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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

What Exit?’s Production of A. R. Gurney’s Sweet Sue
A Pleasant Divertissement

Also see Bob's review of Beyond Gravity

Finally making his Broadway playwrighting debut in 1988, the venerable A.R. Gurney arrived with one of his lesser and more forgettable efforts. Despite female star power and wholesome male nudity, Gurney’s play managed a run of only five months, and quickly became forgotten. Oh, before I forget, the name of that rarely produced play is Sweet Sue

Thanks to the imaginative and enterprising comedy specialists at Maplewood’s What Exit? Theatre Company, Sweet Sue is again available to us. In the sure hands of this solidly professional company, the erudite Gurney’s slim, light summer stock-like trifle does provide a graceful and pleasant evening of entertainment.

Sweet Sue depicts a summer flirtation between the middle-aged Susan Weatherall and Jake, the Dartmouth College friend and roommate of her son Ted. Susan is a successful but unfulfilled greeting card “artist” who is devoting the summer to trying to paint from her artistic soul. Jake is rooming at Susan’s suburban home as he has a summer job in the area. We are “north of New York,” according to the title page of the program. My notes taken during the performance indicate that the setting is “outside Philadelphia.” However, since Susan and Jake, the only two characters in the play, are played by four actors who are often all on stage simultaneously, maybe two areas have been designated to play the locale.

Nothing particularly insightful or original occurs. However, even when noodling, the prolific Gurney displays wit, cleverness and a deft touch with language. So it all goes down pretty easily. Gurney easily mixes time frames. The play opens during the final end-of-summer scene which seamlessly melds into the scene of Jake’s early summer arrival.

Initially (at the end of summer), Susan Too has fantasies of having Jake Too pose for her in the buff (I told you that the nudity was wholesome, and it is also discreet). She is also the aggressor with the reluctant Jake Too. Simultaneously, Susan is practical about the motives of an aggressive Jake.

Complications that ensue involve Jake’s new age-appropriate girlfriend Elaine (both Susans resent her, but help Jake overcome his shyness in approaching her) and the unseen Ted’s anger at the closeness of Susan and Jake.

It seems that the play is written through the eyes of the Susans, one the actual Susan controlled by her superego, and “too” the inner id. As the play progresses, each Susan and each Jake shift in and out of the initial postures of their doubles and just plain Susan ends up painting her Jake in the buff. It is possible that this represents Mrs. Weatherall’s id coming to the fore and her superego becoming submerged into the background. At the end, the id and superego seem to merge into the ego. Still, the doubling of Susan and Jake plays more like a clever device than anything substantial.

Under the smooth direction of Susan Kerner, the acting honors go to Bev Sheehan and Emily Zacharias. Sheehan acts with a stylish flourish, becoming to the id like Susan Too. She is perfectly complemented by Zacharias’ more straightforward and controlled realization of her superego side. James Nardella is confident and hunky as the object of Susan Too’s fantasies. Joe Tuttle conveys a more likely and more needy Jake.

Set designer Fred Kinney has provided a rear curtain which effectively depicts a bright blue sky blending into painterly swirls of color appropriately suggesting Susan’s top floor studio. However, Kinney might have stretched his imagination to provide more separate and distinct playing areas for other parts of the house.

On a summer night at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Sweet Sue must have seemed a cooling whiff of fresh air. However, even with the star power of Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave and the drawing power of a little nudity, Sweet Sue was not successful when it arrived on Broadway. This probably was the result of the thin and ephemeral nature of Gurney’s exercise. Still in this What Exit? Production Sweet Sue manages to provide quite a bit of pleasure.

Sweet Sue continues performances through April 24, 2005 (Fri., Sat.- 8 P.M.; Sun.- 3 P.M. & 7:30 P.M.) at the What Exit? Theatre at the Burgdorff Cultural Center, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood, NJ 07040. box office: 973-763-4029: online www.whatexittheatre.com/

Sweet Sue by A.R. Gurney, Jr.; directed by Susan Kerner
Cast
Susan .......... Emily Zacharias
Susan Too .......... Bev Sheehan
Jake .......... Joe Tuttle
Jake Too .......... James Nardella


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- Bob Rendell



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