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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Twisty Melodrama
Opens 30th Season
at George Street

Also see Bob's review of Ain't Misbehavin'

Wilderness of Mirrors, the new play by Charles Evered which has opened the 30th anniversary season at the George Street Playhouse, proves to be an overstuffed, twisty melodrama that might find future success with some effective revisions.

However, Evered seems to have had a horse of quite a different color in mind. While on active duty as a reserve naval officer, Evered was assigned to New York to document aspects of the destruction of the World Trade Center. He became concerned about the hostility of Americaís elite campuses to government agencies such as the CIA. This concern led him to explore an earlier era when this was not yet the case. An assistant professor at Bostonís Emerson College, he has loosely based Wilderness of Mirrors on Cloak and Gown, a book by late Yale University professor Robin W. Winks. Winks' book offers an account of the recruitment for the CIA (and its predecessor agency the OSS) of exceptional Ivy League students by their professors between the years 1939 and 1961.

The protagonists in Everedís play are loosely based on real life individuals whose activities are documented in the Winks book. In the play, fictional college professor and spy master Robert Conlan recruits student James Singleton by employing cold and calculated deception and emotional blackmail to lock in the emotionally needy student. Thereafter, the play focuses on the emotional destruction suffered by Conlan and Singleton and those closest to them as a result of the danger, duplicity and moral compromises which are required of them. This is all conveyed through flashbacks as Conlan grants an interview years later to a Barnard student researching a report on the espionage recruitment.

Wilderness of Mirrors
Alex Draper (as James Singleton) and Michael Countryman
(as Robert Conlan)

Unfortunately, the serious minded Evered fails to deliver a truly serious play embodying the issues his plot embraces. His dialogue strives for a measure of brilliance and poetry but ends up failing to achieve either the tone and rhythm of natural speech or the sparkle of sharp theatrical dialogue. The plot feels melodramatic and contrived. And the ďsurpriseĒ saved for the first act curtain is completely telegraphed. Finally, Conlan appears to be such a monster that, contrary to the authorís actual point of view, this viewer found that much of the play felt like a standard liberal screed against the evil right.

As all the plot elements click into place, it feels as if Professor Evered had prepared an outline for a play based on standard devices and construction, and emerging playwright Evered had built his work on it.

The playís quite different potential is largely revealed in its second act. As relationships, psyches, and events begin to spin out of control, imaginative pop storytelling takes hold and a really enjoyable melodramatic tale of deception, danger, and double and triple crosses develops. It may be grade-B melodrama, but when well written, acted and directed, as it is here, such melodrama can be very entertaining. The structure cleverly allows for some interesting ambiguity as to the truthfulness of the events we see depicted. This aspect of the play seems ripe for further honing throughout.

Director David Saint essentially pulls out all the stops, eliciting much theatricality from his cast. Michael Countryman brings the proper amount of surface evil to the role of Professor Conlan. His performance might be a little over the top for the play Evered discusses in interviews, but it is bang-on for the melodrama on stage. The same is true for the very solid Alex Draper as the tortured student-recruit James Singleton.

The character of Susan, the professorís wife, may be the most difficult to play. Although a faithful ally of her husband, Susan also has elements of insecurity, doubt, and deviousness. Leslie Lyles embodies all the facets of this somewhat schizophrenic personality into a unified whole. We cannot always know exactly which Susan we are watching, but, thanks to Lyles, she is always believably Susan.

Early on, Welkere White fails to define Conlanís niece very clearly, but her performance becomes stronger in the second act. Monica West is fine in the imprecisely drawn role of the student interviewer, and Yuval Bloom and Martin Friedrichs capably round out the cast playing multiple smaller roles.

The physical production is tremendously effective and satisfying. Basing all of his settings around two moveable, deeply tiered sets of book shelves, James Youmans effectively and flexibly conveys a considerable variety of indoor and outdoor settings without distraction or delay. His fine design is handsomely complemented by David Landerís lighting. David Murinís costumes are apt, attractive and unobtrusive.

With the aid of his excellent design team, David Saint has staged the multi-scene action in an appropriate and effective cinematic style. Wilderness of Windows provides us the opportunity to see some superior actors cut loose in a lively and interesting manner.

Wilderness of Mirrors runs through October 5 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Call 732-246-7717 or visit www.GSPonline.org.

Wilderness of Mirrors by Charles Evered. Directed by David Saint.
Cast (in order of appearance): Michael Countryman (Robert Conlan); Monica West (Erin); Leslie Lyles (Susan Conlan); Christina (Welker White); Yuval Boim (Joel Kirby, et al.); Martin Friedrichs (William Griswald, et al.); Alex Draper (James Singleton).


Photo: T. Charles Erickson




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Bob Rendell



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