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Chinese Coffee

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Austin Pendleton
Photo by Bobby Caputo.
Ah, New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But what if, despite all of your talent and all of your efforts, you can't seem to make it here? What if Jake, one half of the middle-aged pair whose friendship is on trial in the revival of Ira Lewis's Chinese Coffee at the Roy Arias Stage II Theater, is right when he says that New York "chews up what's the best in us . . . so that anything we're left with is undefined, ill-formed, and almost completely without signs of visible life"?

Chinese Coffee - funny, philosophic, and occasionally long-winded - is a perfect reflection of its two characters, splendidly embodied by Austin Pendleton as the anxious, neurotic, and angry Jake, and Sean Walsh as the anxious, neurotic, and hypochondriacal Harry.

Harry has come pounding on the door of Jake's pocketsize apartment at 1 in the morning, demanding repayment of a long-overdue loan. But as both men - Harry, a modestly successful novelist, and Jake, barely eking out a living as a photographer - are totally broke, the argument is a moot one. All Jake can offer up is a jar of pennies, which he empties out onto a table and spends an endless amount of time carefully stacking into piles of five while the two fuss and fume about their trials and tribulations, lost loves, and shattered dreams.

Both men are at a crossroads, coming to grips with the reality that at their respective ages (Harry is 44, Jake is 50), words like "struggling artist" and "shows promise" no longer can sustain them, and "la vie bohème" has long since lost its charm. Of the two, though, it is Harry who may have found a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel by way of his nearly-completed new manuscript, a copy of which has been in Jake's hands for some time. The pair's final and most important argument is over that novel, its commercial versus artistic merit, and the extent to which any writer has the right to borrow from real life to feed the imagination.

Everything about the production works to lend credence to the evening. Under Louise Lasser's direction, the two actors display every quirk and twitch you'd expect of them, from Mr. Pendleton's nervous pacing and crown of flyaway hair to Mr. Walsh's jumpiness and his constant fiddling with a wad of tissues. Alison Buatti's set design for Jake's apartment is perfect, down to the brick wall visible through the bolted-shut window. In the end, you quite likely would not want to spend a whole lot of time amidst so much neuroticism, but the 100 minutes with Jake and Harry make for a compelling evening with two browbeaten souls and the playwright's incisive dialog.

Chinese Coffee
Through October 3
Roy Arias Stage II Theater , 300 West 43rd Street corner of 8th Avenue at the Times Square Arts Center
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