Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Ladies and Gentlemen It's The Normals
Molly and John Tuttle long ago moved to a rural community (which has since morphed into a suburb) "less than 30 miles from Manhattan" in order to raise their son Atlas in a normal family environment. Now a high school senior, to the chagrin of his parents, Atlas wants to go to the State University at Oneida to study (boo) accounting.
Happily present throughout the action are Bobbie-Jo, a colleague and friend from Molly and John's old show business days, and Gigi, a blind teenager who is convinced that she will someday dance in a Broadway chorus, seeking to take dance lessons from Molly.
John Tuttle is a figure of derisive laughter. The script and stage interpretation make it clear that he is without talent and delusional. John reminisces about their glory days with the Bagel Players on Sullivan Street where his "masterpiece" Paradise Lost and Found was performed ("you are innovative"; "we were just trying to avoid a pornography charge"). For the past 15 years, John has been writing his modern version of The Odyssey. It will take five days to perform. The first production will be performed on 15 Aegean islands. The audience will be transported by boat to each of the islands. When John and Molly claim that John could have had a career as a prosperous Hollywood screenwriter if he had not turned down the opportunity to write a screenplay on artistic grounds, we "know" that they are indulging themselves in a pipe dream.
Son Atlas reveals that he has been cast to play Curley in his high school's production of Oklahoma!. His parents, Bobbie-Jo and Gigi are overjoyed, and there is a first act finale in which the exuberant Gigi leads them all in a spirited, comedic rendition of the title song for the first act curtain. It is here that there is the one intermission. So far, so good.
The first act is about thirty minutes long. However, the post intermission portion of the evening runs over an hour. Its two scenes clearly are constructed as separate acts. Thus, the play as presented is out of balance with the problematic second act being long and unwieldy. Director Jane Mandel is clearly correct to avoid two intermissions (three 30 minute or so acts separated by two intermissions would alienate viewers). I would guess that the third act is shorter than the second, making it equally unwieldy to move the single intermission one scene forward. Author Chris Widney has structured a three act play for a play that is too slight to support such a structure.
In any event, post intermission events contradict all that we have learned about the prospects for John's modern Odyssey. John's backer, a Greek olive oil tycoon has arranged the sale of The Odyssey to a Hollywood studio which is paying a $100,000 advance for the rights (half of which will go directly to John). The studio is paying for a limousine to pick up John and to fly him out to California to sign the contract. However, it turns out that John has sold all of his rights to his play to the olive oil tycoon in exchange for a series of payments which John has needed to subsist.
There is some pretty heavy going here as conflict between father and son flares hotly followed by mutual understanding and reconciliation. However, by now the thread of the play has been so shattered by the improbability of events that there is nothing at stake for the audience.
Paul Whelihan draws the requisite laughter as Paul. However, author Widney cannot have the derisive laughter in regard to him and his work, and then expect us to believe the events which flow from its success. That is, unless he would treat its success equally derisively as his output. Mona Hennessy and Daniel Paul Johnson are both fine as John's long suffering, supportive wife and incipient accountant son.
The real performing juice is supplied by Rita Rehn and Keara Hailey in roles less central to the story than they are to evening's entertainment. Rita Rehn generates much laughter as Bobbie-Jo, a theatre dancer who holds on to the dream despite all. Her only recent job offer, tendered to her as a favor, was "a chorus part in a non-Equity production of Pippin in Poughkeepsie." Keara Hailey is bright, chipper and convincing as the blind Gigi. She charmingly emphasizes the naïve enthusiasm of Gigi, wisely allowing the humor inherent in her situation to take care of that aspect of the role.
Director Jane Mandel has captured the rhythms and moods of Widney, and elicited solid performances. Jessica Parks' setting of a decrepit back porch and yard is detailed and nicely engages the eye. It does look more rural than suburban, but then the text would be a tad more believable if it were set in a rural area.
The Normals gets off to a pretty good start but then fails to realize its early potential. Author Chris Widney still has work to do here.
The Normals continues performances (Thu. 7:30 p.m./ Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) through December 11, 2005 at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. Box office: 973-744-3309; online www.lunastage.org/
The Normals by Chris Widney; Directed by Jane Mandel