PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere of Dairyland, a comedy written by Heidi Armbruster and directed by PlayMakers‘ producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch, is all about Allie, a NYC food critic who is searching to find authenticity in a world of online dating, journalistic infighting, and over-hyped media. As she struggles to cope, her journey takes her back to her roots: her father’s dairy farm.
“Over the decades, PlayMakers Repertory Company has been known for ‘serious’ theatre; drama that challenges us intellectually and causes us to question our everyday assumptions.” says Benesch in the playbill notes. That is true. PlayMakers has always excelled with the classics and with the “important” plays, in my opinion; but comedy has never been their forte.
So why Dairyland? According to Benesch, it checks several boxes. First box: as the new producing artistic director, she has committed to producing a world premiere on their mainstage every season. This is exciting for the PlayMakers audiences and for our theater community.
Second box: Benesch has a familiarity with this show. When she was artistic director of Chatauqua Theatre Company, Armbruster’s Dairyland was chosen to be produced in Chatauqua’s New Play Workshop. In a 2014 press release, Benesch said, “I couldn’t be more proud that my tenth season will see four of our five mainstage productions penned by women.”
In a 2017 article in American Theatre magazine, Rob Weinert-Kendt writes, “[W]hen it comes to the status of female playwrights in the American theatre, the long arc of history is bending toward parity — but so slowly, almost imperceptibly, that you’d be forgiven for despairing.” Weinert-Kendt then shares the numbers: 26 percent female-authored works, with 62 percent for men, and 11 percent co-written. I personally award Benesch a box-check for supporting women playwrights.
Another box-check: Dairyland gave Benesch the opportunity to work with actor Ray Dooley on his 100th production for PlayMakers Rep. And Dooley doesn’t disappoint. The part of the father in Dairyland is some of his best work. Dooley’s role as an educator is integral to the production as well. Three of Dooley’s students in UNC’s Professional Actor Training Program are in the cast.
Guest artist Claire Karpen (Broadway: Sylvia, Off-Broadway: Into the Woods at Roundabout/Fiasco), brought in by Benesch, plays the leading role of Allie. Karpen is a long-time collaborator of Benesch, and is well worth seeing.
The opening scenes of Dairyland have a sitcom vibe, with jokes aimed at trends such as farm-to-table restaurants, online dating, and making a living by blogging. Karpen is subtle-but-deadly in a comedy, swinging back and forth between being a straightman for set-ups and a strong comic in her delivery of some of the show’s better punchlines.
Comic timing takes years to hone, and Karpen masterfully supports her less experienced cast members. But where Karpen really shines is in Act Two, the stronger of the acts. That’s where things get real, and we discover Allie’s complicated relationship with her father and her struggle with self-worth.
A small cast of two women and three men add to the charm of the show. It’s always entertaining to see actors play multiple roles. Emily Bosco (PlayMakers‘ How I Learned to Drive, She Loves Me, and Sense and Sensibility) first appears as a server in a trendy farm-to-table restaurant, serving a single organic freshly picked pea as a first course. She excels in her descriptions of every ridiculous dish that she brings out.
First-year company member Khalil LeSaldo plays Allie’s ex-boyfriend and employer Declan. (It’s complicated.) LeSaldo’s best scene is when Declan is trying to figure out just why Allie shows up at his apartment in the middle of the night.
Dan Toot (PlayMakers‘ Bright Star, How I Learned to Drive, and Bewilderness) rounds out the cast. Toot is a hoot as Todd, a ridiculous talk-show host, and provides an only slightly subtler performance as Jonathan, an overconfident lawyer whom Allie meets through online dating.
The collaboration of director Vivienne Benesch with scenic designer Narelle Sissons is impressive. A playing space created with planked floors and walls read as both “trendy urban” and “rustic farm,” setting us up for Act One in the Big City and Act Two on the farm. The back wall sometimes functions as a projection screen for cow videos that are played between each scene change.
Benesch uses a small collection of on-set items (table, chairs, storage boxes) to create everything that she needs for the multiple locations in New York in Act One. A big surprise happens at the end of the first act, when we suddenly transition to the farm.
The cow videos consist of clips from educational videos about cattle farming, and are quite entertaining. They are humorous, gross, and sometimes humorously gross. The video clips add to the storytelling towards the end of the play, when the clips change to human shots that reflect Allie’s memories about her childhood and her mother.
In her playbill notes, Benesch talks about “working diligently to unearth … universal belly laughs.” This play doesn’t produce belly laughs, but there are definitely some hearty chuckles, and maybe a tear or two, making for an entertaining evening at the Paul Green Theatre.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 23rd Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the 4 of 5 stars): https://indyweek.com/culture/stage/dairyland-playmakers-theater-review/; Oct. 23rd Cary, NC RDU on Stage review by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/2019/10/23/theater-review-playmakers-production-of-dairyland-is-knee-deep-in-meaning/; Oct. 23rd Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/10/playmakers-dairyland-proves-complex-but-intriguing/; Oct. 22nd Raleigh, NC Chatham Life & Style review by Ivana Vazquez (who awarded the show 3 of 5 stars): https://chathamlifeandstyle.com/features-%26-reviews/f/theatre-review-a-visit-to-dairyland-at-playmakers-rep; Oct. 21st Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9597; and Oct. 14th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Jodie Londono: https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2019/10/dairyland-playmakers. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 21st Triangle Review review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/10/playmakers-reps-dairyland-is-the-cream-of-the-crop/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents DAIRYLAND, a world premiere comedy written by Heidi Armbruster and directed by Vivienne Benesch, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 and 25, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29-Nov. 1, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15 and up ($10 and up for students), except $15 general admission ($10 for UNC students with ID) on Community Night (Tuesday, Oct. 22nd).
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/show/dairyland/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/672164113304342/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwk55hDnBjw.
2019-20 SEASON: http://playmakersrep.org/season/2019-2020/.
PRC NEWS RELEASE: http://playmakersrep.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/PlayMakers-Presents-Dairyland-Oct-16-to-Nov-3.pdf.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/about-us/paul-green-theatre/ and http://unchistory.web.unc.edu/building-narratives/paul-green-theatre/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27th, and 2 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29th, performances.
NOTE 3: The Psychoanalytic Center of the Carolinas will sponsor a FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussion after the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3rd, performance.
Dairyland (2019 play): https://www.heidiarmbruster.com/dairyland (official web page).
Heidi Armbruster (playwright): https://www.heidiarmbruster.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/heidi-armbruster/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/22439 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/heidi-armbruster-488860 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2193669/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/heidi.armbruster.3 (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/heidiarmbruster (Twitter page).
Vivienne Benesch (director and PlayMakers Rep producing artistic director): https://playmakersrep.org/artists/vivienne-benesch/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/2317 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/vivienne-benesch-69799 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0070924/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/vivienne.benesch (Facebook page).
Nancy Rich is a local director/choreographer, with a love for the performing arts and a passion for supporting local artistic work. Nancy and her husband, Rod, own and operate Monkeybravo, a video production company. Nancy is one of the founders of Actors Comedy Lab and participates in local theater as a hired gun, a volunteer and, on very rare occasions, an actor. Nancy recently wrote a series of monologues called The PRINCESS Talks, performed at the 2017 Women’s Theatre Festival. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.