Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 38
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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“QUADRUPLE THREAT”: BD Wong sings, dances, acts 10 different roles and, in the words of his director Roger Rees, presents “a riveting presence on stage,” in “Herringbone,” a one-man musical opening McCarter Theatre’s 2008-09 season, at the Berlind through October 12.

“Herringbone,” B.D. Wong’s One-Man Show, Opens McCarter Season: Show Business and Coming of Age in a Dark Musical Psycho-Drama

Donald Gilpin

Herringbone, the B.D. Wong one-man musical that opens McCarter’s 2008-09 season at the Berlind Theatre, offers a prospect that is promising in many different ways.

Mr. Wong, seasoned stage, TV and movie actor who gained fame in 1988 with his award-winning performance in M. Butterfly and currently stars (as the staff psychiatrist) on “Law and Order: SVU,” is an abundantly talented performer, an appealing stage presence, adept in taking on the ten different roles here and more than capable as a dancer and singer.

The subject matter is intriguing. Set in Demopolis, Alabama at the start of the Depression, Herringbone is the coming-of-age story of an eight-year-old boy, whose parents launch him, and exploit him, on a career in show business — with the added bizarre elements of a murder mystery, a psychodrama, and the demonic possession of the protagonist by the spirit of a deceased vaudeville star.

Also of significant interest is the theatricality of this show, which is, in a sense, a play-within-a-play, about the nature of theater. From the moment we enter the Berlind Theatre and see him already on stage in his full-scale, fully furnished dressing room, Mr. Wong shares with us the process of preparing and performing. The vaudeville performer-narrator proceeds to recall and relive the traumatic events of 1929 — the family dysfunctions and the shaping of his identity, personal and professional, for better and worse.

A Brechtian style of alienation prevails here, taking the proceedings to a higher level of honesty, as the narrator frequently interrupts the narrative and breaks out of character with verbal, physical, or musical reminders that we’re his confidants and collaborators as he struggles to work through the most painful memories and relationships from his past.

“Herringbone” will play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 12, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; at 3 p.m. Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit

With the episodes of comedy and showmanship generally more successful than the somber, sordid, psychologically intense moments, there are a number of superb scenes here: the mother who wants her son to be president and the son who wants to please his mother; the family reactions to the greedily anticipated reading of Uncle Billy’s highly disappointing will; the retired vaudeville star Nathan Mosely, the Chicken half of the famous “Chicken and Frog” act, presiding with great hauteur over the Demopolis speaking contest and George’s acting class; and George, possessed, in his dazzling tap dance performance as “Little Mister Tippy Toes.”

To bring this complex concoction to life, it would be difficult to imagine a stronger contingent than McCarter’s high-powered design and production team under the direction of the estimable Roger Rees, with choreography by Darren Lee and musical direction by Dan Lipton.

Unfortunately, the whole is less than the sum of its parts here, and the experience of Herringbone — though interesting, at times even intriguing; sporadically entertaining; impressive, especially in the virtuoso performance of Mr. Wong and in the inventiveness of the staging — is not particularly moving or engaging. As skillful as Mr. Wong is at creating these characters — from the eight-year-old protagonist, to his raspy old grandmother, to his wilting southern belle mother and rough-edged father, to the vengeful reincarnated midget vaudeville performer — it is difficult to care very much about any of them.

The book by Tom Cone is perhaps too ambitious in attempting to merge Gypsy, Sybil and Equus, all in a one-man show. As the amusing first-act drama of the talented little boy and his over-zealous parents takes its horrifying turn into the Gothic, psycho-sexual violence and confusion of the second act, even the captivating Mr. Wong has difficulty keeping the audience on board with the protagonist on his journey to Hollywood and into the darkest recesses of his past.

The music, sixteen different numbers by Skip Kennon with lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, effectively reflects the darkness and dissonance of the subject matter, but also at times ranges in tone from the upbeat, in traditional musical theater fashion, to a lively vaudeville style, as Mr. Wong displays his showmanship and tap dancing prowess.

The sheer virtuosity of Mr. Wong’s performance, however, as he sometimes plays as many as four or five characters at a time, does take the focus away from the central figure George (who later becomes “Herringbone,” after his visit to a tailor to acquire his first man’s suit).

Mr. Lipton contributes a formidable piano accompaniment, presides over the excellent onstage trio, with Benjamin Campbell on bass and Richard Huntley on drums, and steps in to deliver the role of a deaf mute manservant with unforgettably cloying demeanor.

Eugene Lee’s set, deceptively simple in appearance with lighting designed by Kenneth Posner, ingeniously takes the play from the well lit, realistic, onstage actor’s dressing room into the darker abstractions of a mostly bare stage on which the narrator brings his reminiscences to life. The crucial elements are a stage that revolves in sections, a moving, multi-functional doorway that provides salient transitions from one setting to another and from one phase of the protagonist’s world to another, and a large traveling props box that serves numerous purposes as container and performance platform.

Mr. Cone’s Herringbone premiered as a one-act play in Vancouver, B.C. in 1975. It played in full-length musical form at Playwrights Horizon in New York, where Mr. Wong first saw it in 1982, and the attraction was immediate. Mr. Wong recalls his reaction: “It’s very weird and interesting and I loved it so much.” The current McCarter show has evolved from the 2007 Williamstown Theater Festival, where Mr. Rees and Mr. Wong collaborated on a studio theater production of Herringbone.

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