Review of "The Cat," At The American Theatre of Actors
The first time I ever heard about “Felix The Cat” was from my mother. I was a little boy and I was fascinated by this little black and white cat character I had found in a book. This was back in the late 60’s or early 70’s and I knew everything about the “Mouse,” but nothing about the “Cat,” so I was about to get schooled. Apparently, in her day, back in Cuba of all places, Felix The Cat was quite the beloved character. She seemed surprised that I knew nothing about him. She had assumed that everyone knew about the cat, and as I grew older I realized just about everyone did.
The fascination we now have with cartoon characters, animated films, and even long vacations to Walt Disney World has been a work in progress that dates back to the early days of silent movies and hand-drawn animation, circa the early 1900’s. The story is chronicled in Vincent Apollo’s new play, “The Cat,” now playing at The American Theatre of Actors on the Westside and it covers quite a lot of ground for only 70-minutes long.
Although the play changes the names of “Felix The Cat” to “Chauncey The Cat” and creates a fictional account of the actual history, it is nonetheless, based on very real characters. “The skeleton is pure history the flesh is poetic license,” Says Mr. Apollo.
The idea for the play, which was inspired by a mini documentary Apollo produced and directed in 2005 as part of a DVD add-on for a first time release of the 1959 television show, kicked around for a few years until recently. “Around 2014 I did the due diligence on the acquisition of Felix the Cat for DreamWorks Animation and the fire was re-lit,” says Mr. Apollo. That brings us to The American Theatre of Actors and Mr. Apollo’s new play, “The Cat.”
Mr. Apollo packs a punch in what is a play that is fun to watch and pulls you into a world that offers a sneak peek at a time in history when entire industries were being created by people who had no clue about the impact they would have on the entertainment industry. Oh, what am I talking about? There was NO entertainment industry!
Johnny Blaze Leavitt plays Dan Harriman, the alcoholic producer of Chauncey The Cat and a tragic character in this tale. The story follows Harriman and his partner, the creator and artist behind Chauncey The Cat, Ollie Nestor (played by Patrick Robert Kelly) as they struggle together with Harriman’s destructive behavior.
As Chauncey grows in fame and relative market value, Harriman squanders one of cinema’s greatest treasures thanks to his alcohol addiction. The story moves fast, from Harriman meeting and suddenly being married to his wife, Julia (Anna Frankl-Duvall), to Danny and Julia being invited to London as Ollie is left to deal with gangsters and creditors, and even the police, who are after Harriman for all sorts of fraudulent behavior.
Harriman is not a likable character for the most part, but thanks to Leavitt’s fine performance, I did feel for him in part because we now understand that the lovable drunk is sometimes the most tragic and doomed person in the room if he or she gets no help. Leavitt gives Harriman dimension and does a lot in a very little amount of time. As a whole the actors are fully committed and do an excellent job with the moments that they have on stage. Every character came alive and really helped to shape the feel for the era and real person behind the portrayal. There were some funny moments and the script gives them some great moments to shine. The single set, which is functional and serves the play well, of not perfectly, was nicely complemented by simple but fine costuming. I have to admit that with a bigger budget it would be fun to see some more elaborate sets, but it did work thanks to good writing, direction and acting. I have to admit that now that Apollo has pulled me in, I want more.
I really loved this story and Mr. Apollo’s play is interesting, informative and covers a moment in time I am very curious to learn more about. As a film buff, I truly appreciate that he has given us a unique look at a moment no one has written much about. That this play could make for an excellent movie is a point I won’t dwell on, but as a staged production there is so much more I want to know. I’d ask for that.
For instance, I want to know more about the relationship between Ollie and Danny and the women in the play certainly merit more depth. Molly Esther Wilson as Mary Walker, as another example, proves to be a fascinating part of the story and is as under-utilized as is Anna Frankl-Duval as Julia Harriman. Ollie, too, as the under appreciated genius behind Chauncey is also quite fascinating and merits more attention. But how do you squeeze all that into just 70-minutes? For starters, I’d make it longer.
Apollo is an excellent writer who knows how to capture huge chunks of this story in short scenes and has directed a very clean and quick show that was very enjoyable. I recommend seeing The Cat and you only have this coming weekend to see it. So go!
The Cat is playing at The Sargent Theatre at The American Theatre of Actors through December 11th. Click here for more information and tickets.
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