, which she held in all her scenes. She acquitted herself with such bravado and comic flair that she was rewarded with a heartfelt ovation during her curtain call.

The sterling performances, coupled with Broadway star Boyd Gaines' sure-handed conducting (this is his directing debut), and Busch's smart, funny (and Jewish-humor-dipped) script that is sharp enough to rim a prison, conspire to create a memorable theatrical experience.

Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Tuesday, 4 p.m. Wednesday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, $57.50, $39 and $29, 215-862-2121, bcphtheater.org.

comments powered by Disqus