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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Insubstantial Centenary Pizza Fails to Satisfy

Also see Bob's review of The Pillowman

(front, l-r) : Angela Della Ventura, Katrina Ferguson, J.C. Hoyt, Michele LaRue, Eli Ganias, Joe Pisapia; (back, l-r): Mark Simmons and Wendy Peace
Director Carl Wallnau and a game cast labor valiantly to bring a little joie de vivre to Deborah Brevoort's insubstantial The Poetry of Pizza. However, there is so little that is new, interesting, believable, funny or unpredictable in this repetitive, longish two-act romantic cum situation comedy that even their efforts wear thin long before the final curtain.

Sarah Middleton is a 44-year-old American poetry professor who has come to Copenhagen in order to guest lecture at the University of Denmark and write a new book. For reasons never explained, Sarah is a workaholic bookworm who never dates and has no interest in having any social life. The title of her recently published book, Poetic Esthetics Beyond Linguistic Signification, signifies that there is no poetry in her heart and soul.

The decade or so younger Soran Saleen, an expatriate from Kurdistan, is an illiterate pizza maker in a Copenhagen pizzeria owned by a fellow ex-pat. One rainy day, Soran sees Sarah holding a red umbrella outside the pizzeria and, poetic soul that he is, envisages her as a rose. Sarah enters to escape the rain, her eyes meet Soran's, and both are instantly in love. Over the next repetitive and filler filled two plus hours, author Brevoort throws in a double digit number of silly and unbelievable obstacles to their relationship to sustain the play. When well into the second act a serious issue is raised, it is out of context as to character and glibly dispatched after another half hour or so of filler material.

More stage time is devoted to three supporting Scandinavian accented clown roles than to Sarah and Soran. The elderly trio of clowns are Olga, Inga, and Ule. Olga, Sarah's landlady, and Inga are partnered members of a telephone support group for agoraphobics. Olga gossips repeatedly with Inga about Sarah's activities. Ule is Inga's husband. He is an habitué of Soran's pizzeria which is across the street from their apartment. Present in the shop when Sarah first enters, foolish old Ule convinces himself that Sarah loves him. Thereafter, affably as he is portrayed, Ule becomes a stalker, watching out for Sarah and intruding every time she comes to the pizzeria, and attempting repeatedly to call on her at her apartment. This lame, running gag is repeated ad infinitum and dominates the play through its two acts. Then Olga begins to vamp ...., and Inga realizes ... I think that you can get the picture. The caricatures of these three Prune Danishes are harmless, and not likely to rise the hackles of any Danish anti-defamation group, but the low brow humor assigned to them is neither fresh, funny nor stage-worthy.

Also present is Professor Anderson, attentive host to the uninterested Sarah, and, to further muddy the waters, Sarah's friend Pam who doesn't like Arabs (she is unaware that Kurds are not Arabs), and Soran's employer Rebar who doesn't like Americans.

The nicest notion of Brevoort finds Soran, inspired by his love for Sarah, making artistic, romantic, I dare say kitschy, pizzas which Sarah names and saves ("Purple Passion [is made] with eggplant, soft white cheese and looks like a flower").

Although almost everything preceding is total fluff, fairly late into the play, Brevoort briefly exploits a serious issue to try to dress up her threadbare cartoonish comedy. During Sarah and Soran's long delayed first romantic interlude, Soran speaks of his love for his homeland. He then describes the fighting and resultant death of his entire family which caused him to flee (Iraqi controlled) Kurdistan.

The final obstacle to Sarah and Soran's relationship is religious and cultural, and it takes the form of Soran demanding that Sarah shave her vaginal area so as not to be unclean. It is bizarre that Soran raises this, and no other, issue relating to his Muslim tradition. Then Brevoort again sends in the clowns for some extended shenanigans, after which Sarah and Soran each decide to yield to the other on the single religious and cultural issue separating them. Of course, we never actually learn whether a razor is applied.

Until the second act stretches out beyond endurance, The Poetry of Pizza is not unpleasant to sit through if you have absolutely nothing else to do or experience. This is thanks to the unflagging efforts of the cast. Katrina Ferguson (Sarah) and Joseph Pisapia (Soran) are always likeable and earnest. Angela Della Ventura (Olga), Michele LaRue (Inga) and the overworked J. C. Hoyt (Ule) have likeable comic personas and make the most that they can from their poor material. They would deserve praise just for not distancing themselves from their material. Eli Ganias (Rebar), Wendy Peace (Pam) and Mark Simmons (Prof. Anderson) lend solid support. Carl Wallnau has directed cleanly and buoyantly, doing as well as possible short of taking shears to the overlong script.

The unit set by Will Rothfuss stands in for any number of locations. Made up of several wooden platforms, it is very playable. Although a neon pizza shop sign is sometimes present, the pretty background is largely impressionistic. However, it brings to mind an Asian print screen rather than Copenhagen.

The longish final scene finds all the characters gathered for the Sarah-Soran nuptials. The pair have almost no dialogue, and are virtually invisible. My best guess is that their ceremony is non-sectarian, but that is only a guess. The scene is almost entirely devoted to the six supporting characters (Olga and Inga having overcome their agoraphobia), who romantically pair off into loving couples. If you see The Poetry of Pizza, you might want to guess who ends up with whom. This could help the second act pass a bit more quickly.

The Poetry of Pizza continues performances (Thurs. 7:30 PM; Fri. & Sat. 8 PM; Sun: 2:30 p.m. Call Theatre for Wed. Mats.) through March 12, 2006 at the Centenary Stage Company, on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900; online

The Poetry of Pizza by Deborah Brevoort; directed by Carl Wallnau
Cast (in order of appearance):
Pam Adams…………….......Wendy Peace
Sarah Middleton……Katrina Ferguson
Heino Anderson………….Mark Simmons
Olga Oulund…Angela Della Ventura
Inga Enevold……………Michelle Larue
Rebar Frie……………………...Eli Ganias
Soran Saleen……………....Joseph Pisapia
Ule Enevold……………………....J.C. Hoyt

Photo: Carl Wallnau

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