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7th Monarch

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Rupert, Michael Cullen, Gretchen Hall, and Matthew Humphreys.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Loss, with its full potential for derailing our minds and lives (in that order), is the chief concern of Jim Henry's new play 7th Monarch, at the Acorn Theatre. Two women, born a generation apart, bond over their shared pain as they struggle to solve an apparent murder mystery, and exonerate someone that reality—forget about the facts—suggests must be innocent, and in doing so they uncover things they either didn't know or had suppressed about themselves. It's a fine launching pad for a getting-to-know-you whodunit, but no one involved, from Henry to director Scott C. Embler to a game but at-sea cast, makes this feel like a successful, or even serious-of-intent, attempt to plumb the psychology of despair.

At least it starts out with potential. The "suspect" is Miriam Hemmerick (Gretchen Hall), a 33-year-old woman who tried to cash a series of Social Security checks made out to her parents. When Raina Briar (Leslie Hendrix), a governmental investigator, comes by to inquire, she discovers that Miriam's mom and dad have vanished, leaving their obviously ill-equipped child—who routinely wears a plastic astronaut helmet, memorizes years' worth of newspapers word for word, and is apparently deathly allergic to the number 43—home alone. Raina's questioning leads to Miriam's implosion and an ambulance ride that eventually lead her to the police station, where everyone is sure she's the cause of her family's disappearance—with the bloody scissors and a severed finger found in the Hemmerick house apparently all the damning evidence needed to send her away.

The rest of the two-hour play is devoted to how Raina lost one child and is estranged from another, and imprints on the desperate Miriam, demonstrating how alike the two are, and why discovering the truth is every bit as important for her as it is for the younger woman. As the case proceeds, they begin forming a new family based on trust and shared experiences that will let them weather whatever the ultimate verdict is. And, for much of the evening, the outcome doesn't look good, so they know to cherish every minute they have getting to know—and help—each other.

Unfortunately, the too-thick gloss of cuteness the story has been given never lets it chill or warm; it stays buoyed steadily at room temperature. Henry has tried too hard to present Miriam as a psychological victim, making her not just developmentally challenged but almost too dopey to be the central figure. He focuses so much on her obsessions with pies (whether pot or Moon) and crossword puzzles (she has a literal breakdown when someone asks her for one too many clues), and her toy-box language skills (among countless other deployments, she refers to a psychiatrist as a "shrinky dink" and male genitalia as a "knick-knack"), that he forgets to develop her much beyond her surface-level love for space travel, thus never convincing us that Miriam's permanent lock-up would be a tragedy.

More vexing is the play's tendency toward "secret-itis," which keeps narrative-shaking revelations under wraps until precisely the correct moment in Act II, regardless of whether they could be believably revealed earlier. Too often, the scripting seems as arbitrary as Miriam's own traits, with the three supporting characters—public defender Grey Collins (Matthew Humphreys, police detective Leo Garnes (Michael Cullen), and prosecutor Kenneth Sharpe (Michael Rupert)—registering as little more than good-cop-bad-cop ballast. Whatever Miriam did or not do is, alas, far less interesting than the relationship she forms with the anguished Raina, which develops in such lurching fits and starts that the handful of arid subplots (will Kenneth win the election for county judge? Will Grey ever ask out Raina?) have no choice but to fill in the vacuum.

Embler has not directed with any particular finesse or fluidity, which hurts the dreamlike feel Henry was obviously going for. (Shoko Kambara designed the adequate, if slightly clunky, unit set.) His work registers most troublesome in Hall's performance, leaving the actress speaking with the affected puffed-cheek dialect of a toddler and banging the side of her head to dislodge long-forgotten memories. You want to relate to Miriam, but no one has tried to find the balance between the girl and the woman within her, and instead emphasized the former quality to frustrating excess. This makes it impossible to accept that Miriam could survive alone for a day, let alone the months Henry requires, which subverts every other event in the show.

Hendrix comes off considerably better, and presents a handsome interpretation of a woman crippled by her own disappointments. Her lacquered fa├žade cracks and falls apart gradually as Raina comes to know and trust Miriam, and acquires by the final scene a touching genuineness that makes you feel something has been legitimately achieved. Cullen, Rupert, and Humphreys all deliver respectable turns in their roles, the last in particular projecting a good-natured sympathy that anchors and softens the tougher legalistic scenes. But their parts are functional at best: nothing more than the catalysts necessary to bring Miriam and Raina together.

Their union, and what they have to endure to get there, is fitting material for a play, and what ultimately redeems 7th Monarch. But for the play as a whole to succeed, Henry would need to approach the rest of his elements with no less care and earnestness, and trust we'll understand and incorporate Miriam's nuances without excess ornamentation. There's no reason that the dark and complicated themes Henry marshals here shouldn't be incredibly attractive to adults, but they're difficult to swallow when they're wrapped in what too often feels like a play for children.

7th Monarch
Through September 9
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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