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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Ambitious and Admirable Creating Claire Lacks Clear Focus

Also see Bob's review of Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Creating Claire
Michael Countryman and
Celia Keenan-Bolger

New Jersey's own Joe DiPietro first came to my attention in 1994 when the sadly defunct American Stage Company in Teaneck produced his comedy Over the River and Through the Woods. This audience-pleasing delight depicting the weekend visits of a sweet and sophisticated Italian lad to his simple, deeply loving grandparents in Hoboken had the heart and compassion to go to the head of its class. And it did when it moved Off-Broadway two years later for an 800-performance run. DiPietro has continued on to further success as the author of l Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (book and lyrics), All Shook Up (book), The Toxic Avenger and the current Memphis (book and co-lyricist). The American Stage Company premiered (to the best of my recollection) five Joe DiPietro plays and musicals. In The Kiss at City Hall, a superb highbrow yet easily accessible comedy, DiPietro employed his deft wit to reveal and delineate character as well as to explore intellectual and philosophical issues.

Joe DiPietro is now making a bold and most welcome return to New Jersey. His world premiere play Creating Claire is about a family torn apart by the difficulty of raising a totally affectionless, difficult to reach 16-year-old autistic daughter. It is also about the deeply divisive debate over the theory of evolution versus the belief in intelligent design (a more intellectually arguable variation of creationism). While this may hardly seem the basis for comedy, there are at least three scenes here in which DiPietro demonstrates that his gift for satisfying compassionate humor has not abated. Unfortunately, DiPietro displays insufficient trust in the ability of this strong suit to carry the weight of the important issues and sad personal story presented here. He surrenders too much of his play to flat out nasty conflicts which destroy our sympathy for his creations. This approach together with the high tech production removes the air from his play. The prevailing mood becomes that of a lugubrious tragedy punctuated by fireworks.

Claire long ago gave up her teaching position to devote herself to raising her autistic daughter Abigail. Through the auspices of Victoria, the director of the Museum of Earth and Sky and an old friend of Claire and her husband, Claire is working part-time as a docent at the museum. As the play begins, Claire is lecturing a group of visitors on the "Origins of Life" tour. Her memorized lecture combines with thoughts of her daughter to unmoor Claire from her script. She speaks tenderly of another theory, one concerning a designer with a plan who set evolution in motion.

Victoria orders Claire to take a few days off, telling her unequivocally that if she repeats her indiscreet statement, she will discharge her immediately. Claire's husband Reggie is a high school history teacher with a hatred and contempt for religious belief. Reggie not only criticizes Claire for her behavior at the museum, but browbeats her. He is angry because he thinks that Claire may have taught Abigail intelligent design in violation of her commitment to him not to do so. Claire again adds this theory to her lecture and is fired by Victoria. Encouraged by a lawyer for creationists, Claire sues the museum, which reinstates her to avoid a costly court battle. Victoria bitterly vows to fight her mercilessly.

Taking off from the illustrated lecture which opens the play, director David Saint stages the piece with complex digital projections displayed on the back wall of the stage. The projections also fall on shards of mirrored glass which hover high above the stage. The high tech, explosively active digital displays are accompanied by aggressive digital sounds and music. Michael Anania's white rear wall (designed for the museum lecture) and the black and white floor give the setting a surreal look. Still, although the characters sometimes speak directly to the audience, Creating Claire is essentially a realistic play. While Saint's direction is certainly explosive, and Michael Clark's projections are perfectly matched with the set, the high tech production detracts from the humanity and realism of the play.

Creating Claire seems bifurcated in that the family story concerning coping with Abigail is pushed aside as the play turns more and more to the science versus religion debate. It is not clear as to what Abigail's autism is meant to tell us about this debate. If the child's autism is ultimately just a plot device to account for Claire's behavior, then it is an overly dominant element of the play. It could well be that DiPietro's central theme is that certitude about one's beliefs bundled with intolerance for the belief of others can cause otherwise good people to lose their good judgment and humanity. This is a view not dissimilar from that expressed by John Patrick Shanley in Doubt. DiPietro has Claire quoting from Rodgers and Hammerstein. He might have also had Abigail quote from their "It's a Puzzlement" (The King and I) to the effect that people "will fight to prove that what they do not know is so".

David Saint has elicited fine work from the entire cast. Particularly compelling and powerful is the performance of Celia Keenan-Bolger in the role of Abigail. Keenan-Bolger deftly conveys complex, often dissimilar attitudes, demeanors and levels of understanding, and integrates them all into a believable persona. To this end, she maintains a distant calm in her eyes whether Abigail is in an angry rage or calmly contemplating a satisfying insight. The always reliable Barbara Walsh fully conveys the growing spiritual comfort which Claire feels as she withdraws from a painful situation which she can no longer face realistically. Michael Countryman is a model of heedless cruelty as Reggie, a man who is so stubborn about his reasonable views that he becomes completely unreasonable. Lynn Cohen's Victoria is even more hateful as she gleefully plans Claire's undoing. As noted, this is not a very likeable or sympathetic crew. Judging from Joe DiPietro's other work, I cannot image that he has yet shaded them to his own satisfaction.

With Creating Claire, neither author Joe DiPietro nor director David Saint can be faulted for lack of ambition or seriousness of purpose.

Creating Claire continues performances (Tuesday - Saturday 8 pm / Sunday 7 pm (except 6/6)/ Matinees: Saturday and Sunday/(& Thurs. 6/3) 2 pm through June 6, 2010 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org.

Creating Claire by Joe DiPietro, directed by David Saint

Cast
Abigail................Celia Keenan-Bolger
Claire...........................Barbara Walsh
Reggie.................Michael Countryman
Victoria.............................Lynn Cohen


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- Bob Rendell



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