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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Matt McGrath and Marin Hinkle
Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

Don't let the title fool you: Ellen Fairey's new play Graceland has even less to do with Elvis Presley than does the Broadway musical Memphis. It's not set in Tennessee, it's set in Chicago—largely in a cemetery that bears that name, no less. And when musical idols are namechecked, they're Miles Davis and Nina Simone. But even if you accidentally stumble into the Duke on 42nd Street, where Henry Wishcamper's production of the play just opened, expecting The King, you won't be royally disappointed by the smart, thoughtful play you take in instead.

Though depending on your relationship with your parents, you may be moved—or annoyed—more than you anticipated. For despite the graveyard that's the backdrop for several scenes, and a crucial part of Robin Vest's handsome wraparound-landscape scenic design, this play is much more about life than death, and even more about the complex ways parents and children can love and disappoint each other. Its lesson is that when it comes to wrangling between the generations, everything is a lesson: Everyone observes everything, so pay attention to what you do, lest someone get the wrong idea.

The wrong idea is one of the few things that Sam and Sara Caruso (Matt McGrath and Marin Hinkle) have left following their father's suicide. Sam's dropped out of school and is now filling his days selling artistic arrangements of chocolate-dipped strawberries, trying to forget that his girlfriend Anna left him for—well, Dad. Sara, a manager of a housewares store in New York, has filled the void she felt between her and her father by dating men considerably younger than she is. (She's closing in on—if not already past—40; her latest fling was 22.) Closing the gaps (financial, emotional, secretarial) left by their devoted-Texan father taking a shotgun to his head is not easy for these two who are barely capable of dealing with themselves.

David Gelles Hurwitz and Marin Hinkle
Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

Sara, drowning her troubles at dad's favorite bar, meets someone a bit closer to her age, Joe (Brian Kerwin), and goes home with him. But when she's sneaking out the next morning, she meets his son, Miles (David Gelles Hurwitz), who claims to be 18 but is old enough to know he already likes Sara. So much, in fact, that he's determined to pursue her himself, leaving his dad—a "lady killer," in Miles's description—on the side for once. Which, of course, doesn't sit well with Joe, who's sure Sara is trying to take advantage of Miles, and Sam, who's positive both Joe and Miles are trying to take advantage of Sara.

Fairey's most notable achievement with Graceland isn't that she manages to juggle all this, but that she does so without injecting into the mix even a hint of the soap opera that always lurks nearby. Because every character is fighting against a palpable inner pain, usually caused by an inability or unwillingness to deal with romantic and familial relationships on a down-to-earth scale, their interactions are invariably more honest than gratuitous.

They startle and affect because of their psychological acuity, which makes 90 minutes with these people pass like a wisp of breeze but leave an indelible mark on whatever part of your soul grapples with (or merely frets about) loneliness rather than acceptance. If Fairey displays a flaw in how she renders the story, it's that she doesn't develop Dad and Anna as well as she could given their importance to the story. A slightly better grasp on these two heartbreakers would put Sam and Sara into even clearer focus.

But the writing, direction, and performances are otherwise so strong that you get a full-frame view of the issue anyway. Sam alternately suppresses and unleashes his feelings, which McGrath registers in an outwardly cool demeanor that nonetheless always seems on the verge of boiling over; you can't read Sam from moment to moment, which is just right. Sara is completely lost, and Hinkle invests her with exactly the hollowed-out manner and deep-running confusion that convince us she has a bottomless well of heart that desperately needs filling. Kerwin's is a more libidinously jovial, on-the-level portrayal, but that's what Joe needs: He's too tired to don airs of propriety he long ago learned won't pay dividends. Miles comes alive as both gawky and cunning in Hurwitz's hands, a serial plotter who's out of his league in several ways but is consumed with the idea of playing the same game the big boys do.

That's what everyone in the play wants: the pleasure of living without obligation or deference to others, but with the safety net they so often provide. None of them will find happiness until they perfect the balancing act, giving guidance where it's needed, tolerance where it isn't, and above all acting their age before being carted off to their final resting place, probably in Graceland itself. This is obviously hard for everyone in the play—as in real life—to learn, given their preexisting baggage, and it's certainly not going to be a rock-and-roll good time. But if success arrives, it will be a real and reassuring achievement—just as Fairey's play proves now that it's here.

Through May 29
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The Duke on 42nd Street

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