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Alma and Mrs. Woolf

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The bonds formed between two people when fate brings them together are currently under scrutiny at the Blue Heron Arts Center, where French-Canadian playwright Anne Legault's new play, Alma and Mrs. Woolf, just opened. Intriguing and attractively presented, this is a play that demonstrates how beauty can, in fact, be only skin deep.

Legault - whose work was translated by Daniel Libman - has presented a fictional account of what might have happened in 1935 had literary figure Virginia Woolf been trapped in a library reading room (represented here with Roman Tatarowicz oppressive, yet warm, tall wooden panels) with Canadian musical prodigy Alma Rattenbury. Rattenbury was tried for murdering her husband, but acquitted, while Woolf's inner demons are slowly consuming her from the inside out. Though each is foreign in the other's world, they must fill the time until they're discovered somehow, and talking seems the best way.

Rattenbury does a lot of the talking, most likely because her story is less familiar to modern audiences than Woolf's. She tells of her abusive mother, her failed marriages, and the eventual tryst with an employee that found her husband dead and her lover sentenced to death. As gracefully portrayed by Nicole Orth-Pallavicini, Alma's actions do all make a sort of convoluted sense, as if different movements in a musical composition.

While Alma gets one truly bone-chilling moment - the vivid description of how she murdered a woman by playing the piano - Woolf (Joan Grant) doesn't come across so well. Though Grant possesses a rich, colorful voice that reeks of upper-crust English diffidence, it's never given a chance to be fully utilized. While she occasionally delves lightly into her own troubled past (sexual abuse and the like) and her present difficult life, she most frequently is limited to brief interjections in Alma's story.

Equally demonstrative of Legault's desire to give her characters more to say than perhaps they could find naturally, she has given each a number of internal monologues that do less to reveal the characters' inner natures than to give each a moment alone in the spotlight. Director Jim Pelegano handles these elements as well as can be expected - and keeps everything else well polished - but he can't overcome the problem that these moments prevent character development and illumination from happening through interaction.

It's more ironic still that the one time Legault really lets us see what makes these women tick is during the lengthy discussion about death covered by the last quarter or so of the play. If less dramatically acute than outright spooky, there is a real give and take here, a sense of both women putting their true feelings out in the open for the other to ponder, manipulate, and comment upon, and this is a welcome change from the overlong monologues and breathless expository nature of so much that came before.

Yet, both performers are highly ingratiating and committed to their characters, so getting to that point and accepting it when it arrives is far from difficult. This also makes it hard not to feel some affection for Alma and Mrs. Woolf itself, even if the light of truth shines mostly brightly only when the play and its characters are at their very darkest.

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Alma and Mrs. Woolf
Through March 30
Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes with no intermission
Blue Heron Arts Center, 123 East 24th Street between Park and Lexington
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 206-1515