"Luck is the most frightening thing in the world," or so believed Susan Peters. The actress, who starred opposite Greer Garson and Ronald Colman in the 1942 film Random Harvest and died of starvation ten years later, is one of the subjects of Richard Willett's new play, also titled Random Harvest, which opened last night at the HomeGrown Theater.
In fact, most of Random Harvest deals with these very issues. Willett's characters explore how luck, or the lack thereof, has influenced their lives. Though he pays homage to the film, he has created a completely new story, melding characters both fictional and familiar.
The play revolves around the story of Aaron (Patrick Welsh), a New York playwright with a dislike for actors and a Drama Desk Award nomination. While working as a fact checker, he becomes enraptured with the story of Donna Sorenson (Ann Talman), whose son violently committed suicide by swallowing gasoline and lighting himself on fire. Aaron has also had problems sleeping lately, shouting out seemingly random phrases in the middle of the night.
Aaron's husband, Jimmy (Jay Alvarez), determines that Aaron's sleep-talking is referring to the film Random Harvest, and as Aaron learns more about the movie and the real-life tragedy behind Susan Peters's life, he becomes obsessed with understanding it, and working to bring to her life the satisfactory conclusion it otherwise never had.
For the most part Willett's writing is good, with a fair amount of humor and clearly delineated characters. If the characters are occasionally stereotypical (the frustrated writer, or the flamboyantly gay man obsessed with Julie Andrews), they always have a sense of believability and humanity about them. The various elements of the story are all intriguing, and present an interesting puzzle to the audience. Director Eliza Beckwith has a good handle on the material, blending reality and fantasy, and making even the weaker moments in the script work.
There are, however, two significant problems. First, too many of the plot developments occur for unclear reasons; the exact purpose of a phone call Donna makes to Aaron, or how Aaron learned about Random Harvest in the first place, both serve to detract from the play. Perhaps more importantly, the resolution is lacking; there is little connection between the three major plot threads, until it is almost too late for it to make a difference. When it does occur, it feels more like a hastily added conclusion, one that wanted to force a happier ending onto the situations in the play, than an organic part of the story.
The most winning of the evening's performances comes from Patricia Randell, portraying Greer Garson herself. Randell tosses off humorous anecdotes, dispenses sage advice, and mocks melodramatic poise and dialogue without ever making it seem affected. She is warm and very funny, and makes each of her scenes in the play truly stand out.
Welsh has the largest role in the play, and handles it well. Alvarez is occasionally a little too over the top, but is almost always as earnest, serious, or humorous as the play requires. Kate Downing as Susan Peters is likable and does fine, but has difficulty negotiating some of the overly lengthy speeches near the end of the second act. Jonathan Kandel as Richard, Susan's husband, and Ann Talman as Donna have the smallest roles, but do as much with them as could be expected.
The characters in Random Harvest all must face their own limitations, and Willett's script, though occasionally clouded in its insight, asks us to do the same. Problems aside, Random Harvest is entertaining and worthwhile, whether or not you are familiar with the film.