Boston's Huntington Theatre has extended its regular season with its first full production in the 99-seat black box Studio 210 located upstairs at 264 Huntington Ave. Lets hope Nicky Silver's The Maiden's Prayer, which runs through June 30th, isn't a true indication of the expanded range of "premieres, new plays and innovative contemporary work" that Nicholas Martin hopes to offer in the Huntington's new second space in the South End in 2004.
This production, while well served by local talent, is no different from much of what we're offered on the main stage downstairs: a good production by a fine director of a so-so play. It's also guilty of being an experience just as readily enjoyed on film or television. Although Silver has a reputation for witty, outlandish comedies (Pterodactyls, Food Chain, Fat Men in Skirts), he misses his mark when he comes down to earth with the two characters at the center of this work.
Given its "thirty-something" subject matter, the selection of this play is probably an honest attempt to target a younger, hipper audience than the average Huntington subscriber. To be sure, Boston is full of well-educated disenfranchised young hopefuls also searching for better jobs, better apartments and better mates. But this contingent is perhaps better served by this season's other innovation; starting with Betty's Summer Vacation, special performances were designated for the "Night Club" (to attract the 35 and under singles crowd) and the "Out and About Club" (for the gay and lesbian community).
In The Maiden's Prayer, Silver examines the quest for perfection in love undertaken in the face of everything and everyone else failing to measure up. Collectively, the characters suffer from what ails their overindulged, overwrought, yet emotionally undernourished generation. Parents disappoint, jobs don't satisfy, siblings are enemies, substances get abused, intimacy and commitment create ambivalence, friends can let you down and lovers are valued as a mirror of ones own worth.
A Maiden's Prayer is most fun when it doesn't take itself too seriously. We begin auspiciously enough on the patio of a gracious suburban home as the wedding of Taylor (Bill Mootos) and Cynthia (Dee Nelson) winds down inside the house. We first meet Paul (Mark Setlock), the groom's childhood friend and not quite "best man," and Libby (Judith McIntyre), the disgusted "S.O.B." ("sister of the bride" in wedding planner parlance). He's come without a gift (couldn't choose) or a guest (bailed out on the expressway) and has already hinted to us that he's attracted to the groom. She's swigging champagne straight from the bottle, announces that the pink bridesmaid's dress is yet another sign of her sister's hatred and confesses straight away her unrequited love for Taylor.
As the balance shifts from win to loss in the ostensibly perfect existence of Bride and Groom, they respond badly to every turn of events. At the same time Libby's life, which quickly hits bottom, has surprisingly redeeming features, not the least of which is her new friendship with Paul. Despite the fact that the casting of the two sisters is out of whack (Nelson seems much too young to be the older sister of the more world-weary McIntyre), Libby's story is the compelling tale and is beautifully rendered by McIntyre. And, although I quarrel with Silver's ending, Paul is the other character who pulls on the heartstrings with Setlock strumming all of the right notes.
Andrew (Barlow Adamson), the salesperson in Bloomingdale's crystal department looking for love and an apartment with nicer amenities, is the fifth member of the quintet. Although he's also quite charming, his sole function is to spice things up with additional quirkiness.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of this production is the physical design. Janie Howland's abstract set is punctuated with shadow boxes filled with relics from the American way of life of our recent past (think Leave it to Beaver). She even includes a small bed of green suburban lawn preserved under Plexiglas in the foreground. A patchwork of clouds on sliding screens provide a backdrop to this idyllic setting and open to reveal a second playing space framed by a wonderfully askew city skyline. This, along with the agile lighting of Karen J. Perlow, gives director Scott Edmiston a flexible game board on which to arrange the actors and keep things flowing nicely.
Edmiston, the Huntington's Artistic Associate and resident dramaturge, is no stranger to Boston theatregoers. His work as director has been seen at the Lyric Stage Company (Lobby Hero), the Nora Theatre Company (As Bees in Honey Drown and his Eliot Norton Award winning Molly Sweeney) and the SpeakEasy Stage Company (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told).
Let's hope Martin doesn't make us wait until 2004 for more opportunities to see the work of Edmiston and his compatriots. And let's also hope he surprises us next time with a new work that gives us the chance to better explore what is truly unique about the theatre experience.
The Maiden's Prayer at Studio 210, 264 Huntington Avenue, now through June 30th. Performances are Tuesday - Thursday at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm and 9pm and Sundays at 2 and 7pm. For tickets or information, call the Huntington Box Office at 617 266-0800 or Ticketmaster at 617 931-2787 or visit their website at www.huntingtontheatre.org.