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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Dex & Julie Sittin' in a Tree
Arden Theatre Company

Dex and Julie
John Lumia and
Jennifer Childs

Dex and Julie are two old lovers who find each other both attractive and aggravating. Their story is the basis of Dex & Julie Sittin' in a Tree - a play that is itself both attractive and aggravating. Bruce Graham's new play - a world premiere at the Arden Theatre Company, and part of the first Philadelphia New Play Festival - has its share of flaws; it suffers from a soapy setup and a tone that veers from comedy to drama without a strong enough payoff in either department. Yet it still manages to be very entertaining, thanks in large part to John Lumia and Jennifer Childs, whose superb performances help make their characters so warm and winning.

Dex and Julie first hooked up back in their college days in the late seventies. Now, a quarter-century later, Dex has returned to their Pennsylvania alma mater to pick up an award (arranged by Julie) for being a distinguished graduate. Dex has become an attorney who has acquired fame, fortune, two ex-wives and a measure of notoriety for representing slimy celebrities; he recently placed ninth on a list of most hated New Yorkers. ("Beat Al Sharpton," he says proudly.) Julie, meanwhile, is a widowed college professor with an acidic wit; when Dex complains "What's gotten into you?" she replies "Lately? Nothing."

Graham's play follows this couple as they get to know each other again, reminiscing about old days that they remember very differently. "Memory's a tricky thing," we hear early on, and the rest of the play proves that point repeatedly. Dex remembers Julie as one of the many girls he had no trouble bedding in his younger days. But to Julie, Dex was always The One - a memory she has never been able to shake. And the consequences of those differing perspectives is what gives this story an edge.

Graham's humor has an easygoing drollness, best displayed when his characters have arguments over the music of Billy Joel ("There's nothing more romantic than an angry young man," says Dex. "And nothing more pathetic than a middle-aged one," counters Julie). But some of the jokes are too facile, with gags about arthritis and impotence that feel too familiar (and are repeated over and over, making the play feel padded). Even Julie's widowhood is played for cutesy laughs; her husband was killed by a lightning strike, so we get puns about electricity.

Then in act two the comedy fades and is replaced by drama, which turns sobering at times. Yet dramatically the show holds back; the characters wound each other with their words but never go for the jugular. This makes Dex and Julie likable but not particularly realistic. Some of their motivations remain questionable even after they're explained, and the grand statements that the play makes about memory and emotion aren't particularly profound.

Dex & Julie Sittin' in a Tree manages to be satisfying in spite of itself, mainly due to its two complex characters and to performances that run the emotional gamut. John Lumia, so good last season as the heartless title character in Theatre Exile's Killer Joe, is even better here. His Dex has a tough exterior, but eventually lets his guard down - way down - and he's overwhelmed and overjoyed when he reveals a vulnerable side he never knew he had.

Jennifer Childs has long been one of Philadelphia theater's most valuable players, but with her petite stature and offbeat beauty she has too often had to settle for quirky supporting roles (like in the Arden's Dancing at Lughnasa and The Underpants). Her Julie begins as sweet and tart, yet as the play proceeds her glib façade falls away and she seems to discover depths she never knew she had. (It's a measure of Childs' skill that her Julie remains appealing even after a revelation late in the play that robs her character of nearly all of the sympathy she had built up over the previous 90 minutes.)

James J. Christy's direction keeps things snappy; the interactions between the two characters always feel natural. And the Arden's technical staff has done their usual top-notch job; the striking, sleek set design by James Wolk is a wonder. (And speaking of production values, it's refreshing to see a play where people are actually wet when they come inside from a rainstorm.)

Dex & Julie Sittin' in a Tree is a comedy/drama, but it's too dark and cutting to be a light comedy, and too superficial to be a satisfying drama. Still, it's nearly always compelling, and as two people who have a hard time resisting each other, Lumia and Childs are irresistible.

Dex & Julie Sittin' in a Tree runs through March 4, 2007 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $27 to $45 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.

Dex & Julie Sittin' in a Tree
by Bruce Graham
Directed by James J. Christy
Scenic Design... James Wolk
Costume Design... Janus Stefanowicz
Lighting Design... Jerold R. Forsyth
Sound Design... Jorge Cousineau
Dramaturg... Michele Volansky
Stage Manger... Patricia G. Sabato

Cast:
John Lumia... Michael "Dex" Dexter
Jennifer Childs... Dr. Julie Chernitsky


Photo: Mark Garvinv


-- Tim Dunleavy



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