Jerry Adler of The Sopranos plays "Grampa."
Theater Review: Mike Reiss' "I'm Connecticut" Premieres at UConn
Although I’m Connecticut author Mike Reiss is from Simsbury, his comedy is most indebted to New Yorker Woody Allen, at least at first glance. The play had its world premiere last Thursday night at UConn’s Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. It's about the relationship between Jewish Nutmegger Marc and the lovely Diane, who is from Georgia. Various characters relentlessly reinforce Marc’s insecurity by reminding him that his origins put him at a disadvantage; you see, being from Connecticut makes you inherently boring and unattractive to women. To prove otherwise to his new girlfriend, Marc forges a tasteless lie. When Diane sees a scrawled number on his grandfather’s wrist, he convinces her the old man is a Holocaust survivor (he actually has Alzheimer’s and can’t remember Marc’s cell).
There are some obvious similarities to Allen’s work in the play: the autobiographical story, disregard for the fourth wall, and neurotic main character all come to mind. The couple considers watching Annie Hall and Manhattan after their first date, both of which feature Diane Keaton, Allen’s erstwhile muse and Marc’s girlfriend’s likely namesake. But these are all cursory references: the story only provides a frame for Reiss’ sharply observant satire about his home state.
Some comic set pieces riff on Connecticut’s seldom questioned quirks. Director Paul Mullins’ inventively projects a variety of images depending on the scene onto several upstage panels. In order to legitimize his constant fibbing, Marc pulls up Connecticut’s Wikipedia page and points out all the ways that the state is deceptive: he reveals that not one ounce of nutmeg is produced there, and questions whether being a land of “steady habits” is truly a good thing. Equally hilarious is a sequence in which actors walk on the stage bearing giant foam cutouts of the states mounted on their arms. They are then compared on the basis of their “penises”: Connecticut’s pitiful nub is contrasted with the impressive phallus that is Florida.
Other characters in the play include Marc’s Bostonian best friend—whose atrocious accent is fatally distracting—and Diane’s sassy mother, Polly, played by Three’s Company’s Joyce DeWitt, who doubles as Marc’s grandmother in flashback scenes. Another accomplished actor graces the stage: Tony Award-winning Jerry Adler, who played Hesh on The Sopranos, gives a sweet and nuanced performance as Marc’s gentle grandfather.
Harris Doran, who plays Marc, does a decent job, although his enthusiasm could be rather grating and at times rang false. Unfortunately, his co-star, Maggie Sulka, is painfully inexperienced compared to the company she keeps onstage. Perhaps the worst way this manifests itself is in her simply dreadful Georgian drawl, which she attempts to expand into a style that just does not work: it seems as though Sulka was going for Southern belle but instead she comes across as merely ditsy. This is a shame, because she certainly looks the part and tries her best.
Reiss shows his roots as a writer for The Simpsons, for better or worse—the script is well paced, the jokes are frequent, and mostly terrific. But I’m Connecticut may have benefited from the laser-like focus of Allen’s early comedies. Its rather shallow characters and scattershot humor, though excellent, make the play less than the sum of its parts. In the end, Reiss wants to convince the audience that where you’re from is less important than who you are. His problem is that he tells us this, rather than shows us.