Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Ace Dreamcatcher Cast Enlivens Sarah Ruhl's Melancholy Play
Also see Bob's review of The Scene
Tilly, an attractive, relatively youthful woman, has been sent to a psychiatrist by her employer because of a generalized melancholia. She is "sad about the flowers in springtime because they are going to die." However, everyone who encounters her throughout the play is so totally in thrall to her gentle, romanticized feelings that they fall madly in love with her.
First, there is her psychiatrist Lorenzo, who was abandoned as a child in Europe and moved to Illinois after being told that he smiled like an American. Then there is her sad tailor Frank, and her hairdresser Frances. Both opened their shops in order to expand their "human contact," and each finds great pleasure in beautifying "the appearance of others." And there is Frances, who used to be a physicist and brings Tilly home to meet the older Joan, a nurse who is her lesbian mate, who also cannot resist Tilly. Frank brings Tilly flowers, and they all sing "Happy Birthday" to a samba beat. All but Frank, who has a tummy ache, return for Tilly's birthday party. They play "duck, duck, goose" ("person, person, goddess," Lorenzo croons). Tilly becomes manically happy. All of the others appear troubled.
During the first act (summarized above), Tilly mentions that she knew a Persian woman who criticized American men by stating that they are excessively determined to be happy, and that they have "two emotions, happy and mad." While, of course, this is not literally true of anyone, it made me aware of why I am not on Sarah Ruhl's wavelength here. Being happy is very important to me, and people who wallow in sadness and melancholy make me angry with their indulgent self pity. There is nothing here sufficiently witty or insightful to compensate for the annoyance which Ruhl's premise induces. Why would anyone send someone to a psychiatrist for behavior which everyone finds ravishingly attractive?
In the second act, matters become even more absurdist. However, given the light, slight nature of Melancholy Play, it may be that it is just intended as daft farce. Somewhere along the line, Frances turns into an almond, and, after much by play, it seems that the others are able to bring Frances back. However, they feel that something is askew. Did they bring Frances back to them or all they all almonds? Joined by the late arriving Julian (who has been sitting wordlessly in a corner of the stage underscoring various moments by playing on a variety of percussive instruments), they decide that it doesn't matter whether they are people or almonds as long as they are all together. They couple off (Tilly and Frank, Frances and Julian, Frances and Joan), all dancing happily as the play ends.
Well, it does matter whether they are almonds or people, and I should be apoplectic by now. However, the tuned-in and imaginative direction of Dreamcatcher artistic director Laura Ekstrand and the farcical movement and interaction of her fine cast (largely made up of members of this valuable actors' theatre) create lunatic amusement which is pleasurable in and of itself. It also illuminates the comic potential in Ruhl's sensibility.
The most reliable Harriet Trangucci does a fine job of holding the center of the play, never overplaying the melancholy Tilly. Trangucci is the perfect foil for all the shenanigans, even though Ruhl's Tilly is not.
Making the most of the cartoon foils Ruhl has provided for Tilly are David Miceli as the florid Lorenzo, Scott McGowan as the uptight Frank, and Tricia Burr as the shrinking Francis. Noreen Farley is in fine form as the blunt Joan. A true repertory actor, Harry Patrick Christian-spiritedly and good-spiritedly doubles as percussionist and in the miniscule role of Julian.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl is a very hot young playwright. Her plays have been widely produced over the past several years. The New York Times has described Ruhl as "one of the most acclaimed and accomplished" of our young playwrights. She has won a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Her play The Clean Room was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and was generally well received when performed at Lincoln Center in the fall of 2006. This reviewer found that play off putting and unfunny. All this is by way of noting that I am not on Ms. Ruhl's wavelength, whereas others clearly are. Thus, if you enjoyed The Clean Room or any other of Ruhl's widely produced plays, you may well want to attend this first rate Dreamcatcher production.
Melancholy Play, a contemporary farce continues performances Fridays & Saturdays 8 pm/ Sundays 2pm through March 16 at the Baird Center, 5 Mead Street, South Orange, NJ 07079; Box Office: 973-378-7754; on-line: www.DreamcatcherRep.org.
Melancholy Play, a contemporary farce by Sarah Ruhl; directed by Laura Ekstrand