Correspondence, a vanishing art in the busy modern world, is receiving its fair due at Urban Stages for the next month or so. Victor L. Cahn's new play, Roses in December, revives letter writing as a dramatic form that can be filled with as much tension and emotion as two characters could have onstage, addressing each other directly.
Part study in determination, mystery story, and examination of the impact correspondence has on our lives, Roses in December is a humorous and engaging piece chronicling the relationship between university professional Carolyn (Keira Naughton) and a reclusive author and political activist Joel Gordon (her real-life father, James Naughton). Carolyn, a fan of Joel's writing, is first interested in having him present at a university alumni celebration. But her resolve in obtaining his services for her own literary purposes soon finds both of them embroiled in a world of secrets both literary and personal that could change both their lives forever.
Though exceedingly terse (the play runs less than an hour and a half, with an intermission), for the most part, Roses in December never feels rushed or anything but natural. Though the second act seems overdedicated in tying up its plot a bit too cleanly, the journey is never boring, and occasionally it is highly compelling. The nebulous world of classic paintings and stacked up books (achieved non-realistically by the talented production designer, Roman J. Tatarowicz) is one where the two characters - directed by T. L. Reilly - can turn the flipping of pages into a powerful dramatic device.
And Cahn displays a real talent for elucidating character through this medium. It's not just the content of the letters the two write - though they do, with very few exceptions, sound like real correspondence - but the details that make it work. Cahn creates real personalities with the off-the-cuff revelations that appear in the letters - it doesn't really matter that Joel's works had titles like Shortcut to Oblivion, With Malice Toward All, or Gorilla My Dreams, but we get an iron-clad idea of the type of work he produced.
More effective still is the application of the language Cahn uses for his characters, allowing them to say a lot when, in reality they say little. The letters start with a staunch formality from which Cahn may strip away the layers of professionalism bit by bit as the characters' familiarity and affection grows. When a single word in a letter's closing can prove of devastating dramatic importance, the playwright has achieved his goal, and it is at things like this that Cahn succeeds time and time again.
The acting is top-notch, the two Naughtons displaying a heightened chemistry, though apparently they've never shared a stage together before. Keira's youthful exuberance and irrationality is the ideal companion for her father's towering presence (he seems seven feet tall, even when sitting in a chair) and booming, mellifluous voice that seems to make every sentence an aria.
In terms of music, the play is highlighted by a simple, attractive score by Sergei Dreznin that captures the warmth of summer and the harsh chill of winter in the same phrases. As nice as the music is, though, it's not necessary - Cahn, Reilly, and the two Naughtons don't need piano playing over the sound system to create beautiful music in Roses in December.