Friday, January 22, 2010

At New Works, proof's in the 'pudding'

Like old Forrest Gump says, “Life's like a box of chocolate pudding.” Except, of course, he didn’t actually say that. Maybe he should have, but he didn't. Gump was talking about a box of chocolates, not chocolate pudding. And we're not talking about Gump, we're taking about Michael Tooher, whose play about the subject — pudding, the creamy comfort food that Bill Cosby is always prattling on about, not Gump — kicks off the second weekend of the New Works Festival this year. The Maine playwright doesn't especially like pudding, but understands feel-good dessert as a metaphor for love, not life, although, it turns out, the two are closely related ... Actually, just so there's no confusion, here's what he said: “I like the idea of pudding,” he said. “It's light and messy. It should be messy. Pudding is a messy business. Like love, like life. There are no rules, there are no instruction manuals. No matter what you do, you're going to get some of it on you. And that's how it should be. Pudding should be messy and love always will be.”

Pudding, the food, is the glue that holds “pudding,” the play, together. It's how our reluctant hero, John, relates to the world — and how he hides from it. He mails boxes of chocolate pudding randomly as gifts: closing his eyes, stabbing a phone book with his finger, taking down the mailing address, sending out the anonymous gift. It seems like a lovely and selfless, if somewhat perplexing activity, and it is, but it’s more acutely observed as a daily act of desperation designed to conceal an all-consuming desperation. He has been doing this for years, since his wife of 31 years died and left him alone in the world. It’s his way of reaching out, but never having to connect. It becomes more than that after Mary gets involved.

Mary? A strange bird, who kicks in John’s doors, emotionally and physically, while trying to track down Fernando, a hot Latino stud who scored absurdly high on the compatibility chart for a computer dating company. She immediately senses something is going on but fails to grasp its significance as she tries to turn private pain into profit and, perhaps, transcendence. She shakes his tree, luring him into an economic affair — a cheap ad campaign — that misundersands the act entirely, turning it into mere product, profit, allthough deep down she senses that there may be something else going down. It doesn't quite work out the way anyone expects.

Explosive stuff
Tooher has been writing for about five years and has seen some success. His moody short "In a Clearing Quiet," in which a seemingly innocent 10-year-old girl pursues a mysterious agenda — "a creepy little tale," says Tooher — has been staged by four companies in three states over the past two years. "The Sentry," a short that focuses on a TV reporter interviewing a soldier on a surprising mission, was featured at last year's Boston Theatre Marathon and the Seven Short Play Festival in Albuquerque, N.M. But the Portland author's main gig has been as a stage hand, a job title that doesn't really cut it. What he actually does is blow stuff up, or make it look like stuff has been blown up — like his work for the National Geographic Channel's "Dirty Bomb Attack," part of its "Naked Science" series, in which a radioactive car bomb goes off in a busy area of Portland. He also does pyrotechnics for sports teams and stage shows.

He treats stage-writing as a job, tries to produce a page a day ("setting the bar really low," the playwright says.) He doesn't plot, he doesn't outline. "I'm not that good a writer," he says. All h needs is a title, or a first line, or both, or a notion where the thing is going. The first line and concept of "pudding" is "Come in," which doesn't seem like much but, Tooher says, sets he stage. "I'm a great believer in sitting back and letting the characters talk," he says. "Pudding" is the first full-length play Tooher has had staged. The production, which will kick off the second weekend of the New Works Festival, stars Jennifer Wilson, Terry Blanchard, Mary Shapiro, Kathy Isbel, Sherry Bonder, Julie McConechie, Myron Moss and Sam Szabo. Maureen Dailey directs.

While the current production seems to have come out of nowhere, Tooher says "pudding" may be a action to his ironically named, still-unproduced full-length "The Perfect Sameness of our Days," a ripped-from-the-headlines look at a returning soldier in need of mental and medical care who is all but abandoned by his country — a dark story written quickly and in anger. He was looking for lighter material when the idea came to him.

Ultimately, the play is about loneliness, about grief that has numbly metastasized and leaves a desperately empty human shell — and that's the modern tragedy. “The biggest disease is loneliness,” says Tooher. “ We fumble around trying to find one another, trying to connect — or reconnect. John's wife dies and his world collapses. He needs to feel again.” The play is also about fame, which has become an end in itself. “It's hollow and it's wrong," he says. "It used to be a means to an end. Now it's the end itself. It borders on the sociopathic.”

THE FACTS, THE FOLKS: The New Works Festival runs Jan. 22-23 and Jan. 29-30 at the Firehouse Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Market Square, Newburyport. The first weekend will open with “Dead and Buried,” the new full-length play by James McLindon. The following night will feature half of the 14-shorts accepted into the festival. The second weekend will open with a staged reading of “pudding,” a new full-length play by Michael Tooher, followed, the next day, by the remaining shorts. Show times are 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. A limited number of four-day passes are available for $35 each. For information, call 978-462-7336 or go online to

Friday, Jan. 22: "Dead and Buried,” drama by James McLindon, starring Astrid Lorentzson, Ashley Risteen and Eliot Johnson. Directed by Sherry Bonder.

Saturday, Jan. 23: “Soldier Boy,” drama by Leslie Powell, starring Kate Bossi and Jesiah Hammond; directed by Tim Diering. “No Strings Attached,” comedy by Kara Sorenson, starring Jennifer Wilson, Phil Thompson, Eric Lamarche and Steve Sacchetti; directed by Lois Honegger. “Knowing,” comedy by Gregory Hischak, starring Pam Battin-Sacks and Danny Sklar; directed by Cynthia Arsenault. “If You Love,” drama by Marc Clopton, starring John Sheedy and Jesiah Hammond; directed by Anna Smulowitz. “Sleeping with the Cat 1963,” drama by Daniel Sklar, starring Maureen Daley and Mary Shapiro; directed by Alan Huisman. “Jock Itch,” comedy by George Sauer, starring Sandy Farrier and Brad Ritchie; directed by Jack Rushton; “Touching Elephants,” drama-comedy by Stephen Faria, starring Gloria Papert, Dennis Flynn and Victor Atkins; directed by Diana Kerry.

Friday, Jan. 29: “Pudding,” comedy by Michael Tooher, starring Jennifer Wilson and Terry Blanchard, with Mary Shapiro, Kathy Isabel, Terry Donohue, Sherry Bonder, Julie McConechie, Myron Moss and Sam Szabo; directed by Maureen Daley

Saturday, Jan. 30: "Egg Whites and Miracles,” comedy by Stephen Faria, starring Missy Chabot, Irene Sanders and Fontaine Dollas Dubus, directed by Kimm Wilkinson. “Free Will and Kat,” drama by Deirdre Girard, starring Kayt Tommasino and Teddy Speck; directed by Stephen Haley. “Last Dance,” comedy by Kerry Zagarella, starring Bruce Anderson, Tracy Bickel, Kari Nickou and Jack Rushton; directed by Suzanne Bryan. “A Simile,” comedy by Robert B. Boulrice; directed by David Frank. “A Crooked Chapatti,” comedy by Priya Tahiliani, directed by Kathy Isabel. “Amenities,” comedy by Gregory Hischak, starring Stephen Faria, Kari Nickou, Irene Sanders and Steve Turner; directed by Anne Easter Smith.

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