Reviews of the play A Brief Crack of Light
(previous title Exit Strategy)

Below are several reviews of the play A Brief Crack of Light by Bill Semans and Roy Close: the Falcon (Garry Marshall) Theatre in Los Angeles and the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.


Review of the play A Brief Crack of Light
by Bill Semans and Roy Close 
at the Falcon

By Pauline Adamek

Thursday, October 29th, 2009     From LA Arts Beat

” Well-directed and beautifully performed, A Brief Crack of Light (previous title Exit Strategy is a highly enjoyable night at the theater.”


A funny new play about old people, Bill Semans and Roy M. Close’s play, A Brief Crack of Light (Exit Strategy) is a real treat. In this delightful story, a pair of senior citizens learn you’re never too old for an exciting adventure.

The lights come up on a shabby lounge area of an old rooming house. This is the Penley Hotel, an old residence that caters to elderly people on fixed incomes. There’s a prominent crucifix on one stained wall, some ratty old furniture, and a few mouse traps discreetly laid along the baseboards.

Pretty soon we meet two long-term residents, James (James Sikking) and Mae (Debra Mooney). He’s a former actor and college professor whose dyed hair belies his given age of 82. She’s a crabby, silver-haired old bird who, as manager, rules the roost with a firm hand. Witness Mae’s opening line to James, a barked demand of “No smoking!” There’s the occasional clash over the house rules, especially on where the thermostat should be set, but we see the pair are comfortable co-tenants in this decrepit rooming house. James and Mae also exchange frank banter about typical “old folks” troubles, such as prescription pills and prostate and peeing issues. But when Mae shows James a notice she’s just received, stating that their building is scheduled for demolition, you can see their spirits crumple as if all their breath has been kicked out of them. The pair of pensioners find themselves facing imminent eviction and an uncertain future.

Enter Alex (John C. Moskoff), a younger man on a mission (he’s around 70) with an intriguing proposition. He asks to rent a room for a few weeks and, towards the end of Act 1, draws the pair into his confidence. It transpires that Alex has come to town to reclaim a valuable item that was stolen from his family years ago. He needs their help in order to get it back, but what he wants to ask of them is not entirely legal….

Debra Mooney is just wonderful as the salty old gal. Sikking is hilarious as James, the has-been actor, never slipping into stereotype with his portrayal of an old queen of the stage. Playing Alex, Moskoff brings a breath of fresh air and upbeat mentality to his role. Against the stale malaise that the other two seem stuck in, his positive outlook is precisely like an essential tonic that shakes them out of their complacency and helps them dream again.

This inspiring drama features three versatile veterans of television and film: marvelous Debra Mooney (The Practice, Everwood, Boston Legal), the charismatic James Sikking (Made of Honor, Hill Street Blues, Doogie Howser, M.D.) and the charming John C. Moskoff (The Wonder Years, Gypsy, Requiem for a Heavyweight).

The trio give superlative performances – their line readings and subtext are simply spot on. Together, they are completely convincing as pensioners who concoct a scheme intended to right an old wrong.

Well-directed and beautifully performed, A Brief Crack of Light is a highly enjoyable night at the theater.


Review of the play A Brief Crack of Light


A Brief Crack of Light at the Falcon (Garry Marshall) Theatre in Los Angeles” Scene from the play A Brief Crack of Light at the Falcon (Garry Marshall) Theatre in Los Angeles. Photo Source: Chelsea Sutton

Plays exploring the challenges of old age are rare. The best thing about this seriocomic three-hander by Bill Semans and Roy M. Close, which premiered last year in Minneapolis, is that it takes a refreshingly lighthearted look at a life passage that can be riddled with sadness and uncertainty. There’s a solid ring of truth to the dialogue and characters, though the play loses some of its originality and grit after intermission, when it morphs into a caper comedy with a questionable moral lesson. Nonetheless, a splendid ensemble, under the adept direction of Casey Stangl, makes for an entertaining visit with charming characters.

Mae (Debra Mooney) and James (James B. Sikking) are among the residents of a rundown rooming house in an unspecified Midwestern town. Mae, the on-site manager, has been married four times but is now single and seldom hears from her grown daughter. James, a retired actor-teacher, is gay, lonely, and prone to tipping the bottle. Though this duo bickers over matters like the temperature setting on the thermostat, there’s an obvious bond between them. Their mundane world is shaken up when they get a 30-day eviction notice. Enter an angel of mercy in the form of a slightly younger man, Alex (John C. Moskoff), who radiates vitality and an optimistic spirit. He reveals a plan for his newfound friends to escape homelessness, if they are willing to go along with his daring scheme.

Mooney’s exceptional portrayal gains power through understatement, deftly illuminating the character’s myriad nuances. As a person who has weathered plenty of hard knocks without becoming bitter, Mae can be vulnerable one second and tough as nails the next. There’s motherly warmth behind her stern take-charge demeanor. Sikking superbly captures the eccentricities of an overgrown child with humor and subtle poignancy. Moskoff does fine work as the catalyst, bringing hope and confidence to people whose suppressed zest for life simply needs a jump-start.

Stangl’s smoothly paced and handsomely staged production is well-served by Keith Mitchell’s set design, Nick McCord’s lighting, and Denitsa Bliznakova’s costumes.

Presented by and at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Oct. 23–Nov. 15. Wed.–Sat., 8.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. (818) 955-8101.




Arts & Entertainment Review
of the play Exit Strategy



“Exit Strategy is roguish fun, uproariously funny, and a groundbreaking comedy to boot.”


Playwrights Roy M. Close and Bill Semans address the limited options available to senior citizens, even when they’re passionate, sharp and full of insight. Indeed, ageism is a prevailing American vice, hence the valuation of elders is not a prevailing virtue. That said, this play, vibrantly directed by Howard Dallin for Cricket Productions at Mixed Blood, is by no means yet another idealizing take on senior wisdom. Nor is it some dreary admonishment against age discrimination. So if you seek sentimentality or absolution, and need to replicate the seniors in your life as cut-out kewpie dolls rather than real people, then you’ll have to look elsewhere.


The Characters:

For starters, Exit Strategy’s two main characters never had the happily ever after heterosexual past we’re all conditioned to. Moreover, they’re confronted with a moral dilemma when asked by a mysterious stranger to assist in a crime. They’re both refreshingly flawed and down to earth, not to mention bright. Mae in the way of street smarts and James as an academic. But be warned: they still have feisty libidos and a need for romance and adventure! James’s cruising for men in straight bars (yikes!) and Mae’s attraction to the stranger, a man named Alex, are far cries from On Golden Pond. And the fact that Exit Strategy is set in the tatty lobby of a run down residential hotel constantly underscores, despite all the laughs, the fallen economic status of the characters, and by extension American seniors in general. James Bakkom’s set and Gail Bakkom’s costumes reflect this vividly.

The Actors:

Charles Nolte and Shirley Venard utterly soar as James and Mae in some of the juiciest stage chemistry we’ve seen on any stage recently. It’s marvelous to see two of our great veteran actors not only in top form, but taking on material that’s so gritty. It’s also extraordinary to hear so much dialogue about sex and desire spoken so frankly, wittily, and naturally by seasoned senior actors playing senior characters. After all, our collective American ethos has desexualized older folks and turned them into stereotypes. James has an existential moment when he thinks he may have sucked his last cock. Sure, it’s funny but it reflects a cold reality never spoken about. Mae’s instinctive animal reaction to Alex is sublimated but visceral. Also very funny, but bravely revealing. And Alex, as played by Semans, understates splendidly a strong alpha male energy typically attributed to younger men.

Beyond sex, Exit Strategy also raises vital questions about criminality in a society where and a time when so many different groups are becoming more systematically marginalized. Consider that James would have been a boy in the 1920s, a Republican-ruled time when the gap between rich and poor was comparably stark. He’s come full circle not only personally but historically. Close and Semans have us ponder that when the system has become so stacked toward the filthy rich might it be logical, if not natural, for those who’ve fallen through the cracks to do what they must, by any means necessary, just to get by? Indeed, this will actually be the most controversial aspect of the play for some. For all its great fun, Exit Strategy is pungently provocative and incisive, even ruthless, in its many observations. A breakthrough in the portrayal of the aged.

One wonders what Henry Fonda, whose cantankerous turn in the film On Golden Pond is legend, would say if he knew that Nolte, who played with him in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial on Broadway in the 1950s, would think. And as for the late Charlton Heston, Nolte’s touring company roommate from an earlier time, we might wonder if he’s turning in his grave. How interesting that Nolte has surpassed both Titans in terms of artistic risk, courage, and emotional bravery.


Review of the play Exit Strategy by Bill Semans and Roy Close
– Cricket Productions – 4 stars

“I have options. Lots of options.”
“Name one.”
(Silence.)“Exit Strategy” by local writers Bill Semans and Roy M. Close has one of the funniest first acts on a play that I’ve seen in recent memory – full of one-liners based solidly in character, acted with a great deal of panache. It’s the kind of first act which completely wins you over, endears the characters to you, and makes you wait eagerly for intermission to be over and the second act to begin. For that reason alone, I can highly recommend you see it.Two more great reasons to see “Exit Strategy” are the performances of Shirley Jean Venard as Mae, and Charles Nolte as James. The prickly but caring relationship between Mae and James is the heart of the play around which everything else revolves. One couldn’t ask for a better pair of actors – at any age – to shoulder that load. Venard (72) and Nolte (84?!) go through their paces like actors half their age. And that’s the point of the play – “You’re never too old. Never.”

