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After the Fair

Anyone who spends a lot of time online will be familiar with the strange phenomenon of having intimate friends you have never met in person. We have, through emails, revived the ability to know a person through text alone, and have probably all heard of romances begun which have led finally to marriage. I sometimes wonder if participants in these relationships, sitting with each other in the flesh, ever long for the keyboard beneath their fingers, the freedom to express themselves in print rather than the spoken word. The written word is a powerful thing, and the intimacy it engenders often startling and unmanageable, as shown in a new musical at the York Theatre.

After the Fair, set in late 1890s England, is the story of the tangled web that is woven when Edith, a bored married woman, begins to write love letters on behalf of her maid, Anna, to a young man with whom Anna has had a brief romance. The letters, Edith insists, are her words, but Anna's feelings. One of the interesting questions this musical raises is whether feelings can be separated from words. Can you feel something if you can't express it? Anna, charming as she is, is uneducated and limited in her ability to convey her feelings. Her brief (and physical) encounter with Charles is very different from the deeper, cerebral relationship Edith develops with him via letters. Which is more real? Which would he choose, if he had to? As Edith, Michele Pawk is able to let the audience in on her experience in a way that is at once raw and reserved, as she is drawn in spite of herself to this man. All the performers achieve an immediacy which does not betray the setting; we are always firmly in Victorian England, where emotions run high beneath constrained exteriors.

I am easily bored by characters who are either all good or all bad. What makes the machinations of this plot so enjoyable to watch is that each of the four characters is drawn with facets that make the audience's allegiance shift often. Edith's husband, played in an ultimately charming way by David Staller, at first seems like the stereotypical dull husband, but we learn things about his past which make his drinking, a kind of self-medication, pitiable. Edith and Anna have a friendship which strains the bounds of a typical Victorian employer-employee relationship, and it brings out in them many nuances of generosity and selfishness. The young object of Anna's affection, Charles, could have been drawn merely as a cad, a plot device, but instead, he grows through the play and develops the ability to be hurt in many ways.

Stephen Cole's book and lyrics are witty and moving, and relatively cliche-free. He has a talent for using homonyms, as in one lyric, "We'll write, and he'll right this wrong." Cole also knows it is a good idea to keep things light whenever possible with such a potentially serious script. In one particularly funny scene, in which Anna convinces Edith to help her correspond with Charles (since she herself is still only learning to write) Edith worries that this arrangement will be a breach of privacy. Anna suggests, "Couldn't you read [the letter] and not listen?" When Edith asks, surprised, if Anna has a love life, Anna responds, "I won't know until you've read the letter!" Anna is played engagingly by Jennifer Piech, who gets many of the show's biggest laughs and yet completely broke my heart at the end.

Matthew Ward's music serves the plot. While the show is not sung-through, there is a great deal of sung dialogue which Ward manages skillfully. My favorite songs were in the second act, among them "A Spot of Tea," and "Men and Wives." The show's climax is achieved during "There's a Woman/What Is Real," a powerful song which is performed with extraordinary passion by the show's female leads. My mother's favorite melody was the lovely "Beloved," in which we hear the text of Edith's letters to Charles.

Travis L. Stockley's direction is fast-paced and keeps the audience eager to learn what will happen next. Scenes which happen simultaneously are staged in clever ways. In one memorable scene, the stagnancy of Edith and Arthur's marriage is sharply contrasted with the excitement of the budding relationship between Anna and Charles. Anna and Charles' first love scene is played on and around Edith and Arthur's dining room table, as the married couple has dull conversation over a bottle of claret.

The scenic design by James Morgan makes the best use of the York's very small stage (and I would like some time to see this show in a space with a bit more elbow room.) There is a terrific backdrop which evokes pages of letters as well as rolling hills, which ties together plot and setting in an innovative way.

My mother reminded me that Thomas Hardy's works rarely end happily, so during the intermission we speculated on what might become of these four characters as they would try to untangle themselves from their web of deceit. As it turns out, we guessed wrong; while we were, thankfully, spared a Hollywood-happy ending, the resolution, and partial lack thereof, was oddly satisfying. It reminded me of the old warning to "be careful what you wish for, because you might get it."

After the Fair, book and lyrics by Stephen Cole, based on a short story by Thomas Hardy. Music by Matthew Ward. Directed by Travis L. Stockley. Scenic Design by James Morgan. Costume Design by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case. Lighting Design by Michael Lincoln. Orchestrations and Music Direction by Georgia Stitt. Starring Michele Pawk, Jennifer Piech, James Ludwig and David Staller.

Theatre: The York Theatre, St. Peter's Church in the Citicorp Building, 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street.)

Schedule: Wed-Sat at 8pm, Sun at 7:30pm, with matinees on Wed, Sat and Sun at 2:30, through Sunday August 15.

Tickets: $40 for all shows except Friday and Saturday eves, which are $45.

To order tickets, call (212) 239-6200. -- Wendy Guida

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