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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Count This One Among
The Things You Least Expect
at George Street Playhouse

Also see Bob's reviews of She Stoops to Conquer and Ain't Misbehavin'

The Things You Least Expect
Curtis Mark Williams and
Mary Beth Peil

It happens to the best of theatres and directors. And New Jersey's George Street Playhouse and its Artistic Director David Saint certainly rank high among the best in the state. The production of a play that fails to work on so many levels that one can only wonder why it has been selected. The Things You Least Expect, the world premiere play by Joan Vail Thorne currently on stage at George Street, is unclassifiable. It starts out as a somewhat eccentric romantic comedy, veers into lurid melodrama, and comes to rest as a quiet family drama. Along the way, it is weighted down by abrupt changes in focus, more improbable plot turns than a month of soap operas, and characters who are ill defined and wildly inconsistent in their behavior.

The Things You Least Expect introduces us to Clare (Mary Beth Peil), a very rich woman in her sixties who is determined to travel, have new experiences, and take full control of her life now that her domineering husband has died; her older sister Myra (Pamela Payton-Wright), an eccentric spinster determined to move in with Clare and dominate and infantilize her; her unfocused, single daughter Caroline (Jessica Dickey), who is returning home from India where she has been living on an ashram; and an oh, so mysterious, insinuating young man named Sam (Curtis Mark Williams) whose mood swings and erratic, sometimes horridly distasteful, behavior could be ascribed to either severe mental illness or a playwright who has lost her way. As the play begins, Clare, sister Myra, and Sam are gathered in Clare's home. Clare has told the ridiculously, but not incorrectly, suspicious Myra, that Sam is a funeral attendant who is sitting with the body of Clare's husband which is lying in repose there as per his instructions.

In short order, Clare will go off on a long vacation (originally planned by her late husband) to a villa in Tuscany for the summer, to be followed by seasons in Florence, Venice and Rome. Clare is followed to Tuscany by Sam (who seems to have a mother fixation), who will bed her, attend her, live off her and viciously turn on her when she begins to lose interest in him. Clare's interest turns to painting. Even more so, it turns passionately to her new object of desire, her painting instructor, Frederica (an off-stage character). Frederica completely abandons Clare after apparently stealing her jewelry. All the while, the scene shifts back and forth continuously between Italian locations and the sitting room of Clare's home as Clare sends e-mails to Myra and Caroline. Whenever Clare is lax in communicating, Myra imagines that she has become the victim of criminal foul play.

Enough, you say. I agree. But, as the old expression goes, in for a penny, in for a pound. Upon his return to the States, Sam seduces Caroline, who does not know of his sojourn to Italy. When Clare later returns, Sam again tries to climb back into Clare's pants. Unbeknownst to Sam, he impregnates Caroline. Myra has a stroke. Despite her initial suspiciousness, Myra, who has by now been long taken with Sam, puts money in a joint bank account to provide Sam with college tuition. Sam withdraws the money and makes off with it. Conscious stricken, Sam returns Myra's money minus the price of a plane ticket which he has bought to get out of town. Now the happy ending. Sisters Clare and Myra are at home caring for Caroline's baby. Myra is delighted to be raising the baby. Clare is grateful for the memories and enrichment which her trip to Italy has given her. She is happy because Caroline finally needs her.

George Street has provided an outstanding cast and handsome production values for this production. Michael Anania's beautiful set is wonderfully playable. At floor level, the sitting room, tastefully appointed, is in powder blue, and the wall at the rear revolves to switch the scene to the living room where the coffin is situated in the first act. Above and across the full width of the stage is an area where all of the scenes in Italy are played. It is bathed in golden tones and features empty picture frames, windows and French doors, all etched in gold.

Mary Beth Peil is outstanding as Clare. She brings quiet dignity to the role. Peil makes us feel that Clare is a model combination of keen intelligence, determination and serenity. Given her treatment at the hands of the people surrounding Clare, not even a saint could maintain all these qualities. However, it is clear that this is the way in which Thorne has written Clare. In the context of the play, it is no mean feat for Peil to sustain these character traits convincingly within the framework of her performance.

The delightful Pamela Payton-Wright brings fine comedic style to the crotchety Myra. Unfortunately, the role as written is a series of comic tics and there is a lack of consistency to it. Jessica Dickey gives a solid, straightforward performance in the under-defined role of Caroline.

Curtis Mark Williams has the most problematic role. His performance is blandly satisfactory scene by scene. However, the problem is neither with him nor director David Saint. It is author Thorne who has failed to give any definition to the character of Sam. Sam tells everybody lots of stuff, but we never know what of it is true and what is not. Retrospectively, it seems that, as in William Inge's Picnic or many another better play than the one at hand, Sam is intended to be a drifter, a failed young man whose charismatic and cathartic presence changes the lives of whose with whom he briefly crosses paths. However, this conjecture is simply a leap of imagination in the face of the void at hand.

Director David Saint has elicited fine performances from Peil and Payton-Wright and provided lovely Italian operatic melodies to set his scenes. His mistake lies with his selection of an unworthy play for production.

Even if you are a fan of women's romantic fiction and don't give a hoot about believability as to character and plotting, you are likely to find this unappealing stew of a play indigestible.

The Things You Least Expect continues performances (Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m. exc. 10/29/ Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m./Thurs. 10/26 2p.m.) through October 29 at the George Street playhouse, 9 Livingston Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717. Online: www.GSPonline.org.

The Things You Least Expect
by Joan Vail Thorne; directed by David Saint

Cast
Myra………….Pamela Payton-Wright
Clare……………………...Mary Beth Peil
Sam…………….Curtis Mark Williams
Caroline…………………..Jessica Dickey


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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