Sweet little family with a big jealousy problem

Humorous drama: Harlequin's new offering by renowned playwright is a funny ride with a kick

April 29, 2011 

You might say that internationally known playwright Israel Horovitz has become part of the family at Harlequin Productions.

Horovitz’s comic drama “Unexpected Tenderness” opens Thursday. Since the company produced “Sins of the Mother,” there’s been one Horovitz offering each season, and already the question for next season is not whether to do another, but which one.

“I just loved the story,” said Scot Whitney, who’s directing “Tenderness” and who runs Harlequin with his wife, Linda Whitney. “I love plays that are funny but that pack a wallop.”

While Scot Whitney said it’s difficult to pin down what characterizes a Horovitz play, that’s a pretty good definition right there.

“When you start reading this play, it’s like a Neil Simon family comedy, like ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ or something like that,” Whitney said. “This guy is remembering when he was a kid. He says, ‘I know what you’re thinking, sweet little family comedy. If I could have rewritten this to be sweet and nice, I would have done this many years ago.’

“It’s a sweet little family, but they have a problem. The father is a great guy, but he’s pathologically jealous.”

Jason Haws plays both the adult Roddy, who is remembering his childhood, and the violent father. Haws is a Harlequin regular, with recent roles in “Rabbit Hole” and “The Taming of the Shrew.”

This casting, called for by the script, adds suspense. “Once we’ve been introduced to both of his characters, we suddenly aren’t sure who he is next … or what level of danger he represents,” Richard T. Green wrote in a Talkin’ Broadway review of a St. Louis production.

“All the men in this family for generations have been just insanely jealous,” Whitney said. “Is he going to be another one? How do you break the cycle? It’s about breaking the cycle.”

Because Horovitz visits Olympia to work on the production, his vision shapes the production even beyond what’s on the printed page. “I feel so honored to have this relationship and access to a guy like him,” the director said.

Whitney defers to Horovitz while the playwright is in town for rehearsals, as he was last weekend, and then makes decisions about where the production will go.

“At one point, he said to me: ‘I know that it’s really hard to have two directors in the same room. But I tell people if they work with me that’s just the way it is,’ ” Whitney said. “I said, ‘Don’t apologize.’ It’s really challenging and exciting. It cracks the whole thing open.”

Horovitz will return for the play’s opening weekend for question-and-answer sessions after the performances. And where the play will have gone by then is anyone’s guess.

“I read this play a bunch of times,” Whitney said. “When we went into rehearsal, I thought I knew it pretty well, but then we put these actors into the scenes, and there’s something transformative that happens. It’s more than the words. There’s a magic to it.”

Unexpected Tenderness

What: Harlequin Productions presents another tale of family drama and laughter by internationally known playwright Israel Horovitz, whose work has become a regular feature of the Harlequin season.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through May 7 plus May 12-14, 19-21 and 26-28; matinees at 2 p.m. May 8, 15 and 22 and 3 p.m. May 14

Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

Tickets: $20-$35, rush tickets $12-$20. For the 3 p.m. May 14 performance, pay what you can.

More information: 360-786-0151 or www.harlequin productions.org

Q&A: Horovitz is expected to answer questions after the May 6-8 performances.

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