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5 O'Clock

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Unknown details about known events are always great fuel for drama - think Michael Frayn's Copenhagen as perhaps the ultimate expression of this over the last few years. Starting with a smaller mystery and exploring it in a more creative but more limited way, Richard Brockman's new play 5 O'Clock, directed by Mirra Bank at The WorkShop, is never quite in that league.

As the play features both Sigmund Freud and members of his family, especially his daughter Anna, as main characters, it makes sense that psychoanalysis would play a key role, and in that aspect Brockman doesn't disappoint; it's both the most original and best implemented idea in the play. As Anna, in early sessions with her father, delves into the deep reaches of her mind, Brockman and Bank explore and make physical her experiences; the five remaining cast members take various roles in Anna's memories, their roles casting shadows and sounding echoes as she tries to make sense of it all.

Audience members may well find themselves able to relate to that. For all of Bank's fine staging and valiant attempts to communicate the story, Brockman may have been a bit too ambitious in his storytelling, trying to squeeze in so much analytical humor and even deconstruction that he forgot to give most of the actors who would portray his characters something real to play.

Liz Amberly, playing Anna, is the only one who really makes a favorable impression, but then her role is the most consistent. Moving from a scorned and ignored child to a powerful woman capable of making decisions about life and death, Amberly is able to bridge most of the gaps in Brockman's writing and make Anna believable. Whether taking part in sessions with her father, or being taken and later interrogated by the Gestapo during World War II, there's just something real about her performance.

The unknown quantity of Anna's life that gives Brockman so much freedom with her scenes is what limits him in others, particularly with her father. In that role, Bob Adrian is often relegated to spouting Freud's one-of-a-kind conclusions about defecation, masturbation, the Oedipus Complex, and everything in between. From a modern vantage point, these clichés may be unavoidably humorous, but Brockman and Bank rely on it too heavily; when tragic turns of events requires Adrian to play tragedy, it's impossible to take him seriously.

As for the other performers, Christopher Graham is appropriately severe as Anna's interrogator, and Dena Tyler admirably suffers through the humiliation of having to play not only a dog (with a fairly silly mask) but also Anna's sister and mother - Freudian scholars will no doubt have a field day with that one! Jake Robards might suffer an even greater indignity having to actually play Hitler, albeit as a young man, in a couple of scenes.

The physical production comprises a nice, dreamlike set by Diego Gronda, fine costumes by Heather Dunbar, and excellent lighting designs by Tyler Miller that often do as much to tell the story as Brockman himself does. The show also uses a series of apparently fine projections by Paul Colin and the Cezanne Studio, but the production I attended suffered from a few technical problems that inhibited their use.

They might have cleared up some of the details of the story (which vacillates between 1918 and 1938), but probably not enough to keep 5 O'Clock from being a muddled, though ambitious, cipher of a play. Brockman's work here suggests that he likes standing on uncertain ground and approaches his work from just that way, so, projections or not, he most likely got just what he wanted. Whether or not audiences will is a much different question.

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WorkShop Theater Company
5 O'Clock
Through October 25
WorkShop Main Stage Theater, 312 West 36th Street West of 8th Avenue
Schedule and Tickets; 212.695.4173