The Premise

At the outset of “Exit Strategy,” the owners of the Penley, the boarding house where Mae and James live, decide to close the place down within another month’s time. The two sparring friends are at a loss to know where to look for a new home. The demise of the Penley is seen as just another signifier that James and Mae’s options in general are shrinking in number, and time is running out. But instead of collapsing into despair, they meet the challenge with humor and high spirits. When the opportunity for an actual adventure comes along, one that’s a little on the shady side, but might also ease their financial woes, they grab it. They don’t leap in without some reservations, but the excitement is too alluring to pass up.Mae is the live-in caretaker for the Penley, and James is its sole remaining tenant – a former actor and professor who resigned amid scandal. These two characters know how to push one another’s buttons and they do so repeatedly, with enthusiasm.

James and Mae

Though James is gay and Mae straight, the chemistry between the two indicates an important platonic relationship in both their lives. Venard and Nolte rip into these roles with gusto, wearing them like a second skin, falling into an easy rhythm of conversation both argumentative and supportive. They’re an old married couple in all ways but one.The adventure which comes their way is brought to them by Alex (playwright/actor Semans), an ex-con who may or may not be running a con on Mae and James. He befriends them and acts as referee to their occasional spats. Then Alex lets them in on the real reason he rented a short-term room at the Penley. Alex’s caper could bring them all a financial windfall – as long as it goes off without a hitch.More than just a caper play, “Exit Strategy” is an examination of the later stage of life, when your body may not always cooperate, but your mind and spirit are as lively as ever. The play is awash in memorable lines, from the playful…”We don’t have a rodent problem. All our rodents are quite content.”to the wistful…”I’d like to fall in love again. I must be out of my mind.”from humor dark…”I hear a daily nap adds years to your life.”

“You sound like that’s a good thing.”to bawdy…”Women over sixty. It’s like Tasmania. Everyone knows it’s down there somewhere but nobody gives a damn.”from the philosophical…”I submit that the difference between a brothel and a whorehouse is the presence of a band.”to the gasp-inducing…”Sometimes I feel like I’ve sucked my last cock.”(in response to which my friend leaned over to me and said, “So do I, James. So do I.”)There’s frank talk, but it’s always good talk – grounded in character, shining with intelligence, wit and humanity.

The Caper

The only real weakness of the script is that in the second act it tends to run out of steam in places. The caper takes a bit of prominence over character. The caper also takes place in another location. Though James Bakkom’s setting of the Penley is fantastic – a faded ramshackle abode with telling details in place both onstage and out the windows, down the halls and into the wings – it ain’t going anywhere. The actors leave, things happen offstage between scenes, and are later reported to the audience. Though this can, and does, also provide a measure of suspense, it’s also less immediate as a storytelling device. Also, at the end of the first act, the trio is on the verge of launching into their adventure. Every entrance in act two, starting with the opening one as the lights come up after intermission, holds the promise that things will kick into high gear. Instead, the execution of the crime is repeatedly delayed – almost as if the play itself is stalling for time. Any time spent with Mae and James is fun, not at all time wasted, but I sometimes found myself wishing they’d get on with it.

The Play’s Ending

However, that said, the play ends on a high note – and as long as you end well, the audience will forgive much. In this case, there’s not that much in need of forgiveness.In a play this dependent on only three characters, all the performers need to be at their best. Bill Semans, thought often charming as Alex, is not yet on the same level in performance as Venard and Nolte. When interacting with either or both of them, their energy feeds him well. When Alex is supposed to be driving the action, sometimes the play falters. Strangely, though Semans is co-author of the script, he is the only one of the three who ever seems to be visibly struggling to remember the lines. Still, it’s early days in the run. As the trio spends more time in front of audience, the bumps will no doubt be smoothed out.Looking at the larger picture of offerings on stage right now in the Twin Cities, theater could be seen as a young person’s game. On that count alone,

Wonderful performances

Exit Strategy” is an unique experience. Rather than waiting around for someone else to create a production with the kind of mature leading roles they’d like to see, Cricket Productions went out and did it themselves. Age aside, Venard and Nolte are turning in wonderful performances that deserve to be seen. The first act of the script literally crackles along, it’s a delight – and overall, the story and characters are a lot of fun right to the end. Director Howard Dallin pulls all the elements together well. The set is wonderful. Plus, Lynn Musgrave’s sound design does a great job of setting this fictional locale in the larger present day world, both outside the walls of the Penley and within. And musical interludes are scattered throughout but never overdone. It’s nice work all around. On many levels, theatrical productions like this don’t come along that often. You should see it. Highly Recommended.