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Handy Dandy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Much of William Gibson's Handy Dandy, a new production of which just opened at the Neighborhood Playhouse, is a battle of wills between a by-the-law judge and a by-the-soul nun. Though the play's stated topic is nuclear weapon creation and proliferation (it was originally written in the 1980s), the two are actually fighting a battle to the death in what is now a generations-old religious conflict.

The nun, Sister Molly Egan (Helen Gallagher) argues that the preservation of the human race should trump the laws of the land, while the judge, Henry Pulaski (Nicolas Surovy), is sworn to protect and uphold those laws at any cost, even (or perhaps especially) if it means putting Molly in jail for her crimes. In this case, those crimes involve trespassing on a nuclear weapons plant while attempting to spread messages and symbols of peace.

But is that a crime? And should it be? They both have very different perspectives on this question. And wouldn't you know that, by the end of the play, he's experienced a crisis of law and learned the benefits of protestation, she's endured a crisis of faith and finally come to understand some of the value of the legal system, and they've both come to understand each other better?

Handy Dandy's writing is generally full of character and humor, but lacks many complexities; the show has only just begun when its conclusion is already firmly established. It stands to reason in such a play that Molly found her calling after a particularly wild youth (which included embracing communism) that stains her five or six decades down the road, and that Henry is only a slave to law while he's in the courtroom but willing to fudge the boundaries in his everyday life. Are those traits not necessary for the play's conflict to rise, however temporarily, above the superficial?

Yet Gibson has a particular talent for turning possible pablum into entertaining and occasionally riveting drama. He did it with Golda's Balcony and turned that show into one of Broadway's few must-see shows this season, and his accomplishments here bear only a slightly lesser luster. That's because Handy Dandy's plot specifics no longer feel as immediate or fresh as they once did, and they handily resist most comparisons to current equivalents in our geo-political climate. But the conflict between God and Man, between what's right and what's Right, will remain relevant as long as human beings draw breaths. Tapping into that, and exploring it thoroughly on both sides, is sensible playwriting of the type Gibson has provided Handy Dandy.

Just about everything about this production is sensible, from Don Amendolia's clean, unadorned direction to Andrew Donovan's set design (platforms and a few different chairs to represent various locales), Marcia Madeira's lights, and Karin Beatty's costumes. This allows one to focus on the performances, which are generally excellent, with Gallagher the model of a quietly tortured woman questioning her faith and place in the world, and Surovy ideal as the stuffy conservative keeper of order who eventually comes around.

It must be said that the production's opening night performance was a bit problematic, as the actors lost their places a couple of times in the second act and had to be prompted from offstage. While the transitions throughout much of the script are a bit dodgy to begin with, this severely impacted the flow for both the actors and the audience, and robbed the play's final scenes of some of their emotional and intellectual impact.

But that's likely a problem that will already be fixed by the time you read this; otherwise, this is a sturdy production of Handy Dandy, with two actors beautifully portraying the two sides in Gibson's take on one of the oldest of all ideological debates. Gibson and those involved with this production don't provide much in the way of answers, but their examination of the questions is well-enough done to be worth a look, even if you've seen or heard most of it elsewhere.

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Colleagues Theatre Company
Handy Dandy
Through January 4
Neighborhood Playhouse, 340 East 54th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.239.2996