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How to Build a Better Tulip

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

One can't help but feel sorry for Tom Stoppard. As a playwright with a distinctive writing style and a singular ability to make complex concepts both theatrical and entertaining, he's truly in a class by himself. Of course, that makes him a ripe target for imitators, who might think it's just as easy to write Arcadia, as it is to, oh, adapt a novel like Alexandre Dumas père's The Black Tulip for the stage.

Chances are, Stoppard would know better than to attempt that, though even if he did, the first draft of his resulting effort would almost certainly be more intellectually and emotionally engaging than How to Build a Better Tulip. The seed of a good idea buried deep within the botanical comedy Mark R. Giesser has written and directed, and which is now playing at the Acorn Theatre, never quite sprouts.

That idea concerns the rivalry of two plant breeders, Audrey Braddock (Lois Nettleton) and Adrian Vanderpol (Paul Amodeo) - she ostensibly works with corn, and he with petunias. But they both have a secret desire to win a long-ago established (and lucrative) Dutch prize for breeding a perfectly black tulip, and they nearly come to blows when circumstances force them to share one greenhouse at an upstate New York university. Matters aren't helped when Audrey discovers that Adrian has taken up with her daughter, Perci (Tessa Auberjonois).

But after this decent setup, Giesser diverges from the one thing Stoppard never forgets in his writing: a true devotion to making his characters rich, involving personalities. Audrey and Adrian are both ciphers without much depth beyond their professional personas, and the backstory Giesser has developed for Perci (which begins with her beekeeping and honey harvesting, but ends up considerably more convoluted) stretches credibility almost to the breaking point.

But Giesser isn't content to focus on these relationships and how they relate to the quest for the black tulip. He introduces two additional characters, Carolus Hoofdorn (Mitchell Greenberg) and Cornelia Maartens (Prentiss Benjamin), both of whom died hundreds of years before the play begins and now reside solely in the minds of Audrey and Adrian. They're guiding their hosts' careers and searches for the black tulip and, dramatically, dilute the characters of Audrey and Adrian even more. By the time Carolus and Cornelia start arguing with each other, all hope of being able to take this play seriously dissolves.

In a way, that almost makes the show more fun. By the time the events in the second act careen helplessly out of control - the play's climax involves the broadcasting on public-access television of a recipe for cornbread in the shape of a graduation cap - you're at least able to write the play off as mindless entertainment. (It should be mentioned, though, that many of the plays funniest lines aren't Giesser's intended jokes.) The set (John C. Scheffler), costumes (Melanie A. Schmidt), and lights (Aaron Meadow) are all of professional quality, but not especially impressive.

The performances are at least all earnest, though Benjamin never convinces as either the lusty Cornelia or the super-nerdy grad student on hand to assist Audrey and Adrian. Nettleton must deliver some of the play's most unwieldy and ridiculous speeches (including one about a creative use for squid genetic material that is unlikely to show up in monologue books any time soon), and had some difficulty with her lines at the performance I attended, but she works very hard, and provides an engaging stage presence. Auberjonois seems the most real onstage, which, given her proximity to the cringe-worthy subplot about flower bulbs being considered weapons of mass destruction, doesn't prevent her from suffering as much as everyone else.

But that suffering - for the actors and the audience - doesn't last long; the play moves decently under Giesser's direction and runs a shade under two hours. For some, that might still be too long, though thanks to Nettleton's highly watchable performance, the unintentional jokes, and plot machination after unbelievable plot machination, I didn't find How to Build a Better Tulip any harder to sit through than any other self-important, almost impenetrable Stoppard knock-off.

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How to Build a Better Tulip
Through July 17
Theatre Row / The Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge