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The Ruby Sunrise

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Questions of whether history exists in what really happened or in how we communicate about what happened are probably best left to philosophers. Is there a difference? If so, where is the line drawn? Is history less true, less emotionally accurate if it's slightly fictionalized?

Pick a side, any side, and argue all you want. There's no easy way to broach the issue of what ultimately is - and what ultimately matters - as long as the stories get told. Rinne Groff demonstrates in her new play The Ruby Sunrise, which just opened at the Public Theater, a love of such stories and a talent for telling them, a knack for knocking through walls of falsehood to find the truth, however tweaked, cowering behind.

The side effect of this is that very little in this production - which has been directed by the Public's new artistic director Oskar Eustis, with a reverence for detail like that a collector might have for porcelain salt shakers - can be taken at face value. It's 1927 and television is being invented in a barn. Wait, no it's not - we're in a TV studio in 1952, watching actors play the characters involved in that story. Or maybe it's a combination of the two? After all, the dialogue, performers, sets, and costumes do look mighty familiar. More importantly, does it matter which it really is?

The Ruby Sunrise is full of such pontifications, as viewed from the vantage points of the late '20s, the early '50s, and the sound stage that eventually brings them together. In the earlier period, the young girl Ruby Sunrise (Marin Ireland) hopes her invention will end war and hatred by uniting all the world's people with each other, face to face, in real time. In the later period, Ruby's daughter Lulu (Maggie Siff), a TV script girl, fights to tell her mother's story accurately and completely in a soon-to-be-produced hour-long drama.

They face very different obstacles: Ruby unwittingly falls for an agricultural student named Henry (Patch Darragh), the favored tenant of an irritable boarding-house woman named Lois (Anne Scurria) with her own reasons to dislike Ruby; Lulu's dalliance with scriptwriter Tad Rose (Jason Butler Harner) might be necessary to get her mother's story on the air, but censorious regulations are already threatening to compromise it into oblivion. But both have the same goal: to unify, to present to others the world as it is and as it can be.

Groff's writing is strongest and most perceptive when focusing most intently on this idea; the parallels she draws between the two women's struggles for recognition and harmony are smoothly, carefully, and often humorously charted. (Yes, this leads to a series of mini-jokes when the 1927 characters first reappear as their TV-actor counterparts, but each such instance is handled with clarity and taste.) However, her political commentary strains considerably, with Lulu railing against her era's inquests into Communism with language too reminiscent of today's anti-war protests to keep you fully in the moment and on her side.

Subtler and more effective is Ireland's second-act reappearance as a talented blacklisted actress rejected for the role of Ruby because of her own possible Communist ties. Her confrontation with Harner's capitulatory Tad is this production's strongest scene, seamlessly fusing the first act's alternate-history lesson with the second's social consciousness and forward-thinking examination of technology's contributions to humanity.

Ireland, earlier so convincing as the dedicated tomboy reader of Popular Mechanics out to change the world, beautifully inhabits the deteriorating soul of this different kind of outsider. Her ability to inflict on herself (and survive) mortal emotional wounds makes her one of New York's most underrated and underappreciated actresses, and she makes a quietly tumultuous impression here.

Darragh is solid as Ruby's bumpkin-lug love interest and a knows-everyone actor; Siff sparkles as the determined Lulu; Scurria delivers a fine, earthbound portrayal as a pained woman drowning her broken heart in homemade alcohol and a sage-like theatrical grande dame out to conquer television; and Audra Blaser is a ditzy hoot as Suzie Tyrone, the bleached-blonde sexpot who inherits the Ruby role against all odds and most standards of good taste.

Blaser is key to charting the impact of Lulu's latter-day interpretation of her mother's life. Blaser's vapid - yet strangely rending - line readings, interspersed with comments that suggest a complete unfamiliarity with common sense, still echo the words and feelings that Ruby and Lulu spend the play fighting for. She might be inappropriately appropriating history, but it remains history in her hands; it, like this play, is as much about ambitions partially fulfilled as aspirations partially thwarted.

Groff, like Ruby and Lulu, only intermittently achieves her aims: The preciousness of certain lines and an airily empty quality to most scenes keep the play from feeling as real as is probably ideal. But, in the end, what is reality? If, as Groff suggests, it can be boiled down to merely what inspires us to observe, to discuss, and to question, The Ruby Sunrise is one of the most real plays in New York.

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The Ruby Sunrise
Through December 4
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge