MOLLY SWEENEY

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Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein

Dramatist Brian Friel set his best-known play, DANCING AT LUGHNASA, in a small country cottage that seemed too small to contain the energies of work, music, dance and love that keeps a family going even through hard times and thwarted desires.  In the more somber e MOLLY SWEENEY, Friel again leavens his dialogue with the cadences of rural Ireland. But the play’s framework allows for little in the way of physical movement or interaction between characters. As in a prose piece read aloud, we get accounts, rather than embodiments, of action and incident. When the characters dance, they describe the experience in the past tense.

The titular Molly (Pamela Sabaugh) sits in the center, flanked by the men in her life: her husband Frank (Tommy Schrider), and her eye surgeon Mr. Rice (Paul O’Brien).  The first monologue belongs to Molly, who recalls a happy childhood in the coastal community of Ballybeg. She was close to her father, a judge in the local court system, who fostered in Molly a sense of independence. Sharpening her other senses, Molly grew up learning to recognize different flowers by their shape and odor, to determine her location by touching nearby objects. Much to her mother’s chagrin, her father refused to send her to a school for the blind, but Molly was determined to successfully navigate a world built for sighted people. Carrying her forthright mentality into adulthood, she finds a job and a home to call her own, makes a few friends, and enjoys physical activities, especially  swimming in the ocean. Dating naturally follows, and she ends up marrying the peripatetic Frank. Here’s where things get complicated.

Blessed with high intelligence but not a lot of common sense, Frank has tried his hand at numerous careers but could never make anything stick. In one instance, he attempted to make a living as a fromager. After exhaustive research, he arranged to have what the thought were the world’s finest goats flown specially from the middle east. But his plans  curdled, so to speak, when he discovered that these goats were unable to adapt to their new time zone and wouldn’t give enough milk to pay for themselves. In some ways, his marriage to Molly becomes a new iteration of his Iranian goat project. Frank calculates how a blind person encounters the physical world, and prepares a plan for Molly’s new life in the event that, after experimental surgery, her sight is restored. Similarly, Mr. Rice, though not lacking in compassion, sees Molly largely as a shot at redemption. Once a rising star in the medical world, he has faded into obscurity while watching his fellow scientists gain accolades. His comeback dreams will come true if he pulls off the modern miracle of curing Molly’s disability. What none of the characters – including Molly – are able to foresee is how dramatically her world will change if the operations succeeds.

Sure enough, though everyone is happy at the outcome of the operation, Molly discovers that vision can be a mixed blessing.  Swimming, once Molly’s great source of sensual fulfillment, feels less inspiring now that sight is involved. When Molly sees the type flowers she once gathered her dad, she discovers they’re not as pretty as they were in her mind’s eye. Depression follows, and Frank and Mr. Rice, once so eager to contribute to Molly’s progress, are now powerless to help. As an uncertain future looms, relationships are challenged, and Molly’s path to happiness, ironically, seems to be slipping further out of sight.

Though it’s a bit stereotypical (men are fixers, women are feelers) the plight of Molly and her men is an intriguing one. Blindness as a metaphor runs throughout the story. In his early career, Mr. Rice tells us, he was enamored of with his own medical prowess that he failed to notice that his wife (now, understandably, his ex) felt neglected. Similarly, the quixotic Frank fancies himself a man of vision, but is heavily blinkered when it comes to letting reality sink in.

Under Jonathan Silverstein’s sensitive direction, all three actors make the most of Friel’s intelligent and lilting language. But there are details of the story that seem glaringly absent. For example, we learn little about Frank and Molly’s lovemaking: how it felt when she was blind, how it changed with sight. They don’t quite seem like a real couple. Also the interpolated-soliloquy format keeps the audience at a safe remove.  If the actors had been reading from scripts propped up on music stands, it wouldn’t make much difference. The choice of such a framework is a puzzling one, and seems to work against the theme. After all, Molly is nothing if not tactile. She has learned to make her way in the world using her sense of touch. Yet we have to wait until the curtain call to see the actors make any kind of physical contact. A more theatrical, less literary approach might have helped the story land with more emotional impact.

MOLLY SWEENEY continues through November 16, 2019 at Theatre Row Theaters,
410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Ticket: www.telecharge.com

LATER LIFE

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Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein

Well served by the perennially solid Keen Company, A. R. Gurney’s Clinton-era seriocomedy pins its astute psychological insights to a clever theatrical conceit. As the two romantic leads carry the main story line, two versatile supporting players stretch their acting muscles (and the wardrobe department’s ingenuity) as they morph into cavalcade of incidental characters. The production falls just a hair shy of the crisply timed delivery the material demands. But it will no doubt tighten during the run as the actors – all of them equipped with remarkable comedic skills- become more accustomed to the show’s myriad costume changes and entrance cues. As for the script, it’s old school in the best sense of the word. Taking in place in real time and in a single setting, the story unfolds naturally, with just a hint of farcicality, like a splash of crème to cassis in a glass of champagne, to keep things interesting.

