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The Breadwinner

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

In the mood for an evening of still-life entertainment? If so, your ship has come in! And to find it, you don't even need to visit the glitzy Times Square Madame Tussaud's - a gallery of waxworks has just opened at the Connelly Theatre.

The exhibit is called The Breadwinner, and is advertised to have been written by W. Somerset Maugham, whom we still know today as a novelist (Of Human Bondage) and a playwright (a revival of his The Constant Wife played on Broadway earlier this season). But spend even five minutes in the company of these preened, polished statues, and you'll be convinced that there's little believable life to be found on the stage.

For the moment, let's assume that this is not an elaborate ruse. In that case, it's a horrifying misstep for the Keen Company, which usually mounts productions of older, more obscure plays in ways loving and faithful enough to make you wonder whether you've accidentally stepped into a time machine. In The Breadwinner, there's no hint of the kind of authenticity of period perspectives or style that so energized the company's production of The Voice of the Turtle several years ago, or (to a lesser extent) The Hasty Heart and Outward Bound last season.

What we get instead from director Carl Forsman and his company is a rigidly professional approximation of an underfunded university's undergraduate undertaking. The cast of eight works feverishly to maintain unsteady English accents, put across unwieldy lines (including an astonishing number musing on the significance of hats), and to make the setting - Golders Green in North London, in the years between the two World Wars - feel less like a storybook locale than a real place bursting with real problems. So dedicated are they to this proposition that they all but scream to the audience: "Pay attention, this could happen today!"

Certainly it could, and that's part of the problem: The idea that a wealthy patriarch would, in the face of complete financial meltdown, walk away from his job and his family and cite boredom as the reason might have been considered daring when the play was originally produced in the early 1930s. In 2005, when it seems that personal pleasure trumps familial and professional responsibility more often than not, this idea isn't sufficiently scandalous to sustain an evening not helmed by a visionary director or populated with exquisite actors.

The play's universality exists much more readily in the relationship it depicts between parents and children. The play opens with a lengthy scene in which two pairs of post-adolescent brothers and sisters debate the relative merits of the young and the aged. "When people have outlived their utility, say at forty, they ought to be put of their misery," explains Patrick Battle (Joe Delafield). Later, his father Charles (Jack Gilpin), after deciding to strike off on his own, similarly comments upon the worth (or lack thereof) of children, and their own inability to effectively process the world around them.

Forsman, however, is more interested in the adult story, which is inherently less interesting on its own, and climaxes in the play's final half hour, in which Charles confronts the various women in his life before escaping from them for good. Forsman treats these scenes as the highest of high comedy, the culmination of the evening-long battle of the sexes that wasn't; still, it might play better if any of the actresses aimed higher than "canceled soap opera" in assembling their portrayals of Charles's wife, daughter, or two close friends/secret admirers (one young, one middle-aged).

At least Robert Emmet Lunney brings a touch of reserved restraint to the proceedings with his work as Charles's associate and confidant, Alfred. Gilpin, though, absolutely satisfies, portraying Charles's despondency and disinterest with determination that communicate a deep longing that will, finally, be fulfilled. He's rational, considered, and human, and thus visibly out of place among his family (and castmates), for whom laissez-faire emotionalism is usually the order of the day.

But even if Gilpin is the only one less earthbound than the imitation parquet gracing the stage of Nathan Heverin's disemboweled drawing room set, it's not enough to animate the rest of The Breadwinner. To accept the play as anything but a period piece caked with the dust of seven decades of human emotional evolution - for better or for worse - there needs to be an energy and heat to the proceedings. That it's not present here isn't entirely surprising - how often are open flames encouraged in wax museums?

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The Breadwinner
Through October 2
Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street, between Avenues A and B
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix