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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are
George Street Playhouse

Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are
Alison Fraser and Shirley Knight
Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are is Arthur Laurents' new play about how people deal with the death of a loved one. It's an important subject for a play, and no one may be better equipped to write about it than Laurents, the legendary 92-year-old screenwriter (The Way We Were), playwright (West Side Story) and director (La Cage aux Folles) who recently lost his partner, Tom Hatcher, after 54 years together. Unfortunately, the play is dull, talky and repetitive, and under Laurents' direction it moves slower than a funeral procession.

It's been less than a year since Sara lost her beloved husband, Paolo, to colon cancer after 27 years of marriage. Now she's making a tentative return to the world at large by resuming her career as a nightclub singer. Despite some jitters, Sara is getting more confident all the time, and she wants Paolo's family—particularly his mother Marion—to come out and watch her sing. "I want you to know me," Sara pleads. "If you come hear me sing, you will know me." Marion resists her, though, and spurns Sara's efforts at friendship.

"I don't know you," says Marion. "Paolo loved you."

"And you can't figure out why," says Sara.

Meanwhile, Sara is also tentatively returning to the world of dating, thanks to a big fan of her nightclub act named Dougal. Sara and Dougal meet cute at the nightclub's stage door, and later they meet cute again when they run into each other at Dougal's place of work. They make an adorable (if sometimes cloying) couple, but then again, they're the only likable characters in the play. Paolo's bitter lesbian sister and nasty father aren't the least bit sympathetic; the sister hates having had to take over Paolo's landscaping business, while the father makes brutal pronouncements like "I never wanted a daughter, and now that's all we've got."

Only one character is drawn in realistic shades of gray, and that's Marion. But she's in denial, claiming that she has moved on and criticizing others for using the term "passed on" instead of "dead." She's a psychiatrist, which gives her the opportunity to badger people with lines like "Stop letting resentment cripple your life."

The play is full of pithy, quotable lines like that—lines that sound good on paper, but don't sound natural coming from these characters. Meanwhile, the arguments go around in circles; Sara and Marion start a quarrel in the second scene that doesn't get resolved until the last scene of this 85-minute effort. The conflicts are so monotonous and exhausting that it's a relief when one of the characters has a breakdown in the final scene; the display of raw emotion is a long time coming, but it's worth the wait.

Despite being limited by the script, the actors are all believable in their roles. As Marion, Shirley Knight makes the most of all the shadings of her character, sincerely trying to help others but not realizing how she is hurting herself. If her character isn't pleasant—one character describes her as "a beautiful old gal who is a royal pain in the ass"—she's always interesting and, in Knight's skillful interpretation, never a caricature. Jim Bracchitta is appealing as Sara's suitor, while John Carter and Leslie Lyles do the best they can trying to make their paper-thin characters interesting. James Youmans' set design, relying heavily on a turntable and a set of three video screens, is striking and effectively low-key.

Finally, Alison Fraser is warm and affecting as Sara, and even gets to sing lovely versions of some old standards (accompanied by a fine jazz instrumental duo). While Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are is full of too much depressing discussion of death, Fraser's charming performance is guaranteed to make you smile.

Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are runs through November 1, 2009 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Ticket prices range from $37.50 to $71.50 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the George Street Box Office at 732-246-7717, online at www.GSPonline.org or in person at the box office.

Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are
Written and Directed by Arthur Laurents
Assistant Director... Isaac Klein
Set and Projection Design... James Youmans
Costume Design... Esther Arroyo
Lighting Design... Howell Binkley
Sound Design... Christopher J. Bailey
Production Stage Manger... Thomas Clewell

Cast:
Sara... Alison Fraser
Dougal... Jim Bracchitta
Marion... Shirley Knight
Richard... John Carter
Michelle... Leslie Lyles
With Christopher Howatt (Musical Director/Pianist) and Danny Stone (Bass)


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


-- Tim Dunleavy



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