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More Than This

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Everyone experiences troubles with family, friends, and work occasionally. When they all occur at once, as occasionally happens, the need for escape becomes very real, and sometimes the need for change even more immediate. Edmund de Santis has captured this mindset almost perfectly in More Than This, his new play now performing at Urban Stages.

Having just been promoted to a more lucrative position (with much greater responsibility), Sam (Christopher H. Matthews) is already under a great deal of stress, which is hardly eased by his competitive and driven wife Cathy (Wendy Walker) and the health problems his father (Erik Frandsen) is experiencing. His friend and gym partner Ryan (Glenn Kalison) convinces him to explore meditation as a method of dealing with his many problems and focusing on what's truly important.

As the show's title refers, at least in part, to that search for escape from the pains and hardships of everyday living, so have de Santis and director Marc Geller taken up the challenge of making More Than This more than it immediately appears. As the set and costume designer, Geller has swathed the production mostly in earth tones, natural and restful greens and browns in contrast to the wild highs and lows of Sam's life.

He's assisted greatly by Stephen Arnold, whose lighting designs are almost another character in the play. Utilizing lights in every conceivable place around the stage - including two banks of footlights - he's able to clearly and instantaneously define the boundaries of Sam's mind, and blur the lines between reality and memory. Yet his work is so crisp and specific that whether wisps of dialogue (or actors, for that matter) are floating in and out, or characters are voicing their most vapid innermost thoughts in the middle of a discussion of crushing gravity, the exact location and significance of every statement is perfectly clear.

But while de Santis spends a great deal of time extolling the virtues of meditation and living in the moment, he does provide enough complexities in relationships and character interactions to keep the play and its players believable. Sam's supervisor Lori Ann (Lucy McMichael) has a rock-hard shell, but is caring and concerned in her own limited way, while Sam's sister Marie (Tracey Gilbert) provides a lifetime adversary for him while still displaying dramatic colors as a concerned mother and daughter.

Even in as minor a character as the hospice worker (Abby Royle) who cares for Sam's father, de Santis realizes the value in providing a complete history for each character so that none exists in a vacuum, and all, though filtered through Sam's perception of them, come across as real, complete people. The group of actors assembled is more than up to the challenge, and they all successfully capitalize on the richness present in de Santis's writing.

If there's a flaw to be found in the writing, it's that de Santis often takes more time than is strictly necessary to make his points later in the evening. After a clean, tight first act, parts of the second act tend to meander around, as if to forestall the inevitable conclusions the play must reach; de Santis touches on all the necessary plot points, but loses the whirlwind momentum that makes the first act so ideal in terms of construction and execution.

Even if, at slightly over two hours, More Than This feels longer than it needs to be, it remains beautifully staged and written, a moving and insightful examination of the problems - and the way we cope with them - in our lives. Whether Sam's experiences directly mirror those in de Santis's own life is open to speculation, but the central wisdom and heart of More Than This is something everyone will be able to relate to and benefit from.

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Red Light District
More Than This
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101