Can Thomas Jefferson Save the Ohio Theatre? Not. A. Chance.


The Ohio Theatre was recently given an extension on its lease at 66 Wooster Street; the space has been a home for performing artists for many years, but the Ohio Theatre had been in danger of it when the building was sold to a new owner. Playwright and director Robert Lyons has been running this independent company for more than 20 years, and he should be applauded for his dedication to off-off Broadway theater.

One of the few remaining shows in the space is the current production of Red Haired Thomas, directed by Oliver Butler, co-Artistic Director of The Debate Society. The play follows Cliff, a professional gambler, who is in the midst of a string of bad luck. Walking his daughter to her bus stop each day, she asks, “Did you win?” Lately, Cliff’s answer is always no.

Through the story of Cliff, his family and his neighborhood newspaper vendor, Red Haired Thomas touches on a variety of heavy topics: Islamist extremism, the meaning of the American dream and the state of contemporary media and capitalism today, but the play has nothing specific to say about any of it. Lyons, who is both the playwright and director, has boldly structured the show as a sort of dreamscape, but the surreal elements of the play just feel like a mask for a weak script. Leaving the theater it is unclear what Lyons wants his audience to take away from the show.

Red Haired Thomas also suffers from uneven performances. Peter Sprague, as Cliff, nails the role of a gambler on a losing streak. Sprague plays Cliff as a likable but pathetic man at the end of his luck, who is just barely holding it together; he gives the best performance of the show. Danny Beiruti, as Ifthikar, is less commanding as another father slowly coming unwound. (Beiruti does seem to warm up as show progresses, and perhaps he would be more comfortable throughout, if he weren’t trying to feign an Ifthikarian accent.) Alan Benditt is true to the script, playing Thomas Jefferson as an exasperated patrician looking on in disgust at what the country he helped to found has become. Danielle Skraastad, as Marisa, struggles to give life to the two-dimensional character written for her. Towards the end of the show Skraastad bravely muscles through an awkward song; she is a fearless performer to tackle the moment such gusto. Nicole Raphael is believable as Cliff’s 12-year-old daughter (and later as Ifthikar’s daughter). However, Raphael would be better, if she would stop scrunching her face into caricature grimaces at every other line.

The minimal scenic and lighting designs (by Tom Gleeson and Mike Riggs respectively) make good use of the space on what appears to have been a small budget. Stacks of newspapers fill the stage and act as set pieces for much of the show’s action, while the lighting defines the different locations in the show. However, this idea is better in concept than it is in execution. Costume designer Sydney Maresca’s attention to detail is impressive. From the marlin-and-martini print on Cliff’s Hawaiian-style shirt to the dainty flag pin on his wife’s lapel, it is clear Maresca took her time creating the characters’ wardrobes.

A space like 66 Wooster is an almost unimaginable luxury in independent theater. Unfortunately, it will soon be handed over to a retailer paying market-rate rent. It’s also too bad that a theater company renowned for its support of new work and blessed with such a space has stumbled with one of its final shows in its long-standing home.

* Photo credit: Carl Skutsch