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Tuesdays With Morrie

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mitch Albom's book Tuesdays With Morrie has been an international best seller since its original publication in 1997. A vivid recounting of the interlocking stories of one man losing his life as another is finding his, Tuesdays With Morrie had already been made into a television movie, so the stage was perhaps the next logical step for communicating this life-affirming and moving story.

The production that has arrived at the Minetta Lane Theatre is perhaps the most natural setting for the story. Albom, working with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, has provided a vehicle for two men to portray Albom himself (Jon Tenney, in this case) and his former sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz (Alvin Epstein). Albom meets with Morrie, dying of ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gherig's Disease), on a series of Tuesdays for one final class about love, life, death, and many things in between.

A play where the words and emotions are all and a mostly bare set with a minimum of physical trappings is the stuff of which great theatre can frequently be made. But this Tuesdays With Morrie, though brimming with pathos, is somewhat lacking in the spirit and insight that made Albom's original book so meaningful for so many.

The show's brevity is one of its most significant problems. At 90 minutes (scarcely longer than it would take to read the book), there's not enough time to see the full progression of Albom from a love-denying go-getter to the more openly emotional man we see at the show's end. Things happen onstage a bit more quickly than they should, many of the necessary transitional elements missing. The depiction of Morrie as a near-spiritual figure is also lacking, reducing his philosophies of life and death mostly to sound bites (or, to use the show's term, aphorisms) that, while present in the book, were grounded with Albom's illuminating narrative and detailed description of events.

This makes Morrie's effects on the people around him also less significant and less satisfying dramatically. The book's roster of supporting characters are barely present at all, even when they are mentioned or dealt with onstage, though Albom's wife - in one of the show's most awkward moments - makes an appearance in voice only. Albom's brother Peter, a major figure in the book who helped point up Albom's change in attitude, is almost never mentioned at all, another change that weakens the story.

This all combines to make the stage version much less atmospheric and less real, more a fantasy as Albom might have conceived it than a life-impacting series of events. Still, Esbjornson has fully realized his vision for the show, Robert Brill's set design of sliding panels and wisps of additional scenery, helping Esbjornson create the powerful theatrical effect of memory piercing through the despairing blackness of the rest of the stage.

The performances also help pick up some of the slack, with Epstein doing particularly noteworthy work, brilliantly capturing the deterioration of Morrie's body while his spirit grows ever stronger. Tenney can't quite match Epstein's performance, but does well with what he has to work with. Most importantly, the two work very well together, and their work does justice to the emotional material from which it was created.

Still, there's something unsettling about the show's final image, with Tenney playing the piano to Epstein's erratic if beautiful dancing. While it elegantly captures the sense of a spirit living on in memory, it feels a bit disingenuous; there's no mention that the Albom of the play went back to his jazz musician roots, which cheapens the moment - is Albom really honoring Morrie's spirit? That's a question that could all too easily be asked of this entire production of Tuesdays With Morrie.

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Tuesdays With Morrie
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 420-8000