Intermission Talk

“Bright Colors and Bold Patterns”

Leave Behind “Brilliant Traces”



Just as no two couples are alike, so too is it true that no two weddings are alike.  The current best examples are “Brilliant Traces” and “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns,” both running off-Broadway.  They also share some sharp, clever writing, and – oh, yes – we never do see three out of four of the intendeds.

In Cindy Lou Johnson’s memorable “Brilliant Traces,”  [from Art of Warr Productions, at the WorkShop Theatre], two people, not by choice but by circumstance, find themselves confined for a time in a white-out storm in Alaska.  Veteran television comedy writer Bill Persky once told me that there were really only eight solid premises in comedy, and one of them was having your cast stuck, snowbound and without communication possible, in a near deserted cabin that no one else who knows you/them knows about.

Johnson’s very clever and most admirable play premiered initially nineteen years ago at the Cherry Lane, with Joan Cusack and Kevin Anderson, directed by Terry Kinney.  To make its mark on the downtown theatre scene, the recently-formed Art of Warr Productions has selected this sharp two-hander, and it was a long time coming.

The aforementioned wedding?  The almost bride Rosannah [Alyssa May Gold] discovers, almost involuntarily, that the married-life game ain’t for her.  And this revelation comes when she’s in full bridal get-up, veil and little pink satin shoes et al, standing at the head of the church aisle, where the music has started, but, funny thing!  Her feet are not following the expected course of action.  Instead, Rosannah lets the rest of her body due its chosen thing – back out of the church, get her behind the driver’s seat of her car, and turn on the engine.  No plan, no destination – she is not looking to get somewhere [she is at this point in Arizona], but looking to get somewhere else.  In this mind-over-body conundrum, mind wins.  She drives, and drives and keeps driving, stopping at regular intervals for gas and candy bars, until her car dies – in Alaska.  All she can see up ahead is a small one-room cabin, barely visible through the white cloud of snow encompassing everything.  She manages to gather the energy to pound on the door, and then let herself in.  She is not alone.

Another person is there, seated on a small bed, blanket pulled up over his head.  And he listens, silently, as Rosannah rags him out for not helping her more.  And this gal, bridal gown the worst for wear, truly knows how to rag somebody out.  She is soooo angry, sooo disgusted, sooo beyond real assistance at this moment, finally collapses into one of the two chairs in the room, and pours herself a whiskey from the bottle on the table.

And that other person?  Name of Henry, he waits until she seems to have settled down a bit, but still waits, because she’s had another shot, stood up, ranted some more, and collapsed on the floor.  Good person Henry lifts her up and places  her on his bed, making sure to wipe off her public parts with a damp cloth, and removing the gown.  The little satin shoes have been abandoned, under the table.  He has not yet spoken.

Of course, she wakes up, two days and nights later, confused and still angry.  During her monologue rant just after she gets there, she mentions something about a wedding, attested to by her outfit.   And Henry tries to learn the basics of her ‘story.’

There are no more details, only personal observations.  And hers center on the futile attempt to shape some sort of life-long life at the end of that aisle.

And what of Henry?  Offshore oil rig worker, Henry [Blake Merriman] retires to this home whenever his shifts end, a sanctuary or a hermitage?  He is also capable of angry outbursts, aimed at this other person who has insinuated herself into his carefully-crafted solo existence.   No chance he is perfectly harmless.

And here is where Johnson has reshuffled the deck.  These are not two people stuck in a near-deserted nowhere [Scenic designer Matthew Crane’s simple, yet very evocative set design lends the appropriate air of authenticity, as does the sensitive direction of Joshua Warr.]  These are two strangers in a near-deserted nowhere.  Happily, this is an actual PLAY – real characters, fearful moments of confrontation, charming moments of real humor, and story lines that are never obvious or predictable.

Rosannah and Henry clumsily trade personal secrets, including a really unexpected revelation about the death of a child.  Lest this sound like a rather bleak he-said she-said volley, what gives it the gut punch it earns comes from the dialogue, and the very welcome simplicity of the set-up – one room, no phone, limited tea.  That they each have almost managed to conquer their fear of, or disdain for a life lived among others may be more obvious to us than to them at first.  No meet-cute comedy this.  Rosannah and Henry suffer from deep emotional crises, ones that the actions, the sympathies of another person, any person, don’t seem to matter much.  Merriman offers a touching array of emotions, at times recalling the quiet terror that Henry Fonda understood so well.  Gold’s Rosannah would benefit from exploring even more nuance in her character’s situation, relying too much on the wide swing between indignation and resignation.  The original production, which I saw at the Cherry Lane, elevated Rosannah’s mental and emotional states beyond the ‘basic facts.’

Joan Cusack 1989

Joan Cusack then went on to stunning depictions of young women more complex than their description.  If anything is missing from this production – and there is so much to enjoy, take in, welcome back for this revival – is that extra layer of nuance, both in portraying Rosannah, and in seeing how she reacts to the only other person in the room.

There appears to be no concern about nuance in Drew Droege’s riveting solo piece “Bright Color and Bold Patterns,” at the Soho Playhouse, under the proven astute directorial guidance of Michael Urie.  We are at a gaily – purposeful choice of words here – festooned poolside and terrace in September in southern California. A previously coke-assisted Gerry [ a very commendable Jeff Hiller], toting a near-empty martini glass, and wears a shirt and shorts that conflict with the title’s admonitions about what to wear at tomorrow’s wedding between two of Gerry’s closest sort-of friends.  He takes another sip, then launches into a two-way conversation with someone in the front row [he’s not an actor, and doesn’t respond].  But this interplay is what gives this marvelously gifted piece of writing its grounding.  Gerry is a relentless cross between a modern-day aficionado of the expansive, never-more-open gay community and the ‘girls’ in Mart Crowley’s soon-to-be-revived classic drama/comedy “Boys in the Band,” which set box office records and opened avenues for so much dialogue about thirty years ago.

