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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Alexandra Silber and Ben Moss
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

"I'm not a rain person, I'm a sun person," sings Sara Jane, the young woman at the center of Victor Lodato and Polly Pen's musical Arlington, and that declaration could not be more true. From arranging flowers to operatic trilling to her love for chocolate, this wife of a military man recently deployed to parts unknown revels in the things that make her feminine and keep her on the straight, narrow, and traditionalist path to domestic tranquility. The thing about clouds, though: They don't stop gathering just because you want them to.

For the new production at the Vineyard Theatre, which has been directed by Carolyn Cantor, those clouds are a lot more interesting than the sun with which Sara Jane personally identifies. Over the course of only an hour of our time, Sara Jane encounters every imaginable emotional weather pattern as she learns to cope with both being alone and discovering that neither she nor her husband is exactly as ideal as initial appearances suggest. Though Arlington covers only one day of Sara Jane's life in one location (her living room), there's a vast, fascinating territory to explore.

That's in no small part due to how Lodato's lyrics and wisps of dialogue brazenly chart Sara Jane's uncritical course, letting her slowly reveal the inescapable emptiness she struggles to suppress. As she slowly gets drunker, she becomes more sober in her outlook, unwilling to see past the fictions she's created about not just her own sexual repression but her husband Jerry's purity—war has changed him, and not for the better. It's changed her, too, though in different ways, and how Sara Jane became the woman she is, from her first trip to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a girl to violent unwanted texts from Jerry now, Lodato pulls no punches.

Pen sets all this against gorgeous, full-weight legit music that slowly disintegrates from classical fluffiness into modern regret, underlining how Sara Jane is being thrust from the past into today whether she wants to be or not. The juxtaposition of the operetta-styled compositions of the earliest scenes and the more angular and piercing sounds that become commonplace later provides a canny, subtle backdrop for the story of evolution Sara Jane describes; as easy as it is to listen to, it's hard to hear, and that's the point.

Alexandra Silber is a wonder as Sara Jane, seamlessly making the transition across the generations of expectation, utterly believable as both a woman who'd thrill on frills and one who would depend on a bottle for solace when her illusions have dissolved. Wielding an adept soprano voice, but without hiding its natural stumbles or chills, Silber is more than qualified for handling the rangy demands of Pen's music. But her acting is just as sure: She expertly blends the light and the dark edges of her character until you're no longer sure which is the dominant quality, an uncertainty that's crucial for the final, brutal minutes to land appropriately.

Cantor's direction would benefit from a bit more focus, but is nonetheless sensitive and taut; Dane Laffrey's set effectively combines modern industrial chic with glimpses of more shadowy and primitive climes, both aspects of which Tyler Micoleau adroitly lights. But in just about every way, also including Jess Goldstein's costumes and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design, this is a handsomely pressed, polished, and affecting work.

The missteps only occur when Lodato and Pen shift their attention from Sara Jane to her husband. Jerry, "played" by accompanist and musical director Ben Moss in half-light from behind an upstage scrim, literalizes, coarsens, and gives the overt lie to the woman we come to know and love, which harms her overall journey. This isn't the fault of Moss, who's a gifted pianist and a decent vocalist, but hearing Jerry singing for minutes on end about the kind of sex he wants to have with Sara Jane or baring his soul about the enemies' lives he's destroying is far less engaging than hearing her try to avoid singing about the same ideas—yet conveying them just the same.

Both Jerry and the button-pushing ending he inspires are new additions to the piece since I first encountered it in a slightly shorter form a year and a half ago, and I can't say they're improvements. Maybe we don't really live in a woman's world, but Sara Jane doesn't convey only her own, narrow experience; she sings for anyone who's ever been devastated by the curves life takes when all you need are a straight line.

The musical is wracked with pain and loss as it is, and Sara Jane, especially in Silber's hands, needs no help articulating it for us. As long as those two women are at its center, Arlington is brilliant. When Lodato and Pen pull away, it's not so much rain clouds as fog that starts rolling in.

Through March 23
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets and performance schedule at OvationTix

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