On a balmy night in Boston, dapper Austin (Laurence Lau), attends an elegant soiree held in a swanky apartment overlooking the harbor. His fashion-conscious friend Sally (Jodie Markell in the first of her many roles) tells Austin to wait on the rooftop patio while she fetches a friend she wants him to meet. Austin scarcely has time to take in the view before his reverie is punctured by the arrival of Jimmy (Liam Craig in the first of his many roles), an eccentric college professor who sermonizes on the virtues of smoking even as he struggles to give it up. There are many such episodes throughout the next 90 minutes, as a series of endearingly odd party guests wander out to the roof, disrupting the growing intimacy between Austin and Ruth (Barbara Garrick). At first, the two seem to be, as Sally predicted, perfect for each other. But as the evening wears on, they discover they have profound differences as well. For their budding romance to have a chance, Austin will have to overcome his New England stuffiness, Ruth to resist the impulse to reunite with her dangerous-but-exciting ex-husband. Large questions loom as well. Does later life bring greater self-awareness and therefore better odds of getting it right? Or are we, like Jimmy and his cigarettes, fated to repeat old patterns even when we’re old enough to know better?

Jonathan Silverstein, handles the story’s blend brightness and melancholy with a light, but never timid touch. Steven Kemp’s set and David Lander’s lights vividly underscore the story’s shifting moods, making the rooftop background a kind of character in its own right. Jennifer Paar’s opulent costumes speak volumes about the personalities and social training of a sprightly Ruth, staid Austin, and motley host of revelers. Wig and hair artists Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas rise to the show’s challenges with panache and precision.

LATER LIFE continues through April 4, 2018 at The Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Aves) New York, NY 10036. Tickets at http://www.telecharge.com.

JOHN & JEN

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Written by Andrew Lippa & Tom Greenwald
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein

Prior to splashier Broadway ventures like THE ADDAMS FAMILY and BIG FISH, composer Andrew Lippa established his reputation by writing a more spare (and economical feasible) form of musical. Keen Company’s revival of this early Lippa effort, co-written lyricist-librettist Tom Greewald, tells a compelling story, but its tentative approach but songcraft keeps it from reaching its full potential.

Growing up in the 1950’s, Jen (Kate Baldwin) and John (Conor Ryan) weather the turbulence of life in a dysfunctional household by clinging to each other for support. Jen, alert to her father’s drinking and abusive behavior, seeks to escape. John, the younger of the two, needs to believe that everything’s alright- even when he ends up on the receiving end of Dad’s volatile temper. As they mature, John channels his feelings into athletic achievement, while Jen discovers boys. In the 1960’s Jen, now a college student in New York, questions authority and explores a hippy lifestyle. Crew-cutted John, still unable to see the flaws in either his family or his government, ships off to Vietnam. The once-close duo is now at odds. Tragically, they never get to a chance to heal the rift. In the second act, Jen’s life is focused on her son, John (Ryan), conceived during her wild Manhattan years. Remembering her brother’s passion for baseball, Jen becomes an overbearing Little League mom. Other forms of helicoptering follow, and teenage John struggles to find some breathing room. As with the original John and Jen, the tension reaches a boiling point. But this time, Jen has a chance to put things right– if she can let go of her baggage and move on.

Thanks to a remarkable book and strong performances by Ryan and Baldwin, cast, the show largely succeeds in meeting the challenges of the two-person format. The character’s arcs, compressed into brisk vignettes, are believable and the flawed, complicated characters are easy to root for even when they make disastrous decisions. Musically, though, the show is inconsistent. Very few of the songs are built around strong melodies and clear rhyme schemes. For much of the evening, one song bleeds and to another, and many of the numbers feel like sung dialogue with truncated musical underscoring. The result is that, JOHN & JEN, as a musical, is somewhat unsatisfying. A few standout songs, like the clever comedy song “Trouble With Men”, and the ballad “Every Goodbye Is Hello”, show that Greenwald and Lippa are capable of solid song-writing. It’s puzzling that they didn’t choose to pack the production with more of this memorable material. The show is manages to be moving and quirkily enjoyable despite these shortcomings. But it could be considerably more so with a sturdier score.

John and Jen continues through April 4, 2015 at the The Clurman Theatre 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenue, New York NY 10036
Tickets: http://www.telecharge.com.