Mitch Albom's 2005 play And the Winner Is, while decidedly more amusing than his novels Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, still ends with the same sugary sweet message of redemption, forgiveness and the innate goodness that exists within humanity.
Heller Theatre opened its production of the play last weekend and continues its run this weekend. Directed by Frank Gallagher, the play stars John Gibson Miller as Tyler Johnes, a Hollywood actor who's dumped head-first and screaming into an Irish bar tended by one of God's gatekeepers, Seamus (George Nelson).
Johnes, absent his pants, shoes and one sock, is nursing a hangover and the after affects of a heart attack but can't quite seem to grasp, no matter how many times Seamus tries to tell him, that he's dead.
He's much more concerned with informing Seamus of his fame and recent nomination for an Academy Award. Seamus, who's an avid reader of Highlights magazine, frequently rings a bell that apparently sends a shock through Johnes' bottom every time he uses the Lord's name in vain.
Seamus finally manages to convince Johnes of his unfortunate fate, but Johnes is concerned with nothing more than getting back to Earth for the Academy Awards, which are that night. He makes a deal with Seamus to let him return to Earth for one night for the Oscars and is soon joined by co-star and ex-pal Kyle Morgan (Jeremy Geiger), his agent Teddy LaPetite (Ron Friedberg) and his ditzy, blond girlfriend Serenity (Jess Branston).
While Johnes died of a heart attack, this trio apparently consumed the same shellfish special at a swanky local restaurant and died as a result of food poisoning.
They all make the same bargain with Seamus, vowing to return to the wait station with him after the Oscars, and the four of them are transported back to Earth for the awards ceremony, where the second act takes place.
While the play's first act was quite funny, thanks to skilled acting by and an easy chemistry between Miller and Nelson, the second half was less engaging.
LaPetite and Morgan plan their escape from Seamus' watchful, if sleepy, eye, while Serenity flits between Johnes and Morgan, her level of affection based on which is more likely to win the supporting actor award that night.
Johnes, meanwhile, reconciles with his ex-wife, Sheri (Kelley Childers Friedberg), and it's there that the play gets all Mitch Albom-y. Rather than Johnes' return to Earth being about the Oscar, it ends up about him being a better person.
"And the Winner Is touches many of the same ideas as Albom's previous books," Gallagher said of the play. "Human relationships -- the ways we treat each other -- are at the center of Albom's vision of what makes life meaningful. Honesty, humility and kindness are contrasted with a celebrity culture in which success is all that is valued.
"Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven and Tuesdays with Morrie play heavily on our heartstrings. In contrast," Gallagher contended, "And the Winner Is keeps us laughing throughout, beginning with the absurdities of an afterlife that begins in an Irish pub. Finally, though, it surprises us with its final images of forgiveness and beauty."
Knowing the work was written by Albom actually made its final images less surprising; I was more surprised by the comical nature of its first act.
Heller Theatre did well with this short, simple play, and Miller, Nelson and Ron Friedberg's performances were especially entertaining. The play continues Sept. 28 and Oct. 1-2 at 7:30pm and Oct. 3 at 2pm at the theater at Henthorne Park, 4825 S. Quaker Ave. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for seniors and students. For more information, visit hellertheatre.com.
On Sept. 30, Odeum Theatre Company opens its 2010-2011 season with Oklahoma native and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts' Bug.
The play, directed by David Lawrence and starring Leslie Long and Whitson Hanna, is set in a seedy motel room where Agnes, a divorced waitress with a drug addiction, is hiding out from her abusive ex-husband. Her lesbian friend, R.C., introduces Agnes to soft-spoken Gulf War veteran Peter, and Agnes invites him to crash on her floor.
Soon, though, Peter is promoted to the bed, and the couple battles the return of Agnes' ex-husband and a bug infestation that sends them both into paranoid madness.
The play runs Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2 and Oct. 7-9 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Liddy Doegnes Theatre, 110 E. 2nd St., with evening performances beginning at 8pm and the Sunday matinee at 2pm. Tickets are $20 and available at tulsapac.com.
Also at the Tulsa PAC this weekend, Chamber Music Tulsa presents Concertante, comprised of a core of six virtuoso string players, each of whom has won major national and international music competitions.
Together they have graced premier stages of the world from New York's Carnegie Hall to London's Royal Festival Hall and Shanghai's Grand Theatre. Dedicated to exploring and enhancing the sextet repertoire, the ensemble performs a wide array of works by established masters and lesser-known composers. These musicians are also committed to the cause of new music and launched One Plus Five, a three-year cycle of newly commissioned works, in 2006.
For its Tulsa presentation, Concertante will perform the String Sextet from "Capriccio" by Strauss, "Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night)" for String Sextet, Op. 4, by Schoenberg, and String Sextet in B-flat major, Op. 18, by Brahms.
The concert is Sunday, Oct. 3 at 3pm in the John H. Williams Theatre of the Tulsa PAC. Dr. David Moore will give a free pre-concert lecture on the composers and their works at 2:20pm.
Tickets to the concert are $25 for adults and $5 for students and are available at the PAC website.
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