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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

One Acts by Harold Pinter and Brian Friel Worth Discovering

Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes and Brian Friel's Afterplay are each rich and rewarding one-act plays.  Their starkly contrasting approaches to providings serious, stimulating theatre make them ideal for being paired together on a double bill.  As each play has two roles (one male and one female) for actors past the bloom of youth and each requires a style of acting which is at wide variance from the other, pairing them, as the Garage Theatre in Teaneck has done, provides a solid and challenging showcase for two actors.

Up at bat first is Harold Pinter with his 1996 Ashes to Ashes.  As with most Pinter plays, the mood is somber and threatening, and the conversation, odd and elliptical.  The line readings are flat and artificial with odd silences and pauses, and each audience member, who makes the effort, will have an interpretation of the play that will be at variance to one degree or another with each of his fellow attendees.  The setting is a house in the country; the time is "now."  Devlin is an academic type fellow.  He questions Rebecca with some anger about a violent, former lover of hers who drove his fist toward her face and made her kiss it, and tightly and painfully closed his fingers around her neck.  Devlin's questions initially suggest that he might likely be her psychiatrist.  However, the jealousy that Devlin expresses when he, I would judge incorrectly, becomes concerned that the incidents that she describes occurred after she met him makes him appear to be Rebecca's husband or lover.  Rebecca explores dream-like images and memories of extreme cruelty that strongly suggest the deportations, concentration camps, and mass murder which were visited upon European Jews during The Holocaust.  Eventually, Devlin will act toward Rebecca in the manner of her former lover.

I have settled on an interpretation that seems too clear cut and simple.  However, it satisfies me as being capable of encompassing the play's many threads.  Accept or reject all or any part of it.  Rebecca is the Jew in the post Holocaust world.  Her Jewish everyman carries the memory of the history of her people painfully inside of her.  She may gain acceptance and embrace close and loving relationships with the Gentile world, but she remains tortured by the knowledge that what happened before could happen again.  Devlin is a symbol of a Gentile world, puzzled by the Jews' fear of it and angered that at anyone who would believe that it could ever again exterminate Jews, even as it demonstrates that if the right buttons were pushed it could.

Elizabeth Mozer conveys the confusion and dread which primarily characterize Rebecca within the confines of maintaining the mysterious affect, or lack of affect, that helps define the term Pinteresque.  Michael Bias is a less surefooted Devlin.  His Devlin fails to convey much of the undertone of menace.  Bias is a fine actor as he clearly demonstrates in the other half of this double bill. His falling a bit short here demonstrates how damnably difficult it is to bring off Pinter.

Greg Cilmi's rich looking plush red sitting room set with a lush garden showing through a French door suggests a comfortable, upper class environment. With a number of alterations the set becomes the overly plush setting for "a small run down café in Moscow" which is the setting for the other one act, Afterplay.

Afterplay
Michael Bias and Elizabeth Mozer
Brian Friel's Afterplay depicts a chance meeting of two characters from different Chekhov plays at a Moscow café about twenty years after the plays' conclusions.  The man is The Three Sisters' Andrey Prozorov, the scholarly but ineffectual brother to Olga, Masha and Irina, who brought much added suffering to them all by marrying the selfish and dominating Natasha, who quickly after their marriage launched into an extra-marital affair.  When last seen, Andrey, a cuckolded wastrel who had mortgaged the family estate (owned with his sisters) to pay gambling debts, was pushing his baby's perambulator.  The woman is Uncle Vanya's unattractive and neglected Sonya Serebriakova, who feels that her unrequited passion for Dr. Astrov has sealed her into lonely spinsterhood.  Her retired professor father sets off on his return to Moscow with his beautiful new wife.  When last seen, the bereft Sonya and her uncle (Vanya) are left alone to devote all their energies to running the family estate.

Andrey is so changed in his deportment and nature that he bears little resemblance to his Three Sisters incarnation; whereas Sonya is a believable (despite being too physically attractive) evolution of her 20 years ago self.  The updates in the lives of the Prozorovs are fascinating for those familiar with The Three Sisters.  The update most relevant to Afterplay is that Natasha has long ago deserted Andrey.  Aside from the death of Vanya, little has changed in Sonya's life.  Sonya is in Moscow to seek Soviet help in saving her estate; Andrey is there to visit his imprisoned son.

Brian Friel is here more optimistic than Chekhov.  There is warmth and charm in his tender, understated comedy that delights without regard to one's knowledge of its Chekhovian forebears.  Michael Bias brings a delightfully comic, loveable charm to Andrey which lights up the stage.  Elizabeth Mozer portrays a Sonya whose warmth and quiet assurance make an audience root for her happiness.  The dreams of both remain as yet unfulfilled.  However, tonight, they have reached out and comforted one another.  While there is hope that it may lead to something more, for Friel, all by itself, "a special night" like this is worth celebrating.

Director Frank Licato has captured the essence of both plays.  His direction maximizes their clarity, and, in turn, their accessibility.

Ashes to Ashes and Afterplay is a double bill which could fulfill the needs, both artistic and economic, of many a small theatre company.

Ashes to Ashes and Afterplay performed October 30 through November 16, 2008 at the Garage Theatre Group Becton Theatre on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University, 960 River Road, Teaneck, NJ.  Box Office: P.O. Box 252, Tenafly, NJ 07670; 201-569-7710 . online: www.GarageTheatre.org.

Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter and Afterplay by Brian Friel; directed by Frank Licato

Cast

Ashes to Ashes
Devlin………………………..Michael Bias
Rebecca………………...Elizabeth Mozer

Afterplay
Sonya Serebriakova…. Elizabeth Mozer
Andrey Prozorov…………..Michael Bias

                 

Photo: Justin Bias


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- Bob Rendell



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