Regional Reviews: New Jersey
On Borrowed Time: Delightful Revival
Also see Bob's review of Proof
The pay is set in a bucolic American small town before World War I in the home of an elderly couple, Julian Northrup (Gramps) and his wife Nellie (Granny). Here, the amusingly cantankerous, colorfully outspoken, and nature loving Gramps maintains a close, warm relationship with his very young grandson, who is only addressed by his nickname, Pud. Hovering around is Pud's disapproving Aunt Demetria, who is cruel, judgmental and rigidly moral. She wants to separate Pud from his Gramps and Gramps' influence. Gramps refers to Demetria as a "pismire."
Pud's parents are both killed in an automobile accident, and, shortly after their funeral, the weary Granny succumbs herself. Death in the form of the Fedora-wearing Mr. Brink arrives to take her away. Just a week later, Gramps' time and strength run out, and Mr. Brink again appears. However, Gramps knows that with him gone Pud will be adopted by Demetria (who has her eye on his inheritance from Pud's parents) and he is determined to keep Pud from her.
Miraculously, Gramps' wish that anyone who climbed his apple tree not be able to climb back down until he chose to let him, has come true. So Gramps lures Mr. Brink into climbing the tree, and then refuses to let him down. As a result, no one can die until Julian allows him to do so. Even when confronted with the pain and misery which people in extremis are suffering, Gramps, determined to remain with his grandson, will not relent.
After Joel Grey and George C . Wolfe co-directed the 2011 Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, Grey mentioned to Two River Artistic Director John Dias that he wanted to direct a production of On Borrowed Time. This set into motion the process which resulted in the current production. At the age of nine, Joel Grey (then Joel David Katz) portrayed Pud in a seminal regional production at (his hometown) Cleveland Play House, kindling his love for theatre (that production featured Dudley Digges, who originated the role of Gramps on Broadway).
And how fortunate are we to have a production of On Borrowed Time directed by one who is perfectly attuned to its heartbeat and nuances. As beautiful as the play is, and as well received as it was in 1938, it is unfashionably sentimental and comforting. It is also a delicate and complex, multifaceted one that could crumble under the weight of any interpretation which is not fully in synch with its tone and rhythm. Grey seamlessly blends the plays various strains in order to maximize its charm, humor, pathos and wisdom.
Robert Hogan never allows us to see the hard work that goes into conveying the warmth and humanity of the sharp elbowed Gramps. Hogan and his director make certain that we see Gramps through the eyes of Pud, and that is exactly as it should be. Diane Kagan is a Granny whose sense of propriety makes her susceptible to Demetria's blandishments. In tandem with Angela Reed's Demetria, Kagan's Granny allows us to see and feel how the unrelenting Demetria saps Granny's last remaining strength from her. Oakes Fegley is an unaffected Pud. Tom Nelis effectively distances himself from us as Mr. Brink. The key to his performance is his display of an uneasy suppression of all emotion.
Steven Skybell, Patrick Husted, Brian Mitchell Hoffman, John Thomas Wolfe and Betsy Hoag make strong contributions in important supporting roles.
Michael Carnahan has designed an eminently playable and impressively large set (after all, it features a full sized, floor to ceiling, apple tree which I would estimate to be close to 40 foot tall, with branches extending at least as widely). The set appears to be based on the set design employed for the 1941 Cleveland Play House production (The standard script for the play is based on the prompt script for that production which allowed for a single set and eliminated "several curtains and all waits between scenes; thus giving the play (improved) flow and tempo ...".Ann Hould-Ward's attractive costumes display a bit of flourish which suggests the touch of the formal in the clothes that rural folks would have worn in the late Edwardian era.
Even if, as I did myself, you have trepidations about seeing an old-fashioned, 1938 fantasy which centers on the treeing of Death by an elderly man determined not to die, I suggest that you give On Borrowed Time a try. It is beautifully written and extremely charming. It features several clever and satisfying plot twists which will take by surprise all those not already familiar with them. These include On Borrowed Time's emotionally satisfying and moving resolution. I suspect that only a true pismire will be able to resist this one. If you don't know what a pismire is (as I didn't), you can either look it up or, better yet, see On Borrowed Time and learn what it is from Gramps.
On Borrowed Time continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday 7 PM / Thursday, Friday & Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Wednesday 1 PM/ Saturday & Sunday 3 PM) through October 3, 2013, at the Two River Theatre Company, Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.
On Borrowed Time by Paul Osborn; directed by Joel Grey