Love has its ways in Barrington Stage Company's "10X10 New Play Festival"

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PITTSFIELD — Cathy Tempelsman's "Run-On Sentence" — the fourth and, by far, the most striking play, both in writing and performance, in Barrington Stage Company's generally satisfying "10X10 New Play Festival" — begins with one joke and ends with another. The subject matter is anything but humorous, however, in this haunting piece about a poignant father-and-child "reunion" in a prison, where the man, a physician named Abe Schneider (Robert Zukerman), is serving a life sentence for having killed his wife years earlier with a lethal injection.

"Next time I'm not happy with my wife," he tells his adult daughter, Naomi (wrenchingly played by Keri Safran), "I'll divorce her rather than kill her."

He says it jokingly but hanging in the air is the suspicion that this was a mercy killing.

Through his own deliberation, Abe has fouled up his most recent, and final, parole hearing. His daughter has come to convince him to say all the right things in a special parole hearing she has persuaded the authorities to schedule, so he can come home and be with his family — his daughter, his ailing son-in-law and his grandchildren. Life is precious and with mortality all around him, Abe is weighing the effects of consequence and paths to redemption.

As played by Zukerman, Abe is shrewd, insightful, reflective, sure of his way. His mental resources are astute and his sense of humor is among his saving graces. Safran's Naomi, who is an English teacher, gives as good as she gets from her father.

Safran and Zukerman work sublimely well together. There is no melodrama, nothing histrionic. The performances are as straightforward and richly textured as Tempelsman's writing and it sets a high bar for the rest of the evening.

Like "The Run-On Sentence," less is more James McLindon's sublimely witty "Perspectives" in which the Renaissance figures of Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary in Solario's "Annunciation" have been moved from one location in the Louvre to another that just happens to adjoin the "Mona Lisa's" new digs. Much to Mary's chagrin, DaVinci's mystery woman is drawing all the press attention. As "Perspectives" unfolds, it becomes clear that the move of this "Annunication" is not simply matter of rethinking the Louvre's collection and how and where its works are displayed. As played by Dina Thomas with a buoyant, audacious, streetsmart Brooklyn swagger and entitlement, this Virgin Mary turns out not to be the most popular or welcome figure on the block. In an effort to build herself up by tearing her competition down, Mary subscribes to the whispered theory that Mona is, in fact, DaVinci in drag. It's a theory Lucky Gretzinger's smartly played Gabriel disputes — and for good reason.

Truth also has its way in Jamie Roach's sly, by turns funny-sad "The Secret to a Healthy Relationship" in which a couple — perfectly played by Safran and Matt Neely — celebrate their first anniversary as a not-yet-married couple by practicing, over dinner at their special place, the truth and honesty techniques they've been taught at a recent couples retreat led by a relationship guru named Dr. Steve. As it happens, it's what Dr. Steve doesn't tell his couples that bites and bites hard.

"The 10X10s" opens on an engaging note with Eugene Carabatsos' "Seven Minutes in Heaven" in which two seventh graders, appealingly played by Luke Gretzinger and Dina Thomas, wrestle with hormonal imperatives while playing a kissing game at a party.

Also among the more successful entries

- Tom Coash's "Kamasutra" in which a retirement couple — smoothly rendered by Peggy Pharr Wilson and Zukerman — rekindle a long dormant flame while looking at erotic friezes on a Hindu temple in India. You know where this play is headed but the seamless performances by Wilson and Zukerman make the trip worthwhile (is there an "On Golden Pond" somewhere for these two?)

- and Christine Foster's amiable "Joy Ride" in which an airborne ceremony to scatter the ashes of an ex-husband/father is the reconnecting point for an estranged mother (Wilson) and her adult daughter (Thomas).

It's when playwrights can't leave well enough alone that "10X10" stumbles. Eric Wade Fritzius' "Fargo 3D," for example, begins with a wonderful comedic thought about the extremes movie theater management will go to to keep moviegoers from bringing in goodies from the outside, to the point here of subjecting a couple (Neely and Safran), to a TSA-like search. But the play buckles under the weight of discussions about corporate America, right-wing politics, the economics of the movie business, and so on. The piece feels much longer than it is.

Set on New Year's Eve, Steven Korbar's "Old Aquatics" is about an inebriated woman (Thomas) and a do-good volunteer driver (Neely) in an encounter that is given to easy moralizing and which goes nowhere. Brad Systma's disappointing "The Fly" finds a man (Neely) trying to relax on a park bench with a sandwich, a banana and a "girlie" magazine doing battle with a persistent fly. Rather than build carefully to a clever punchline, "The Fly" goes for broke from the get-go and winds up nowhere.

The final piece, "Beatrix Potter Must Die," also begins with a neat comedic premise — what if a time-traveling Farmer McGregor threatened Beatrix Potter with her life before she's written "Peter Rabbit?" Despite skillful performances by Zukerman and Safran, Patrick Gabridge's play also wears out its welcome early, very nearly letting the air out of "10X10" altogether."


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