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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Verdant Singing Forest
Thrives at Intiman Theatre

Singing Forest
Anna Scurria and Kristin Flanders
Craig Lucas is Intiman Theatre's associate artistic director, but first and foremost he is one of America's most accomplished and daring living playwrights, with Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, The Dying Gaul, and The Light in the Piazza among his works. Lucas' Singing Forest is an overwhelmingly impressive tragic/comic exploration of a twisted family tree and how its branches ultimately reunite. At three acts, three and one-half hours (with two intermissions) on opening night, it needs to lose a good half hour between script and pacing; but make no mistake about it, this is a thrilling, major work likely to be thought of in the same kind of terms as Tony Kushner's Angels in America or O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.

Under Bartlett Sher's crisp, commanding and fearless directorial hand, a fairly matchless cast plays out Lucas' tale of LoŽ Reiman (Anna Scurria), an Austrian immigrant psychoanalyst (and patient of Freud herself), who fled post war Europe for America. We meet her as a middle-aged eccentric, attending an AA meeting and busying herself as a free phone-sex operator who actually spends most of her callers' time psychoanalyzing them. LoŽ is also repressing memories of the loss of her father, brother, and the brother's lover at the hands of the Nazi regime. Her thoughts are written in journals long robbed from her by her estranged daughter Bertha (Jeanne Paulsen) who married and set fire to her husband, a wildly wealth Middle-Eastern gent, by whom she had a likewise estranged gay son, Jules (Jay Goede). LoŽ's gay psychiatrist son Oliver (David Garrison) caused his mother to lose her license and is playing mind games with his one-time friend and colleague (John Procaccino) who he believes did something despicable to his lover (Malte Frid-Nielsen). Meanwhile, the wealthy, reclusive Jules has been sending a Woody Allenesque impostor named Gray (Daniel Eric Gold) to audition a shrink for himself - one guess who those two shrinks are. Mix in LoŽ's odd AA pal and esophageal cancer survivor (Laurence Ballard) and Gray's pregnant girlfriend (Kristin Flanders) and you have an assortment of oddballs not seen since the heyday of Kaufman and Hart comedies and Marx Brothers movies.

But the present is colored by the dark hues of the past, and after a slam-bang slapstick act two finale, we plunge full force into LoŽ's flashbacks of the bad old days in Austria. Here Flanders is young LoŽ, Garrison becomes his own grandfather, Ballard is Freud, Gold is LoŽ's brother, and so forth. It is compelling, shocking and moving, but at this point in the development of Singing Forest, the laughs take precedence over the heartache too readily. Lucas may have to ruthlessly sacrifice some great, but not necessarily essential, jokes to give the play more balance, and I expect that he and Sher will not rest easy until they take this diamond from the rough all the way to Tiffany's, as it is not that great a distance they have to go.

Anna Scurria's portrayal of LoŽ is one of those rich, robust and riveting performances that you see maybe three or four times in a lifetime, and should the play come to Broadway (as I am confident it will), she can start looking for a spot for her Tony award. David Garrison uses his considerable comedic talents to fine effect as the devious, messed up Oliver and is delicately understated as LoŽ's father, a man who hides a great family secret. Kristin Flanders conveys a believable younger version of LoŽ (the two are sometimes required to play the young LoŽ at the same time) and pulls off a nearly unrecognizable alter ego as Gold's bemused girlfriend Beth in the modern day story. Jeanne Paulsen's Bertha is another wondrous creation by this always riveting actress, and she mines her comic moments for all they're worth, while conveying subtle European ťlan in her role as a protťgť of Freud's with ties to the Bonaparte family.

Laurence Ballard is a crusty delight as older LoŽ's AA crony Bill, and a benevolent charmer as Freud. Jay Goede, a world away from the whimsy of his Broadway outing in A Year With Frog and Toad, makes Jules the most sympathetic member of the Reiman clan, and Daniel Eric Gold moves easily from his identity thief nebbish to earning pathos as LoŽ's doomed brother. John Procaccino is a hilarious bundle of nerves as the psyched-out psychiatrist Dr. Unger, and Malte Frid-Nielsen does well enough as Garrison's self-serving lover and conveys subtle menace as a Nazi with disturbing family ties to the modern day Reimans.

John McDermott's scenic design includes a hilarious nod to Starbucks, and otherwise ably suggests - rather than fully depicting - the locales required by Lucas' cinematically styled script (though a piano left at times dangling in mid-air could have easily been a technical miscue as a scenic embellishment). Stephen Strawbridge's lighting design is impeccable, and Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's costumes are richly varied and enhance the characters. Stephen LeGrand's sound design catches, in its musical interludes, both the somber ruefulness of bygone Europe and the techno-pop tediousness of frenetic modern day Manhattan.

It will sure make for a helluva double header if Lucas and Sher's last collaboration (another Intiman debut), The Light in the Piazza, and Singing Forest end up in the Tony races next year. If I were a bookie, I'd bet on it.

Singing Forest runs through August 21 at Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center. For further information visit Intiman online at www.intiman.org.



- David-Edward Hughes



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