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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Samantha Soule and Lee Aaron Rosen.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

In the theatre, the line between profound and silly can be perilously thin. A good example of this is Moira Buffini's 1997 play Gabriel, which is now receiving its New York premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company. It blends romance, nationalism, and spiritualism in ways that shouldn't work at all—and don't always—but that occasionally register a sucker punch direct to the gut. And you can't always tell which is happening at any given moment.

Such confusion, however, is at the heart of Buffini's play. Set during World War II on the Channel Islands, the only British territory the Germans occupied, the action centers on one English family that discovers a naked and unconscious man washed up on the beach one morning. When he regains consciousness, he can't remember who he is. The only clue is that he speaks flawless English—and, uh oh, perfect German, too.

So who is this man (Lee Aaron Rosen), whom the family has nicknamed Gabriel? Is he an English freedom fighter, as Jeanne (Lisa Emery), her daughter Estelle (Libby Woodbridge), and daughter-in-law Lilian (Samantha Soule) hope? He does, after all, look a great deal like Jeanne's son (and Lilian's husband) Myles, a pilot who's off fighting the war. But German Kommandant Von Pfunz (Zach Grenier), who keeps close tabs on the family, is positive Gabriel is a pilot that his side recently lost.

Zach Grenier and Lisa Emery.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

No one can determine the truth about him, or apparently anything else. Von Pfunz is positive that Estelle is responsible for various acts of vandalism against him specifically (stealing an important journal, defiling one of his boots), but can't prove it. Nor can he absolutely verify that Lilian is Jewish, though he seems pretty certain about that one, and is intent on shipping her off to a camp. Underlying everything is the speculation of a greater force at work, most openly embraced by Estelle, who has a habit of creating "squares of power" all around the house—and that also would explain why someone named Gabriel mysteriously fell to Earth one day, wouldn't it?

It's as the layers of superstition and suspicion pile up that Gabriel starts unraveling. The tone of many of the situations and dialogue, which is very heavy and usually mock poetic (much of the script is written in free verse), is difficult to believably maintain over what's ultimately a mundane subject. And the fact that the squares of power compel people to strip themselves of either clothes or unneeded ornamentations, and that there's a comic-relief housekeeper named Margaret (played, admittedly with verve, by Patricia Conolly), doesn't help ground the unruly story that's supposed to be about coping with life's myriad uncertainties.

Nor, for that matter, does David Esbjornson's direction. He's ripped a page from the Bartlett Sher guidebook, and staged this play with much the same kind of overblown minimalism that Sher did the Broadway revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone last year. And, as there, it's the wrong choice—a firmer realism would let us better assess the play's events in their intended context of a fraught, real-world struggle between light and dark. If we're too busy trying to discern where a scene is taking place—Riccardo Hernandez's set looks like a ramshackle seaside kitchen more appropriate for a Martin McDonagh evening, but not every scene not set there explains its setting well—or why a rift in the rear wall glows with an ominous white light (from designer Scott Zielinski) during scene changes, we can't focus on the main drama.

For the first act, you basically aren't. But after intermission, when Buffini stops moving around the pieces and begins actually playing the game, Gabriel becomes less of a curiosity and more of a must-see. The simmering tensions between the factions are highly engaging, and surprisingly moving, when allowed to develop naturally, and better support the ethereal turn of the play's final scenes. The performances cohere as well, seeming more of a unified front than the quibbling battalions they resemble early on.

Emery is absorbing throughout, balancing her love for her family with the, shall we say, cold obligations expected of a widow by German men during an occupation. Every action, every choice, is a struggle for Jeanne, because she's forever aware of what's at stake, and you see every potentiality play out in Emery's darting eyes or barely quivering voice when she must lie or—worse yet—tell the truth to protect those around her. Soule's frightened stolidity is just right for Lilian, who always keeps a foot in any door, and helps plant her in the most compelling portion of the play's emotional core.

Conolly nicely occupies the play's lighter quarters with her exasperated Margaret, though Grenier tends to push too far into her territory and turns Von Pfunz into more of a buffoon than a credible threat. Woodbridge doesn't remotely convince us that Estelle is 10, so you can't accept the vicious precociousness that's so important to the character; you never believe you're seeing a little girl come of age in truly adverse circumstances. Rosen makes Gabriel a fiery, passionate strength to Gabriel, fashioning psychological sense of a man that needs to remain a cipher.

Buffini doesn't do quite as well overall—she wants to maintain his mystery while deconstructing all the others that surround him. The juxtaposition of these goals prevents you from taking Gabriel seriously as either a war play or a peace play, or a magical play or an inspirational play. It tries too hard to be all of them at once to ever completely succeed at being any. If it took a hint from its title character, and found itself rather than succumbing to the external identities thrust upon it, it would consistently soar rather than intermittently sputter.

Through June 6
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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