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Too Much, Too Much, Too Many

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Luke Kirby and Phyllis Somerville
Photo by Joan Marcus.
While watching Too Much, Too Much, Too Many, the new play by Meghan Kennedy for Roundabout Underground at the Black Box Theatre, all I could think was: "too little."

The problem wasn't the running time (barely 70 minutes), the number of characters (four), the direction (by Sheryl Kaller), the design (the set is by Wilson Chin, the costumes by Jess Goldstein, the dreamy lights by Zach Blane), or even the gentleness of the situation (a woman's elderly mother won't leave her bedroom for months). But taken all together, and mixed with in a cauldron with plenty of other concepts but little follow-through, the overall impact was that not very much of it all mattered.

This is in spite of the genuinely honest, and honestly genuine, set-up. Emma (Rebecca Henderson) welcomes into her mother's home the local church's new pastor (Luke Kirby), who hopes to finally coax Rose (Phyllis Somerville) out of her self-imposed exile by talking to her through her door for as long as it takes. She's been sequestered ever since the death of her husband and Emma's father, James, consumed with perfecting not his obituary but her own. And what does it matter to her—or to anyone, really—if their new visitor has just as many secrets as Rose? The pastor is relatively young, relatively good looking, and relatively interested in Emma. Isn't lasting companionship all that any of us needs?

Maybe, but whether it's all the play needs is the better question. Considering the solid number of weighty topics she's tackling—abandonment on two fronts, loneliness, checkered pasts, mysterious deaths, written legacies, faith, rebirth, redemption, and even haunting by literal ghosts (James, naturally, played by James Rebhorn)—Kennedy's treatment is a shallow, if well-meaning, one that's far more interested in proposal than commitment.

There's never a particular reason to care whether Rose will emerge from her bedroom, for example, because isn't the play destined to end the instant she does? Because Kennedy presents the pastor as an avatar, if not quite a personification, of goodness, concerns about who he really is and where he really came from are moot almost as soon as they're uttered (and nowhere near as scandalous as everyone's behavior indicates). And even James's appearances, tender though they are, contribute little to either Emma's psychology or the atmosphere of gentle magical realism for which Kennedy is striving—at best they're obligatory, at worst they're unnecessary.

Successful plays can be small but feel big (The Glass Menagerie, now in revival on Broadway, proves this better than most) or they can be small and feel small, but the decision of size is a crucial one that can't be left to chance. By juggling too many ideas without fully exploring any of them, the result is tepid when it isn't outright boring. And whichever of the central relationships you're most interested in, Kennedy doesn't develop it enough, something that Kaller's beautifully quiet and contemplative staging can't hide.

Somerville turns out the richest portrayal because she has the most to work with, and she effectively shows how Rose is coping with or failing to cope with the grief that's become her defining characteristic. This woman, who's lived nearly 80 years and done practically everything, is facing permanent emotional inaction, and Somerville makes you experience the heartbreak of facing that as if it were happening to you. Henderson and Kirby, tasked with playing little more than young and perturbed, don't make an equivalent impression; and though Rebhorn is charming, James has so little significant stage time that he barely makes an impression at all.

The closest he comes occurs near the end of the play, when Rose finally gets her wish to touch her husband one last time. It arrives in the form of a dance, at once exuberant and tentative, just what you'd expect from lovers who've been separated from each other and aren't sure where their relationship currently stands. Somerville's face lights up with ecstatic joy, as though through her simple movements with James Rose is discovering the unvarnished meaning of not just her life but life in general. Your heart, like hers, soars as you realize that, however unhealthily she's accomplished it, she's finally found what she's looking for. If only Too Much, Too Much, Too Many made it easier for you to experience a similar catharsis yourself.

Too Much, Too Much, Too Many
Through January 5
Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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