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Wintertime

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

To an already impressive roster of recent Off-Broadway plays we can safely add Wintertime, Charles L. Mee's vividly humorous meditation on love and life at Second Stage. Mee's grandly operatic farce is part La Ronde and part The Winter's Tale, but all a thoroughly hilarious joy, with plenty of original surprises popping up every few minutes.

That Mee is able to sustain such a breathless sense of comedy for over two hours is a testament to his endlessly creative nature. In most other plays, having a character wheel out a door frame specifically for the purpose of slamming it in another character's face would be a dramatic gambit that wouldn't pay off, but Mee uses it here to splendid effect.

That's because the scene - in which a number of characters slam the door for wildly different reasons - is so strongly rooted in the story. Each character has a perfectly valid reason to slam the door on his or her loved one; the romantic relationships in which everyone felt so secure at the beginning of the play are already coming apart.

There are a number of couplings at work here: Maria (Marsha Mason) and Frank (Nicholas Hormann) are married but have agreed to outside relationships - Maria's is with the very French Francois (Michael Cerveris) and Frank's is with the strait-laced Edmund (T. Scott Cunningham). Maria and Frank's son Jonathan (Christopher Denham) is preparing to propose to his girlfriend Ariel (Brienin Bryant), who may or may not have had a previous fling with Francois.

They all collide at the family's summer home over the Christmas holidays, with matters complicated by the eternally bickering lesbians next door, Hilda (Marylouise Burke) and Bertha (Carmen de Lavallade); a visiting French doctor (Tina Benko), who also may have had an affair with Francois; and a mysterious man named Bob (Danny Mastrogiorgio), who arrives to expound on Sapphic philosophy and deliver a composter.

While at times it seems as if the play will degenerate into a loud and colorful mess, Mee instead finds ways for all the story's disparate personalities to coalesce into a complex and entertaining depiction of different types of love and relationships. This allows Mee to explore how romantic feelings (or sexual urges) can mature or otherwise alter over time, and how one stage of a relationship can become another, or fall apart.

Director David Schweizer has tapped into the delectably absurdist extremes of Mee's script and kept the play breathlessly entertaining from beginning to end. Even in the more somber and contemplative stretches of the second act, when characters previously driven apart must reunite in the face of tragedy, there's enough levity to keep the show bright and buoyant.

But with this cast, how could there not be? Cerveris and Burke give two of the season's most hilarious performances: he speaks in a ridiculously overblown French accent throughout and has a tendency to overreact to everything and write down his memories of Maria and burn them in the onstage fireplace; she uses her unique comic style to make falling in a frozen lake, asking for a cup of hot chocolate, or "rending" her garments seem like the funniest (and truest) thing ever done. The work Cerveris and Burke do is highly memorable and nothing short of excellent.

Many of the other performers are similarly over the top: Mason's performance is sensitive, but delivered with a thick (yet bizarrely appropriate) Italian accent for her Italian-American character; Hormann and Cunningham offer plenty of strength and some of the play's deepest emotions in their portrayals; and Benko, de Lavallade, and Mastrogiorgio all have their moments. Denham and Bryant, portraying the youngest and least experienced characters probably have the hardest time, but they also have the most challenging roles, generally representing the most conventional beliefs of love. They both do fine, though Bryant seems to lack confidence and sometimes across as a bit stiff.

The actors do so much to establish Mee's world that the physical production feels a bit superfluous, though it, too, is remarkable. There's not a thing wrong with David Zinn's costumes or Kevin Adams's lights, but it's Andrew Lieberman's set - extending a snow-filled winter wonderland into the house, even covering the floor and furniture in snow that continues to fall for most of the show - that provides the production's most striking "wow" factor (short of Burke and Cerveris). Eric Shim's sound design, which brings real opera into the mix (for thematic and story reasons), is also just right.

After a long cold winter, spring is slowly making its appearance in New York, but keeping warm won't be a problem with Wintertime around to provide some heat.

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Second Stage Theatre
Wintertime
Through March 21
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Second Stage, 307 West 43rd Street off 8th Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: 212.246.4422