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These People

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

It's too bad that Martha Stewart has already been shipped off to prison, because I think she would identify with many of the characters in Chris Widney's new play These People, a satire about the lengths individuals will go to to climb the rungs of the social ladder - and stay there. Yet, like Martha S. who seems to be apple pie wholesomeness one moment and cold she-devil the next, so too does Widney's play suffer from schizophrenic, bi-polar tendencies. Widney might have a talent for dialogue, but he doesn't seem to know if he wants to write a scathing over-the-top comedy la last year's hysterically funny social satire Bright Ideas over at MCC Theater, or a touching portrait of one father's desire to do all he can for the sake of his precious daughter.

The strong ensemble of actors under Mary Catherine Burke's direction doesn't seem to be quite sure about which sort of play they're in either. Bruce Sabath plays Jerry Shurl, a white upper-class manufacturer of infomercial-type fitness equipment who is facing a two-year jail sentence for illegal business dealings. Sabath, an engaging actor to watch, embodies Jerry with humanity, love, and kindness, all the qualities we might expect in a family drama. But wait! Here comes Jerry's wife Cheryl (Rita Rehn) in the same scene with manic and exaggerated gesticulations and eyes that say paranoid. It's not that Rehn is a poor actress - she's often quite funny - but she plays her scenes as if trapped in a farcical comedy, while Sabath is in a sweet drama about mistakes and redemption. The actors shouldn't be blamed for these wildly divergent acting styles, though, as Widney's writing plays to both performance modes, resulting in a work that feels awkward and off-balance.

Despite the fact that Jerry is off to jail, the Shurls are determined to hold on to their prestigious membership in one of New Jersey's finest and most elite tennis clubs. Here we meet two more stylistically mismatched characters, Richard (James Young) and Pearl (Debra Kay Anderson), social climbers and country club members whose expensive Hummers compensate for their lack of social grace. While Young's Richard is fairly mundane and down-to-earth, Anderson's Pearl is a particular hoot, a crabby witch of a woman who would like nothing more than to see her arch rival Cheryl leave the club.

As the play swings into "fantasy mode," Pearl and Cheryl have an Asian-style showdown halfway through Widney's 80-minute work in which the two women engage in head to head combat (complete with croquet mallets and cartwheeling choreography) that is right out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's a funny moment, but one that left me scratching my head at its inclusion as its tone is too off-kilter with the rest of the show, which often seems more heartfelt than comical. That one of the characters, Roland, the tennis club's prime instructor, isn't played by an actor at all, but is represented by a life-size cardboard cutout, only confuses stylistic choices even more and left me completely baffled at this artistic decision.

In an attempt to maintain their tennis club membership and explain away Jerry's coming absence, the Shurls concoct the story that Jerry is going away on a two-year trip to Kuala Lumpur for business matters. Instead of running with the wackiness of this idea, though, Widney's play just sort of peters out with a lackluster denouement in which Jerry decides to come clean and tell the truth about his prison sentence. In the show's ultimate moments, Jerry confesses his sorry predicament to his young daughter Hillary (a precocious Paris Rose Yates) and asks for her forgiveness for having previously lied to her. This touching moment, though beautiful in its own way, is completely out of sync with the presumed satire of the rest of the show.

Widney's writing actually left me wishing that he had been more willing to "let go" and give us a satire that really takes no prisoners. Indeed, when the play is at its craziest and strangest it's often at its best, eschewing a sense of sympathy for the characters. Along these lines, Widney makes clever use of actor William DeMeritt who plays at least a half dozen supporting roles including a sleazy lawyer, a teenage girl, and even a talking dog. Widney's device of this chameleon-like figure is inventive and seems better suited to the play's send-up of class politics than the sappy speeches that patriarch Jerry is saddled with about how much he loves his daughter.

Played out on Michael V. Moore's sharp tennis court inspired set, the play moves quickly and, if it doesn't sparkle, at the very least is quite painless to sit. Sound designer Eric DeArmon punctuates the scene changes with sprightly music right out of a 1950s sitcom, seemingly emphasizing the show's satiric qualities, but Widney's script never matches such playful humor. I look forward to seeing what Widney comes up with next, but hopefully, unlike the game of tennis, there won't be so much volleying back and forth of discordant styles.

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Golden Day Productions
These People
Through October 30
American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street west of 8th Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444