At this night-before pre-ceremonial dinner, being held nearby, we never do meet the same-sex couple being celebrated.  Who we do meet are the effortlessly loquacious Gerry, and the ‘friends’ he speaks with in his one-sided exchanges.  And he certainly  gives more than he gets.

This is a set-up laced with possible humor, ribald jokes and the sharp but not outright vicious personal attacks that Joan Rivers perfected.  Joan was not a big person -she only came up to my chin – but it was the self-assuredness, the pure confidence in what she was relating, that gave her work the power it had.  Here, Droege has crafted what could well be an homage to her.

When we meet Gerry, the soundtrack is sharing with us Diana Ross’s plaintive  yet melodic “My World is Empty Without You.”  Yup – that’s where we’re at.

The laughs come fast and furious, as we witness Gerry scold, admonish, belittle and indulge in wildly hilarious interchanges with this silent guy.  He can become deliriously taken with his own tack-sharp wordplay, and the bulls-eye jabs that hurt no one we actually see, but register as squarely hitting their intended target.  Not so long after, Gerry spots another colleague, and starts in on another one-way exchange that leaves us giddy with laughter.

The story line covers far more than the now-relevant gay marriage debate, because like any great work, this one is both specific and universal.  You don’t need to recognize the names and places Gerry tosses about to recognize the pattern of the humor: introduce a topic, let you get familiar with in, deride it without mercy by pointing out its near endless shortcomings, bringing you into the conversation to affirm his points of humor, then let it go – like an air-filled balloon he’s been pinching closed with one finger and thumb, letting it skitter across the room and out of sight, out of mind, to be replaced instantly by another little anecdote.

And here’s why this works so incredibly well.  Like the material Joan wrote for herself, Droege has placed criticisms, comments, stinging assaults, mock compliments, all of them, in the mind of the audience.  In this case, Gerry is sharing his exchanges with us, and we ‘get it,’ all of it, because Droege has salted Gerry’s conversations with recollections about the never-to-be-seen happy couple, now being derided so harshly for allowing the wedding invitations to finger-wag about the dress code.  It’s a gay wedding, for God’s sake!  Gerry is in disbelief.  And even when his tone and commentary mellow with personal confessions, the combination of Droege, Urie and Hiller combine so many welcome elements to today’s scene – and with more than enough guaranteed laughs that whatever point they wish to make lands with perfect color-blind power.


For a start, let me thank those who urged me to use the column to point out that the current production of a Lincoln Center play titled “Admissions,” is not the play of mine that enjoyed three separate New York productions, all directed by Austin Pendleton, and went on to be named Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival.  My “Admissions” uniquely looks at the world of racism, hidden agenda and not-often-acknowledged prejudices among a group of disparate, serious and engaging college students.  No teachers, no faculty members, no adults – and at this momentous time when students are taking the lead in challenging one of society’s most pernicious evils – the scourge of guns – this original “Admissions” looked at issues solely through the eyes and minds of students.  Happy to state that is was published after its premiere by Playscripts, and that the Drama Bookshop carries copies . . . a curious fusion of ’80s rock, classical arias and concertos have been fused to create “Rocktopia,” by Rob Evans, which will open next month at the Broadway Theatre . . .  you say you’ll be on the road for a while mid-April to mid-May?  You say you never got to experience “The Secret Garden?”  With more purpose than Rosannah in “Brilliant Traces,” fire up you motorcar and head west, very west.  Theatre Calgary has selected that classic musical to celebrate its 50th anniversary this spring.  Details at

On Book

Melissa, daughter of Joan Rivers, has generously compiled stage material and insights into how her mother created and performed throughout her iconic career.  Collecting and sharing so much more than her earlier “The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation,” Melissa shows how much real hard work went into her mother’s successes, and failures . . . to remember one of the theatre’s greatest character actors who just passed away at age 93,  Louis Zorich, pick up the his “What Have You Done?  The Inside Stories of Auditioning – From the Ridiculous to the Sublime.”  His wife for more than half a century, Olympia Dukakis, penned the foreword . . . and if you’d like to out-quip and one-up Gerry, no better source than “The Queer Encyclopedia of Music, Dance & Musical Theatre,” edited by Claude J. Summers, for Cleis Press.  Take that, Gerry  [extra loud snap of the fingers]!


TONY VELLELA‘s play “Admissions” received three New York productions, directed by Austin Pendleton,  won best play at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  He wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has written nine other plays and musicals, including “Mister,” for Anthony Rapp, with composer Misha Piatigorsky.  His feature articles and reviews about the performing arts have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Life, Dramatics, Parade, and Rolling Stone, among other places.  He has taught theatre-related courses at HB Studio, West 92nd St. Y, Columbia University Theaters’ College, and other institutions across the country. His documentary “Test of Time” won the Best Documentary CableAce Award for Lifetime Television.


CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre package, and reservations, are available at the Carmel App, at and at 212 – 666 – 6666.

Books recommended or referenced in Intermission Talk are available at, or through Manhattan’s Tony Award-winning Drama Bookshop, 250 west 40th street, NYC 10018, at 212 – 944 – 0595, or at



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