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Colder Than Here

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

When was the last time so much warmth could be found in so many people complaining about the chill? The characters in Colder Than Here are all unduly sensitive to temperature, and remark on it often; a malfunctioning boiler is even a source of untold frustration, and they're constantly searching for a bit more heat. But it's not winter that's making their teeth ratting, it's the looming prospect of the eternal coldness of mortality.

They shouldn't worry. Though death hangs like a specter over every moment of the MCC Theater production of Laura Wade's play, the coolness in evidence all seems externally applied. The story centers on a British family facing the loss of its matriarch to bone cancer, and is about the legacies we leave behind us; few plays about settling affairs before the end have the delicately unassuming and reassuring nature of this one, and it resonates as richly as a crystal goblet when tapped.

But how cold that crystal is to the touch. It's not always easy to reconcile Wade's play with what's onstage at the Lucille Lortel, and pinpointing problems - to the extent there are problems - is no simple task. Director Abigail Morris, who helmed the play's London premiere earlier this year, provides an intelligent, well-judged interpretation inspired by the waning seasons in nature. Jeff Cowie's quietly attractive set and Michael Chybowski's sensitive lighting pick up on this, depicting the family's Leamington Spa home in ways both autumnal and wintry. The actors, led by Judith Light as the matriarch Myra and Brian Murray as her husband Alec, are established, gifted artists.

It's just that so little of Wade's gentle heat is allowed to escape from the stage. That this isn't fatal to the production is a tribute to the impressive talent of everyone involved; that it happens at all is cause for some concern. The answer might be simple chemistry; it's easy to stir together all the right theatrical elements and not get an optimum reaction. Or, perhaps more time and agitation are all that's really required for the results to achieve full simmer.

But it's difficult to know what to say about a production in which Murray is miscast. While he most popularly thrives in the complex worlds of Albee and Shakespeare, he generally seems able to play anything. But as Alec, he's allowed few opportunities to engage his dry, intricate sense of humor, and must keep his usually vaunted theatricality firmly in check. This play needs small more than it needs big, and Murray - for his many virtues - is better at finding the small in the big than the big in the small. His is an accomplished, professional, but lackluster performance.

Better are Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson as Myra and Alec's daughters: Though full-fledged adults approaching 30 as the play begins, they both have growing up to do, and much to learn about the benefits and boundaries of long-lasting love. In particular, Rabe's character Jenna is caught in a go-nowhere relationship with a go-nowhere guy, but doesn't trust in her own ability to find or deserve better, and it's not until she learns what's really important that she finally figures out where (and how) to look.

If this sounds fairly conventional, it is; if you think you know where this leads, you probably do. But Wade's not striving for innovation; she wants us to look at what we know and what we fear in new ways. She achieves that in the character of Myra, a woman who has so dedicated her life to supporting and acting as caretaker for her family that even in her final months, she must run the show.

She develops a PowerPoint presentation on the desired details of her funeral, and even goes to the trouble of ordering her cardboard coffin herself. Myra's inability to let go, and its deleterious effects on her family is representative of their life together - she's so accustomed to providing that she leaves them no chance to grow, to come into their own. Only by doing so can she find peace, and can they grow to feel the warmth that, for too many years, has been smothered.

It's a powerful message, detachedly but effectively presented by Light, who only falters in the final scenes, when she doesn't do enough to communicate Myra's realization about her behavior and the subsequent actions she takes as a result. There are any number of pleasing subtleties, many of them humorous, to Light's performance, but more conviction in the final scenes better convey the effects of Myra's choices on her husband, her daughters, and herself.

Quibbles like these, though, don't distract from Wade's fine, unadorned writing, or Morris's thoughtful direction. If the result is still a nice production of a beautiful little play, one can't help but feel that the work has been slightly diminished by forces beyond its control. Compared to the recently opened Fran's Bed, James Lapine's messier play on a similar subject, it burns especially brightly, but it should be allowed to generate more of its own heat than this correct - but frigid - MCC production allows.

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Colder Than Here
Through October 15
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral