Regional Reviews: New Jersey
With and Without Solidly Old Fashioned Contemporary Comedy-Drama
Jeffrey Sweet's With and Without depicts a situation that will evoke vivid memories for many of us. Two married couples, close friends, decide to share a country house on a lake for their week-long summer vacation. Shelly and her husband Mark have arrived. Their friend Jill is awaiting her husband Russ, but she thinks it likely that he will not come. Jill asks both Mark and Shelly to call Russ, adding, "If he says he's not coming, ask him why and what's her name."
Jill phones around, but can't find anyone able or willing to tell her where Russ is. Mark and Shelly feel trapped in the middle of Jill's distress, and wish that they could just get out of there, leaving her behind. Shelly envies "bastards" who can do whatever they want without concern for others. Soon, Jill will meet Glen, a local carpenter, at a local bar. They hit it off, and Jill is heading out to sleep with him. However, she won't be able to, if Mark has anything to say about it.
There are wheels within wheels in the relationships. Decisions are made for reasons which are complicated. People act inconsistently, but always within believable parameters. Attesting to the dimension that Sweet has brought to his characters, audience members are likely to have differing reactions to some of the characters.
There is a fine ensemble feel to the performance. Shelly, Mark and Jill are an odd family with a long history. The head of the family is Shelly. Kate Middleton avoids any saccharine touches in portraying her, allowing us to gradually become aware of how much both Mark and Jill depend on her earth mother qualities. Duncan M. Rogers vividly conveys the self-centered, selfish Mark. Rogers' portrayal suggests that Mark will never acknowledge or appreciate Shelly's value to him. Elyse Wolf nervously prowls the deck of the summer house as the troubled Jill. Although a successful business woman, Jill needs a man in her life for validation. Wolf nicely combines sophistication and simple neediness in limning her. Keith Beechey brings an easy charm to the role of Glen.
Beau Kennedy designed the substantial set of a country rental house fronted by a large deck. The evocative costumes are the work of Fran Harrison. Director Eric Hafen has elicited complex, naturalistic performances from his fine cast. There is a free-flowing, not overly structured feel to the production which perfectly matches the real life discursiveness in the script.
Jeffrey Sweet is long time playwright-in-residence in Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre where With and Without premiered in 1997. Although it has since been performed off-off Broadway at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, it will likely be new to most local audiences. It is more explicit in language and situation than prior productions at Morristown's Bickford Theatre, and appears to represent a new policy to bring fresher, more cutting edge plays here. If this proves the case than it can be said that this policy is off to an auspicious start
This is a good one. The one act, ninety-five minute long play is a well-made contemporary comedy drama with well-defined, recognizable characters facing situations which are both titillating and serious. Jeffrey Sweet's With and Without succeeds both as a light entertainment and a stimulating exploration of the games people play.
With and Without continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm) through June 15, 2008 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road (off Columbia Turnpike) Morristown, NJ, 07960. Box Office: 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.
With and Without by Jeffrey Sweet, directed by Eric Hafen