Patrons of Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History, still shuddering over last Christmas’s Ben Stiller film Night at the Museum
, no doubt will be heartened to learn that the august institution has inspired art of greater consequence.
“Natural History” is a bittersweet chamber piece staged as part of the new summer season at Shadowland Theater, the plucky company based in Ellenville and housed in a sleek, refurbished 1920s art deco theater.
“It’s four different vignettes in four different rooms of the Museum of Natural History,” says Brendan Burke, returning as Shadowland’s artistic director for a third season. “It’s an exciting new work that fits the Shadowland quirkiness. It cannot be pigeonholed as comedy or drama.”
Written by fledgling playwright Jennifer Camp and directed by James Glossman, “Natural History” stars Broadway actors and real-life couple Michelle Pawk and John Dossett. Glossman, who often collaborates with Burke, notably directed the 2005 Shadowland production of Arthur Miller’s classic “All My Sons,” starring husband-and-wife team Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss. Glossman was wooed to the script by Pawk and Dossett, longtime friends. “Natural History” explores the themes of love and loss among several people on one single day in the museum.
Pawk won the Tony Award as featured actress in the 2003 play “Hollywood Arms,” co-written by comic legend Carol Burnett and based on her memoirs. John Dossett received 2003 Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his role in the revival of “Gypsy.”
Glossman, charmed by the play, began searching for a theater to host a production. This past December, he called his friend Burke, who immediately placed “Natural History” on the summer schedule. Completing the three-actor cast is Anthony Blaha, whom Glossman calls, “an extraordinary find.” Only 22, the actor suggests “a combination of James Dean and John Cleese.”
Burke admits that budgetary considerations inevitably guide the Shadowland schedule. “We’re making realistic concessions on the ideals we have,” he said, “and exploiting the positive.” The season’s musical is the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt chestnut “I Do! I Do!” (opens August 17), about the mixed blessings of conjugal living. Not only does it ooze charm, but the production is of a manageable size for Shadowland.
“I think we could mount ‘Les Miz’ if we really needed to,” Burke says, “but I’m not sure we could do it justice.”
Rounding out the schedule are productions that touch upon both humor and tragedy. The season begins on June 8 with the crowd pleaser “Rounding Third” by Richard Dresser, about a pair of suburban dads coaching a Little League team. The black comedy “The Cripple of Inishmaan” opens on July 20. Written by celebrated Irish wunderkind Martin McDonagh, it depicts the chaos caused by a Hollywood film company that descends on an Irish town.
The season ends with a show sure to unsettle the senior citizens who buy season subscriptions and twitter in their seats. The Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel (opens September 14) is a lacerating memoir of a teen girl and her amorous uncle, which Burke himself will direct. He fully expects some disgruntled reactions, but insists that The Shadowland Theater should be “a catalyst for social dialogue.”
“People will always say there’s one show [every season] that they really don’t like,” he said. “But they like that fact, that they get stretched a little. If they’re talking about that and not ‘American Idol,’ I’m happy.” "Natural History" will be staged June 22 through July 15. www.shadowlandtheatre.org.